Camp Good Grief offers therapy play

Kids from Camp Good Grief, hosted by Stein Hospice, pet Misty, one of two miniature therapy horses, in Mount Oran on June 30, 2017.

By Brett Milam

Kids from Camp Good Grief, hosted by Stein Hospice, pet Misty, one of two miniature therapy horses, in Mount Orab on June 30, 2017.

Camp Good Grief, hosted by Stein Hospice at the Mt. Orab Park in Mt. Orab, is a weeklong camp to help children experiencing a loss.

The camp consists of various coping techniques, including using therapy dogs, having a nutritionist come and talk about mind and body health, talking to football players,art therapy activities and even tango dancing; and on the last day, therapy miniature horses were also on hand to help.

Stein Hospice has been doing Camp Good Grief for 15 years, mostly in Northern Ohio, but the last two years have been spent in the county. Last year, they had nine students join the camp; this year, the there were 22.

“We wanted to bring this camp down to our service area in Southern Ohio as well, so we started that last year,” Sam Bechtel, chief clinical support officer, said. “So we were really happy to know that we more than doubled our numbers this year. We know that there’s kids out there that can benefit; it’s just a matter of getting the word out.”

The camp is designed for kids aged 5-13 experiencing any sort of loss, from the loss of a pet, parents divorcing or the death of somebody in the family, like a parent.

“I would say the majority had a death of either of, mostly a human, but quite of them have had a pet, that’s pretty common. There’s a mix of all types of loss here, but I would say predominant is death of a loved one. Some were tragic accidents, some were sick; it was expected and some were sudden, unexpected,” Bechtel said.

Donations up north and south largely fund the weeklong camp, but the kids do pay a $10 fee for the week.

“We ask for $10 for the week, but if they’re not able to pay it we just say they do have a scholarship,” Betchel said. “We would never turn them away for not being able to pay $10.”

This year, Christa Bronner, of Stein Hospice, participated in her 10th year at the camp.

“Our focus of camp is to give the children a place that they can express, learn new ways to cope and see that they’re not alone,” Bronner said. “We are introducing them to other children that have been through similar experiences.”

Bronner said every child reacts differently, so “we’re not going to minimize the pet loss because the loss of a pet is huge for them.”

Guilt, shock, sadness and acceptance and healing are all in the process of grief, but camp is kept broad so that it applies to everybody.

“A lot of children are anxious to come to this, Camp Good Grief, thinking we’re going to sit around and cry, but really what we’re doing is learning ways to process all of our feelings; it’s really an uplifting camp; we’re not crying,” Bronner said.

Adults tend to “stay in their pain,’ Bronner said, whereas kids will express their pain, cry and then go play.

“This is why our camp works well – we do it in a way that works for children, we take breaks from the sadness and then we return to our feelings and go back to having fun,” Bronner said.

All volunteers are trained therapists and one-on-one time is sometimes necessary to reach a kid grieving, but it’s largely about the group dynamic.

“It’s proven that grief is done better together, with others that are also grieving,” Bronner said.

As for herself, Bronner said she’s gotten really good in the last decade with taking breaks by “hitting Target” and learning ways to keep herself healthy through the process of camp.

She feels blessed to earn the trust of the kids involved, which often means “self-disclosure” to the kids, if it works in that particular context to further that trust and disclose her own pain.

“I look more human, more personable and relatable. They see that I’ve dealt with pain and grief and loss but I’m also doing things with my life and I’m surviving and functioning well and that gives them hope that in adulthood they’ll also be able to do the same,” Bronner said.

A funeral director also visited camp so the kids could ask difficult questions and those questions could get answered in an age-appropriate manner, Bronner said, with younger kids in one group and the older kids in another group.

“But we know that children need to have facts; a lot of times families think that they need to keep children ‘back’ from death, but really they need to be involved,” Bronner said. “They can handle a lot more than you think; they’re part of the family and they need a chance for that closure, too.”

At the end of the day, the kids just like to share their stories – to be heard.

“Every time a child tells their story, I think a part of them heals,” Bronner said. “Also, our balloon release ceremony that’s the last day and on that day, they think about releasing part of their grief that they want to let go or they send a message up to heaven to a loved one. And that’s always a significant part of camp.”

Grief isn’t always healthy, Bronner said, with different levels and severities, but they can make it work. At the end of camp, she even may make a recommendation to a mental health therapist for the children to continue their grief work.

“Adults have support groups and such that they can work through their grief, but children do best in the summer, outside, in nature, so we thought we could get them all together when they’re not in school,” Bronner said, about Stein Hospice meeting the unique needs of a child’s grief.

After her comments to The Sun, one of the kids from the camp ran up to Bronner with a fidget spinner, handed it off and ran back so she could pet one of the miniature horses, either Hickory and Misty, both around 16 years of age and from Cherry Ridge Farms in Georgetown.

The farm is run by Sherry Mitchell, who was on hand to talk about the therapy horses, as part of the Therapeutic Learning Programs, along with Sabrina Mignerey, equine assisted counseling and team-building.

A good therapy horse is one that’s well-socialized and it has good manners, but mostly any horse has a good temperament, Mignerey said.

“Horses by nature are calming,” Mignerey said. “They are hyper-vigilant and aware at all times, so it’s this really neat combination that they are calm by nature but highly aware at the same time, so they teach us to do the same.”

Mignerey has been with Cherry Ridge around 10 years and equine assisted counseling for two years.

“I have a passion for kids; I’ve seen lots of kids just have a hard time and if my farm or my pony or my animals or my goats or my peacocks – anything at the farm – can help them along the way, it just blesses my heart to do that,” Mitchell said. “We cater to kids, that’s what we do.”

After petting and getting familiar with the horses, the kids then had a chance to individually tell the horses a secret.

“Something they want to keep private, that they want to get out, the horse will listen and not tell a soul,” Bronner said.

Then after telling the secret, the kids gave the horse a hug, and later, the kids were going to feed Misty and Hickory apples.