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Today's Family Magazine

Hospice of the Western Reserve Grief Camp

By Deanna R. Adams

Hospice of the Western Reserve has a long and renowned history for helping people cope with illness, death and grief.  So it’s no surprise that they also help children deal with complicated emotions after the death of a loved one.

Their annual grief support camps offer a safe environment for grief-stricken children to best manage isolated feelings, help them feel less alone, and express their grief in a healthy, constructive, and supportive setting.

“We bring kids together who share a unique understanding, a common thread.  They can relate to what each other is going through,” says Karen Hatfield, director of Western Reserve Grief Services.  “Our focus is helping them deal with their loss with new ways of expressing feelings, along with ways they can honor their special person.  We address that, but we also allow them to have some fun, too.”

The two summer camps include Camp Red Oak, for children ages 6-13, and Riding Through Grief Camp for ages 8-12, which offer horseback riding lessons (and fills up quickly).  Both are led by trained bereavement professionals from the Western Reserve Grief Services and combine art, music, play and nature exploration to help with the healing process.  They offer children a chance to learn about grief and give them permission to express it.

 “We’ve been offering the camps for over 20 years and we’ve seen it make a big difference in how children grow through the experience, in an atmosphere of comfort and trust,” Hatfield says. “Death is difficult for children.  It can feel overwhelming to them, but they often don’t express it because they don’t want to be a burden to their parents.  This is a place they can get outdoors and sort out and learn to manage what we call the big feelings––anger, regret and guilt.  We help them validate those feelings and teach them useful coping skills.”

The three-day camp begins in the morning with therapeutic exercises that help the children share and articulate these complex feelings.  They also participate in activities that honor their loved ones, such as artwork, memory jars and collages. 

“The memory jars are always a favorite,” says Hatfield.  The jars fill up with a variety of items that honor the lost loved one, such as pictures, written memories, and personal artwork—anything the children want to include.  A small candle is then placed inside to complete the memorial.

Things shift gears in the afternoon, however, from the more intense workshops to fun, camp-related activities where kids can merely enjoy being kids.  This can include canoeing, swimming, and archery.  

“We continue on like that, back and forth, until the final day when they all gather for the closing ceremony, which is a flower release to memorialize the person who died,” Hatfield says.  “The flowers symbolize a serious time when everyone comes together to share and honor their person. We then conclude with a community based activity to leave them all in a positive mindset.”

Hatfield adds that all the staff is skilled in supporting children through grief and have gone through a detailed process and have met certain criteria prior to becoming counselors.  “We all truly enjoy these camps.  We get as much out of it with them as they get from us,” she says.  “It’s a very rewarding experience all around.”

Support from the community allows Hospice of the Western Reserve to offer most programs and services at no cost to the participant.  There is a nominal registration fee for camps, retreats, and art therapy programs. 

To register or request an information packet, call (216) 486-6838.  For a comprehensive list of community bereavement resources, visit

Camp Red Oak (ages 6–13)
9057 Kirtland-Chardon Road, Kirtland,
August 10–12 • 9 am – 3 pm
This day camp is for children ages 6–13 who have experienced the death of a loved one. 

Riding through Grief (ages 8–12)
Fieldstone Farm
16497 Snyder Road, Chagrin Falls
June 21–25 • 9 am – noon
$75 per camper.  Scholarships available.
Through fun horseback riding lessons and unmounted activities with horses, children campers will explore grief issues.