Grief Camp Helps Children Cope with War Losses

Carson Givens, 4, wears a T-shirt commemorating his father. i i

Carson Givens, 4, wears a T-shirt commemorating his father as he pushes a toy stroller on his way to the balloon ceremony that closes the camp. Marisa Penaloza, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Carson Givens, 4, wears a T-shirt commemorating his father.

Carson Givens, 4, wears a T-shirt commemorating his father as he pushes a toy stroller on his way to the balloon ceremony that closes the camp.

Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Katie Staats, 8, shows a picture taken with her father. i i

Katie Staats, 8, shows a picture taken with her father at a barbecue. He died in Iraq on Dec. 16. Marisa Penaloza, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Katie Staats, 8, shows a picture taken with her father.

Katie Staats, 8, shows a picture taken with her father at a barbecue. He died in Iraq on Dec. 16.

Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Katie Staats looks at the picture while working on her activity book. i i

Katie Staats looks at the picture of her father while she works on her activity book at camp. Marisa Penaloza, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Katie Staats looks at the picture while working on her activity book.

Katie Staats looks at the picture of her father while she works on her activity book at camp.

Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Dakota Givens, 10, stands with his brother Carson, 4. i i

Dakota Givens, 10, stands with his brother Carson, 4, before the balloon ceremony. Their father was killed in Iraq. Maria Penaloza, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Maria Penaloza, NPR
Dakota Givens, 10, stands with his brother Carson, 4.

Dakota Givens, 10, stands with his brother Carson, 4, before the balloon ceremony. Their father was killed in Iraq.

Maria Penaloza, NPR
Children release balloons into the air for the closing ceremony of camp. i i

The balloon ceremony marks the closing of camp. The children wrote messages to their loved ones that were attached to the strings. Marisa Penaloza, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Children release balloons into the air for the closing ceremony of camp.

The balloon ceremony marks the closing of camp. The children wrote messages to their loved ones that were attached to the strings.

Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Taylor Heldt, 10, hugs her grandmother. i i

Taylor Heldt, 10, hugs her grandmother and legal custodian, Gail Kriete. Taylor says she worries about a friend's father who is headed to Iraq. Marisa Penaloza, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Taylor Heldt, 10, hugs her grandmother.

Taylor Heldt, 10, hugs her grandmother and legal custodian, Gail Kriete. Taylor says she worries about a friend's father who is headed to Iraq.

Marisa Penaloza, NPR

The Woman Behind TAPS

TAPS was founded by Bonnie Carroll, a veteran military officer and former White House Veterans Affairs liaison whose husband died in a military plane crash in 1992.

The morning gathering of about two dozen kids, toddlers to teens, seemed like any other day camp. Counselors checked in and sorted the "campers" by age. Everyone wore the same red camp T-shirts. And breakfast snacks lined a buffet table.

But the group gathered in a conference room at Fort Carson, Colo., had more on the schedule than summer fun.

The first hint of that was in the shiny, palm-sized buttons every child wore. They depicted fathers, brothers and uncles, all smiling and all lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These children had lost loved ones to war, and their "Good Grief Camp" was designed to help them grieve and cope.

A private, nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based group called TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, holds grief camps throughout the year for the families of American troops who have died. TAPS was founded by Bonnie Carroll, a veteran military officer and former White House Veterans Affairs liaison whose husband died in a military plane crash in 1992.

"There is nothing more isolating than feeling you are alone at a painful time," Carroll notes. "And there's nothing more comforting or healing than being surrounded by others who truly understand what you're going through."

Carroll's group schedules summer grief camps for kids across the country to provide "an honest, safe place where they can share some very horrific details of a death, and talk openly about it."

Losses Frame Introductions

The Fort Carson "Good Grief Camp" in August showed how even reticent youngsters can open up and share anger, pain, loneliness and loss. The children framed themselves in loss as they introduced themselves to fellow campers.

"I'm here because my dad died in Iraq," said 10-year-old Dakota Givens, in a circle of 8- to 12 year-olds. "He was in his tank ... and they went in some water. The gun broke and hit his door so he couldn't get out and he drowned."

"My dad was killed in Iraq," announced Taylor Heldt, another 10-year-old, who spoke matter-of-factly. "He got hit by a roadside bomb. And I lost him June 16, on Father's Day."

Counselors guide the children through exercises, games and discussions designed to expose hidden feelings and to help the children cope. The counselors include civilians and military men and women who have also experienced loss.

It doesn't take long for the children to open up. Some tell stories about the dreaded knock at the door many military families fear.

"We thought that when we heard the doorbell it was the pizza man," recalled Angel van Dusen, a playful 11-year-old who turned somber in the group. "I went to the door and I told my mom it wasn't [the pizza man] ... and the next thing I knew she came inside starting to cry."

Third-grader Katie Staats is as bright and cheerful as kids come. Her blue eyes and broad smile perfectly match those of her father, David, in the photo on her button. He died in Iraq on Dec. 16.

"That ruined my Christmas," she said. "My dad promised that no one would knock on the door. He kept that promise. My mom ... met the people in the driveway."

Exploring Ways to Let Go of Anger and Stress

Anger was a common theme. The kids made "stress balls" with Play-Doh and balloons. Squeezing them, smashing them and throwing them seemed to help dissipate anger and stress. They sculpted figures with Play-Doh that they could then pound into the table — stand-ins for the enemy Iraqis who killed their dads or the kids at school who tease them.

Dakota has had that experience. "The bullies at my school would pick on me all the time and say, 'Your dad was a pussy. He died for no ... reason.'"

Sometimes the hurtful words come innocently from another loved one. But there's still anger. Angel said she gets angry with her 6-year-old brother "...because my brother's always going, 'I can't wait till Dad's here cause then he's going to play hide-and-seek with me,' and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And I'd go 'Shut up! Dad's not alive! He's dead!' And I just started ... screaming."

Children Encouraged to Share Difficult Feelings

Counselors gently talked about not taking out anger on others and not letting anger build up. They encouraged sharing difficult feelings with trusted friends and adults.

That prompted Taylor to share something with the group. "I have a best friend and her dad, he just got back from training and he's leaving for Iraq. She started crying, and it made me cry because I don't want it to happen to her dad because her dad's really nice."

Eight-year-old Katie asked a question that indicates she's trying to figure out how her world is supposed to function now that her father's gone. "Is it OK for widows like my mom ... to date?" she wanted to know.

Counselor Judy Mathewson responded, "What do you think?"

"I don't know. I'm not a widow," Katie replied. "If I was her and I was a widow, I think I would feel lonely."

Dakota shared a desperate feeling of loss. "When I was very little when [Dad] died, I'd say, 'Mommy, give me a penny. I'm going to wish for Daddy back.' And I'd throw it in the [well] and it never happened. ... I guess those things are fake. ... I just really wish I had my dad back."

Every "Good Grief Camp" ends with an exercise that shows the children they can still reach out to their loved ones, even though they are gone. Each child writes a note to the father, brother, mother, aunt, sister or uncle who died in war. The notes are tied to balloons filled with helium. And with cheering and laughing and a few tears, the balloons are released into the Colorado sky.

Taylor shared the contents of her note. It was addressed to "45 South Heaven Lane." And it carried these words: "Dear dad. I love you. And I hope to see you again."

NPR's Marisa Penaloza produced this story.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.