On this week’s edition of the Joy Beat, we’re spotlighting an organization that brings joy and healing to some of the people who need it most. It’s called Camp Erin, and its mission is to support children and their families who are dealing with grief due to the loss of a significant person in their lives. 

All over the country, Camp Erin hosts both day and overnight sessions led by bereavement professionals who support young people through the grieving process. Last weekend in Middleborough, about 45 kids and their families took part in this year’s Camp Erin activities. 

Jennifer Wiles, the director of Camp Erin Boston, and Kelly Landers, a former camper who will be returning to Camp Erin as a camp nurse, joined All Things Considered guest host Craig LeMoult to discuss how this camp can change the trajectory of many children’s lives. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Craig LeMoult: So, Jennifer, can we start with you? It’s estimated that one in 14 kids in Massachusetts will experience the death of a parent or sibling before the age of 18. Do children grieve differently than adults? And what can be the impact on their lives?

Jennifer Wiles: I think it depends on their age and developmental level. It’s often said that kids experience a range of emotions, as do adults, but in maybe a quicker fashion, and go from one emotion to the next very quickly. So there’s no one way that anybody grieves, but we do know that with support and with a feeling of community and belonging, kids really can thrive and feel a lot more hopeful about their circumstances.

LeMoult: Without that kind of support, does it have a lasting negative impact on children?

Wiles: We think it does. And studies have proven this, too, that kids can be more at risk for mental health issues, for issues at school, learning challenges, social issues, with high-risk behaviors. It just really helps for kids to get support when they are grieving.

LeMoult: So what does Camp Erin do to help grieving children move on with their lives and find joy again?

Wiles: Well, I think we do a few things. The first is we really support every camper to honor their person who has died. We do this by remembering the person, talking about them, naming them, sharing pictures and photos of their person, so that’s really important.

We also help identify the feelings around grief. “What has happened to you? How do you feel?” Talking and kind of normalizing those feelings and hearing other kids say, “I have felt this, too. This happened to me, too,” really helps to decrease isolation and give a sense of community.

The last thing we do is promote coping skills, positive coping skills, resiliency and hope that this is something that happened to them, but this does not have to define their whole lives — they can not move on, because I don’t think people do move on, but move through.

LeMoult: Kelly, you were a camper at Camp Erin. How old were you, and what was the loss in your life that led you there?

Kelly Landers: I was 16 when I went to Camp Erin; I found Camp Erin definitely later in life. I lost my mom when I was five. She had breast cancer. You know, on an older level, being able to connect with people that understand exactly what you’re going through when you have a loss. I feel like someone goes, “Oh, I know exactly how you feel.” If you haven’t, I feel like, especially, maybe lost a parent at such a young age, you really don’t know how it feels, and I think everyone’s situation is very different.

But I think when I went to Camp Erin, it was so nice being around other people that completely get it. Especially, you know, my mom was sick with cancer. Other girls in your cabin, they may have lost a family member to a similar, long-term illness, and they know what it’s like. And I think my situation has changed, you know, a long time has passed — 11 years — my dad has remarried, and my whole situation in my life had changed. But then, there were girls that were in my cabin going through the same thing; their parents got remarried, and then you adjust to having a new family. I think it’s very nice to have someone that’s going through that same situation as well.

LeMoult: And now you’re returning to Camp Erin for the first time as a nurse, right? You’re an RN. What made you want to go back?

Landers: Well, Jen texted me. I had always thought about going back as a mentor. I became a travel nurse, I moved away for a couple of months, I came home, and Jen was like, “Hey, I have this opportunity. We need a nurse.” And I was like, “Yep, I’m your girl.” I didn’t even think twice about it. I’ll make my schedule work. I’ll be there no matter what.

LeMoult: Jennifer, tell us about what you offered to these children in terms of coping skills. How do you help them learn to live with the loss?

Wiles: Well, I think the first step is to name that loss and not to dismiss it. Allow the child or the teen to express what's going on with them and not. To diminish it or belittle it in any way. Like, “This is really hard, what's happening, and this is the hardest thing that you might ever have to go through. But I know you have it inside of you to cope with this and to grow from it.”

And through that, they develop a capacity, I think, for compassion and courage. And so I think the main thing we try to do in camp is to really recognize those qualities in kids: the courage, the kindness, maybe compassion for others, and to name it. And it could be little things like, you know, "Thanks for letting that camper go first," or "Wow, you rode in a canoe for the first time. You were so brave to do that!" And naming that courage to talk about their person and to talk about hard things.

We definitely promote mindfulness; that's a big part of it. We really promote a lot of physical activity to really encourage wellness.

LeMoult: And of course, they do the traditional, fun camp activities too; this is a fun time.

Wiles: Absolutely! People think of grief camp and they think, “Oh my gosh, I’m sitting around crying the whole time.” But no, it’s not like that at all. Kids can be kids, and they can still have fun and still love their person and grieve their person and be joyful.

LeMoult: Kelly, I would think it might be difficult to go back in to work with children who have had experiences similar to what you went through. Is this going to be a challenge for you?

Landers: No, I honestly think it’s going to be the opposite. I think it’s very therapeutic to have someone that gets to know what you’re going through. You know, “I’m older, and I can show you that I went through this. This was such an awful time; I have not moved on, but my life has changed, I’ve adapted to it. And, this is, you know, this is what I did with this. I always wanted to be a nurse. Now, I’m being a nurse, and you know, you’re a camper. Maybe in ten years, maybe you’ll want to be the camp nurse with me.” You know what I mean?

LeMoult: I think almost all of us have lost somebody that we love, and I know we all kind of handle that differently — we grieve differently, as you said. But have you learned anything that we can all use and incorporate as we try to deal with our own losses that we continue to grieve?

Wiles: The first thought that comes to me is patience: to be patient with ourselves, to be patient with others because there is extraordinary hardship and suffering that goes along with grief and no one is doing it perfect. You realize that people are going to be frustrated, sometimes impatient, sometimes angry, sometimes not perfect, right? But we just kind of give each other a little bit of patience and grace — don't give up on people.

Another piece of advice I would give is to get support and to find community through grief. There are wonderful bereavement support groups all over Massachusetts for different kinds of losses: for a spouse, loss of partner, a child loss, a parent loss. I think it's really an important time in one's life to feel part of something else and to gain the strength that Kelly was talking about from other people and hearing other people's stories. And it's a way to keep honoring the person who has died, too. It keeps them present in our lives, and I think there's something very comforting in that. Families sometimes struggle, I think, with how to support family members, and sometimes it takes someone outside of their immediate circle to be able to listen and witness in a different way.