On Monday, April 14, HBO will air a 40-minute documentary called "One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp." Even if you don't have a grieving child in your life, it's so worth watching. I came away with a much better understanding of what a child goes through when a loved one dies, and how crucial it is that every child has the chance to speak openly about his feelings.
In the movie, we watch as kids ages 6 to 17 attend Camp Erin Los Angeles. Camp Erin is a program started by baseball player Jamie Moyer and his wife Karen, in honor of a teenage fan named Erin Metcalf, who died of cancer when she was 17. Camp Erin Los Angeles is run by the amazing staff of Our House Grief Support Center, led by Lauren Schneider, LCSW, the clinical director of child and adolescent programs. Schneider explained the important goal the movie accomplished: "It conveyed the fact that children are completely capable of processing grief--cognitively and emotionally--and so they need opportunities to do that. A lot of people think that kids need to be sheltered and even excluded from important deaths in the family. But children benefit from the process of saying goodbye and engaging in mourning rituals." And that's exactly what the 43 Camp Erins located all over the country--which children attend for free--set out to do.
The film opens with a beautiful ceremony where each child walks up on a stage, announces her name and the name of her loved one who died, and places a photo of that person on a giant "memory board." (When one young boy sobs while trying to say his father's name, you will too.) We see other important activities, such as a grief hike where children look for rocks painted with key words such as "confused" and "angry," and then discuss how that emotion may apply to them. On the last night, the powerful Luminary Ceremony allows children to say goodbye to their person by writing a message or drawing on a lantern that's lit and set adrift across the pool. (That's what's depicted in the photo above.) This is a crucial exercise, because of the 150 children at the camp, only a very few actually got to say that goodbye in person.
But it's not all tears; the program is designed to include many lighter moments and even has an entertaining closing ceremony for the families that arrive on the final day. And when the children leave, they seem to feel lighter, too. They've finally had a chance to meet children who are feeling the same kind of pain they do. They don't feel so alone, so different from their peers. They now have the words to express their grief. And as we see during the closing credits, when some of the campers' parents describe the difference in their children after attending Camp Erin, they are truly on a path to healing.
Photo credit: Courtesy of HBO.