Anatomy of Hospice Grief Camps for Children

Training staff and volunteers to provide developmentally-appropriate grief support is among the key parts of operating summer camp programs for children and adolescents suffering a recent loss.

Whether rolling out summer grief camps for the first time or innovating these programs throughout the course of several decades, hospices need a firm grasp around the different emotional and cognitive needs of pediatric populations coping with the death of a loved one, according to Alissa Drescher, senior director of mission-based services at Alive Hospice.

With a greater understanding of how children process death, hospices can ensure staff and volunteers are well-equipped to support their evolving needs as they grow, Drescher said.


“While our program has existed for over 20 years, we continue to challenge ourselves to be innovative with our programming so as to meet the ever-evolving needs and interests of our campers,” Drescher told Hospice News in an email. “Each of our camper age groups is on a different ‘track,’ or schedule, during the camp weekend, so they feel like they’re having a camp just for their age group. Our hope is that by providing a diverse range of creative activities, campers will find something that resonates with them, and possibly even continue it beyond the camp weekend.”

Common threads among children grief programs

Youth summer grief camps often integrate bereavement counseling and therapeutic elements into their programs. Memory building activities can include pet, art and music therapy, as well as creating videographies of the deceased person. Some programs feature martial arts, yoga, meditation, hiking, ziplining and trust-building group activities aimed at helping children to process anxiety, stress, depression and trauma experiences associated with a loss.

Tennessee-based Alive Hospice operates a summer grief camp, dubbed Camp Forget-Me-Not, which typically takes place annually during a weekend in August at the YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville. The hospice provider has operated the camp for the past two decades, open to any child 8–17 years old who has experienced a recent death.


Majority of the children who attend the grief program have lost a parent or guardian due to a chronic illness, according to Drescher. Last year nearly half of the camp’s attendees had experienced the death of a terminally ill parent, but a growing number of deaths have also been related to sudden, traumatic losses such as gun violence or substance abuse. These types of losses can be difficult for children to understand and grieve, she indicated.

Providing trauma-informed grief training to staff and volunteers working with these children is a pivotal element, Drescher indicated. Another key is ensuring that providers can recognize and understand signs of potential distress and anxiety and ways to address these symptoms within themselves and in others, she added.

“The first step in providing a trauma-informed camp is by prescreening campers,” Drescher said. “Each prospective camper and their guardian(s) attend a virtual session with a grief counselor who can identify a camper’s trauma history and assess readiness to attend camp. We [also] train our volunteers to monitor their own reactions while serving at camp, since they are susceptible to vicarious trauma, and provide multiple opportunities for debriefing if they notice their own grief is rising to the surface.”

Aside from parental losses, children who attend summer grief programs have often experienced the loss of a grandparent or a sibling, according to Jasmine Kendrick, grief counselor and social worker at Angela Hospice.

The Michigan-based hospice provider launched its summer grief program three years ago for bereaved children 5–18 years old across communities in its service region. Branded as Camp Monarch, the hospice offers the two-day program during the first or second week of August at Madonna University’s Welcome Center. Unlike some other grief camps, the program is not overnight.

Growing the summer grief program has involved recognizing and addressing the unique needs of grieving children, developing community partnerships with local organizations and schools, and having a diverse base of interdisciplinary professionals and volunteers to support these services, according to Kendrick.

“We are basically taking our bereavement services and creating them on a broader scale to be worked with in children so they can utilize coping skills that help them with emotional regulation and memory preservation,” Kendrick told Hospice News. “Kids are learning to recognize and manage through their grief emotions, so it’s helping them move forward with hope and resilience.”

A vast population of children have unmet and unvoiced bereavement needs, making community partnerships with local organizations and schools a large part of access and awareness, Kendrick added.

Developing age-appropriate and family-friendly grief programs involves collaborating with other providers and organizations, according to Cathy Stauffer Wozniak, executive director at Hospice & Palliative Care of Martha’s Vineyard (HPCMV).

The Massachusetts-based hospice offers a family grief camp called Camp by the Sea. Though the hospice provides individualized bereavement to children and adults across the island of Martha’s Vineyard, the grief camp is a relatively new service born out of growing recognition and demand, Stauffer Wozniak said.

“The camp is new, and it’s going to be really for families that have experienced a significant loss and bringing them together in this setting,” Stauffer Wozniak told Hospice news. “That’s among the innovative programs that we’re doing to do more for families. Our social workers and spiritual care counselors have worked hard on developing this camp, and we’ve received really great education and expertise from another grief camp that has been doing this for years. Through grief counseling, we can support kids and families with other losses than a terminal illness.”

Keeping up with demand

A significant component of grief programs is having sufficiently trained bereavement coordinators supported by interdisciplinary professionals and volunteers, Kendrick stated.

“We have our volunteers, social workers and our staff grief care team all go through pretty extensive training to be well-versed in the interventions and support we can provide,” Kendrick said. “We are constantly finding ways to educate ourselves and stay abreast of all findings related to grief and bereavement practices for children to make sure we prepare them and let them know what to expect. It’s making sure you’re using age-appropriate language, looking at their method of development with the information they can handle and being honest with that information. These are the three keys we reiterate to those working with the campers.”

Training, education and diverse staffing of summer grief camps is an “extremely important” element of their sustainability and efficacy in supporting bereaved families, according to Drescher.

Nurses, social workers, chaplains, bereavement professionals and behavioral health providers can all bring valuable insight to childrens’ grief programs, Drescher stated. So, too, can local nonprofit and other community organizations that work with teenagers, adolescents and children.

Beginning the training process early on is another significant component of developing and sustaining summer grief services, according to Faith Fitzgerald, director of community health programs at Hospice of the Chesapeake.

Volunteers, bereavement counselors, nurses, social workers and chaplains at Hospice of the Chesapeake begin training as early as January prior to the start of its annual summer grief program in August. The hospice’s Chesapeake Life Center hosts Camp Nabi at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Maryland, which is part of a local school system in its service region.

The hospice began offering the summer grief camp more than 30 years ago across its four-county service region in Maryland, and has a growing base of volunteers that have helped for several years running. These volunteers include diverse community members, police officers, military members, teachers, school counselors, a funeral home director and an end-of-life doula, Fitzgerald mentioned.

This multitude of personal and professional backgrounds have helped the hospice develop a wide variety of supportive grief services that meet a range of unique bereavement needs for different losses, she added.

Longer onramps of training and preparation can help a summer grief program to run more cohesively as volunteers and interdisciplinary staff collaborate with one another alongside community groups involved, Fitzgerald said.

“We offer a lot of training and really partner with highly trained and experienced staff to give them the skills to really keep the camp going and build that sense of team and community in training,” Fitzgerald told Hospice News. “We also do screenings and evaluations of each camper so that we know in advance how to partner the right counselors and facilitators with children based on their experience and how they are grieving. It’s incorporated into the training from the beginning.”

Training staff and volunteers to evaluate and understand how grief presents in children at different age ranges and cognitive levels is an important part of these summer programs, according to Alena Dailey, integrative arts manager & Chesapeake Life Center Manager, Hospice of the Chesapeake. Dailey is also manager of its Chesapeake Life Center.

Hospices must ensure their staff and volunteers are trained to both assess and address a child’s outward and inward emotional reactions, Dailey said. The summer programs can be a brief, but pivotal point in their grief journeys and their ability to process these emotions as they reach adulthood, she explained. The impact on children can be profound with the right support of a well-trained bereavement team, as well as access to resources of ongoing individual and group grief therapy, Dailey stated.

Additionally important to grief program sustainability and growth is the ability to engage staff and volunteers for their feedback on areas that might have room for improvement, she added.

“Assessment is so important to really making sure we’re partnering the best way possible,” Dailey told Hospice News. “Our camp is a whole-team effort, and our volunteers have been at the core and center of it for the past 30 years, holding that knowledge and experience to help us grow, expand and change things that sometimes don’t work. That perspective really helps. Incorporating all those pieces is really going to reach the kids that join us in a different aspect that they haven’t been able to before.”

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