Every year, 40 young campers in Loma Linda, Calif., face their fears by going through a Grief Maze.
The children — ages 10 to 16 — must contend with an obstacle course, rope climbing and dense fog from dry ice that’s meant to mimic the haze of emotions often felt after the loss of a loved one.
At Camp Good Grief in San Bernardino County, all the children at the three-day camp have recently experienced the death of parent or sibling because of homicide or suicide.
In the aftermath of a tragedy, these children struggle with anger, guilt and fear. Some remain traumatized after witnessing or hearing the death of parent.
“Kids don’t really understand what happens with grief,” said Dorothy Brooks, the bereavement facilitator for the Good Grief program. “It helps when you connect it with something they do understand. They understand going through the maze.”
Funded by offenders ordered to pay fines as part of court-ordered restitution, these traumatized children are given a chance to heal, thanks to a partnership between the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office and the Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital.
It’s a model that Los Angeles County is looking to replicate as it seeks to use a surplus of nearly $500,000 earmarked for victims of violent crimes in the county.
Last year, the Board of Supervisors voted to wrest control of the pot of money from the Probation Department and directed the unspent money to be administered by the Los Angeles County District Attorney.
The money has accrued because court-ordered payments made by offenders to a victim restitution fund have gone unclaimed by victims.
A motion approved by the board on Tuesday seeks to spend a small chunk of that money on helping children in the county who have experienced the death of a loved one as a result of a homicide.
The county is hoping that a program for grieving children will help them begin the healing process and prevent further trauma. Adverse childhood experiences like the death of parent can have lasting effects on the health and development on children.
“We know from research that a lot of kids who are on the streets and in gangs are many kids who have an unresolved loss in their life,” Brooks said. “From a perspective of protection, many families want to go around the grief rather than through it. But we know that if children don’t go through it, even during that difficult time, that if they don’t process all that information, that later it will come back.”
Brooks helps host Camp Good Grief once a year. Referrals come from Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, the community or advocates who work with the San Bernardino district attorney’s office. The next grief camp in the spring will host nine children who lost a parent in the 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting.
For three days, children participate in grief sessions in which they are encouraged — but not required — to share their experiences, as well as fun activities like the Grief Maze. Therapists, interns and other specialists from the hospital are on hand to provide extra help if necessary.
But Brooks said that the most powerful experience for children dealing with the violent death of a parent or loved one is the opportunity to talk with other children who have also had a similar horrible thing happen in their lives.
Good Grief is a mix of first-timers and returning campers. Some youth who have been through the program return as junior counselors, which helps many children at the camp open up and share their experiences.
“Social referencing,” or talking to a peer, can have great benefits for children during the grieving process, according to Julie Kaplow, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
“Often times children and adolescents feel almost abnormal or weird or different after they’ve lost a loved one, particularly under circumstances where the deaths were stigmatized in some way such as homicides or suicides,” Kaplow said. “Being in groups where there are other kids who have lost other people in a similar manner is not only validating to kids but actually helps them to label a lot of experiences that they haven’t been able to put words to yet.”
Kaplow says that in situations where children are dealing with a death that was very traumatic, such as a murder or a suicide, children can develop both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as maladaptive grief reactions, such as preoccupation with the dead parent, yearning and longing for the person, extreme difficulty accepting the loss and other pronounced emotional reactions.
“It’s extremely taxing on kids to have both of those going on at the same time,” she said.
For Brooks, at Camp Good Grief the goal is to provide children with a few tools that can help during the grieving process. All children leave the camp with a small packet of tissues as a reminder that it’s OK to cry as well as a card of griever’s rights.
“If we can provide them with some understanding at this very significant point in their life about what to do and how understand what’s going on in their minds and in their families, then we’re preventing some very poor choices in the future,” Brooks said.