By Abigail Unger

Hospice Buffalo’s (Hospice) mission is to provide optimal care, support, advocacy, and education to anyone impacted by serious illness and loss by providing a continuum of care that spans the course of disease progression through bereavement. A significant component of this care is guiding and supporting grieving families following the loss of their loved ones. In addition to a 13-month Hospice Medicare bereavement benefit, Hospice’s grief support programs are dedicated to meeting the needs of the community at large.

One of our most vibrant programs is Camp Blue Skies, a weekend bereavement camp for Western New York children and teens ages 7 to 17 years old who have experienced the death of a loved one at least three months prior to the start of camp.

Children and teens are not seasoned in grief — they lack the language, developmental skills, and resources to navigate the depth of loss, pain, and isolation that accompany grief. They do not have exposure or access to the optimal means of support that they need, desire, and require in order to develop and evolve.

Without meaningful opportunities to engage in their grief — to express themselves, communicate feelings openly, learn to recognize others’ grief, experience support, receive assurance that their experience is normal and healthy, develop coping mechanisms — they are likely to experience greater obstacles and challenges in their overall development,not just at their present stage, but throughout every stage of their lives. Grief is not momentary, temporary, or short-acting. It is lifelong, embedded in one’s outlook, response, and function. Grief support is essential to children’s and teens’ well-being, both short- and long-term.

Camp Blue Skies promotes attention to and investment in self-care, as well as communal care. Dynamic developmentally appropriate interventions are geared specifically to provide opportunities to feel and grieve in a safe, supportive, protected environment. Camp offers space separate from their only known experience among family and friends, exposing them to alternative experiences and opportunities to find the support and validation they need.

Campers engage in therapeutic arts activities to facilitate expression, identify supports and coping mechanisms, enhance interpersonal connections, meaning-making and legacy. They experience team-building, adventure exercises, and yoga, as well as traditional camp-inspired fun. Campers participate in tribute experiences honoring their loved ones, making new memories related to their loved ones’ memory, acknowledging shared experiences and grief, supporting one another. They create legacy items representing their loved ones and their cherished relationships, as well as special objects they can employ as self-soothing and coping tools throughout their lives.

It is astonishing what can be nurtured to grow and blossom in a mere 42 hours. Campers and counselors describe it best — fun, laughter, tears, friendship, courage, trust, bonding, memories, inspiration, pride, bravery, risks, comfort, and support.

Abigail Unger LCAT, MT-BC is the Director of Expressive Therapies and Wilson Support Center at the Center for Hospice & Palliative Care.