Grief Camp Helps Children Cope with War Losses A nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based group holds grief camps throughout the year for the families of American troops who have died. The children who gathered at the "Good Grief Camp" at Fort Carson, Colo., this month shared their anger, pain, loneliness and loss.

Grief Camp Helps Children Cope with War Losses

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And now, we're going to visit a summer camp with a very serious focus. The campers are children, who have lost military parents to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the Good Grief Camps, as they're called, help kids to grieve and cope.

NPR's Howard Berkes went to a session at Fort Carson, Colorado. And we warn you that his story contains language that some listeners might find offensive.

HOWARD BERKES: Every one of the two dozen kids gathered in this Fort Carson conference room belongs to a club they wished they'd never join. Membership is marked by red T-shirts and round and shiny palm-sized buttons with smiling images of dads and uncles and brothers. The buttons are fixed to T-shirts and pigtails, and they shimmer as the kids wait to be sorted in the Grief Camp groups.

Ms. VANESSA GABRIELSON (Counselor, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors): This is one of the only places that these kids can go and realize that they're not alone.

BERKES: Counselor Vanessa Gabrielson was a teenager when her dad died in Iraq four years ago.

Ms. GABRIELSON: They get in a group and they realize that little Emily(ph) or little Sarah(ph) over there - her daddy died in a roadside bomb, too, just like her dad where back at school or in their neighborhood, they're the only ones.

Ms. JUDY MATHEWSON (Counselor, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors): Dakota, tell us about you. Tell us about why you're here. (Unintelligible)

Ms. DAKOTA GIVENS (Good Grief Camper): I'm here because my dad died in Iraq.

BERKES: Ten-year-old Dakota Givens is one of six kids, sitting around a wooden conference room table with counselor Judy Mathewson.

Ms. GIVENS: He was in his tank, and then they were driving and they went in some water. The gun broke and hit his door so he couldn't get out and he drowned.

Ms. MATHEWSON: What's your name? It's Taylor?

Ms. TAYLOR HELDT (Good Grief Camper): My dad was killed in Iraq. He got hit by a roadside bomb. And I lost him June 16th, on Father's Day.

BERKES: That's 10-year-old Taylor Heldt, who has attended this grief camps before. They were organized by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. It's a private, nonprofit group that works with adults and kids.

Ms. MATHEWSON: What we're going to do is we're going to make what's called a stress ball to helps us when we're feeling down, when we're getting irritable, when we're having a tough time.

BERKES: The kids stuff Play-Doh into balloons then squeeze and pound and throw it. They form and then smash Play-Doh figures - stand-ins for enemy Iraqis who killed their dads. They draw pictures of life before dad died - playing tickle monster at the park, reading stories at bedtime. Some draw the funerals that followed. They grow somber and speak softly when they share their stories in a circle outside.

This is 8-year-old Katie Staats, 10-year-old Taylor Heldt, and 11-year-old Angel van Dusen.

Ms. ANGEL VAN DUSEN (Good Grief Camper): We thought that when we heard the doorbell it was the pizza man, but I went to the door and I told my mom it wasn't them. And the next thing I knew she came inside starting to cry. The people who are at the door are the people who'd come and tell you if your husband or your brother or somebody died.

Ms. HELDT: 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 didn't want it to happen to her dad because her dad's really nice.

Ms. VAN DUSEN: I got angry at my brother because my brother's always - well, I can't wait until Dad is here, because then, he's not going to play hide-and-go-seek with me and blah, blah-blah-blah. And I'd go, shut up. Dad's not alive. He's dead. And I just started, like, screaming.

Ms. MATHEWSON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KATIE STAATS (Good Grief Camper): I don't know if this is okay, and my friend Kristen(ph) told me, but is it okay for, like, widows like my mom are allowed to date and stuff. Because I thought if I was her and I was a widow, I think I would feel lonely.


BERKES: One common thread is the teasing these kids endure, which Dakota describes later.

Ms. GIVENS: The boys at my school would pick me on all the time and say, you're dad was a pussy. He died for no odd reason. And when I was very little, when he died, I'd say, Mommy, give me a penny. I'm going to wish for Daddy back. I'd throw it in the thing and it never happened. I just really wish I had my dad back.

BERKES: The Grief Camp counselors provide advise on how to deal with teasing. They show the kids how to safely channel anger. They encourage sharing with people kids can trust. They help the kids accept the fact that they're loved ones are gone, but still reachable with hand-scrolled notes tied to balloons.

Ms. GABRIELSON: One, two, three. Go.

(Soundbite of children screaming)

BERKES: And with that, colorful balloons blew above Fort Carson, Colorado. Taylor addressed her note to 45 South Heaven Lane, and it carried these words: Dear Dad, I love you and I hope to see you again.

This was Taylor's fourth grief camp. She plans to keep coming back.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can see and hear more from the kids at the TAPS Grief Camp and to hear the story of the group's formation at our Web site,

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