A group of about 35 children stood in a circle, along with parents and volunteers for Camp Erin Boston.
"Step into this circle if you have lost your mom," said the camp's director, Jennifer Wiles.
Several kids and adults stepped forward.
“Step into the circle if you've lost a sibling,” Wiles said next.
With each added relation, the group drew closer together in their shared grief. Every person in the room had lost a loved one.
"So we're going to spend today talking about that person, remembering that person, honoring that person, checking in about how we're doing with this hard thing that has happened to us," Wiles told the group.
An estimated one in 12 children in the United States will experience the death of a parent or sibling before age 18, according to the estimates from Judi's House, a childhood bereavement organization.
To help children through that trauma, Camp Erin operates free one-day and overnight camps led by bereavement professionals. Participants get to share their stories, learn coping skills and meet other kids going through similar experiences.
Camp Erin was created in 2002 under the umbrella of the Eluna Network, cofounded by baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife, Karen Phelps Moyer. It's named in honor of Erin Metcalf, who the Moyers met through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Metcalf passed away at age 17, and the Moyers were inspired to create Camp Erin after seeing her compassion for other children and families while in the hospital.
Through partnerships with local organizations, Camp Erin now operates in more than 30 cities across the United States and Canada, as well as an online program. The Boston one is funded by nonprofit hospice organization Good Shepherd Community Care, as well as the Eluna Network. The Boston group also hosts a year-round support group for kids called HEARTplay.
Ordinarily, Camp Erin happens in the summer. But this year, the Boston group added an autumn camp day at the Museum of Science.
The kids broke into small groups, each led by a grief counselor, and took turns answering ice-breaker questions, like favorite ice cream flavor. After one counselor opened it up for the kids to suggest their own questions, 8-year-old Arlo Loyd was done beating around the bush.
“Tell people who your loved one is,” Arlo said.
"My name is Viv and my loved one is my brother Tye," replied 9-year-old Viv Moughan.
Her mother, Liz Moughan, stood nearby listening. Other parents had gone to another room to meet with their own grief counselor. But Viv wanted her mom to stay close. Viv's 18-year-old brother died by suicide in August.
“Viv's just having a hard time understanding her grief,” Moughan said. “And so we're trying any avenue possible to try to help her process what happened.”
Moughan said it’s incredibly hard to parent a child who’s grieving the loss of a brother, while at the same time facing her own grief at losing a child.
“I could be sad and Viv could feel OK and my husband could feel angry — or, you know, you shuffle all those emotions around,” she said. “Having to support each other while you're all in those different spaces is such a challenge.”
“Having to support each other while you're all in those different spaces is such a challenge.”Liz Moughan, parent
Learning to deal with emotions can be draining, so the camp also sets aside time for fun activities in which the kids can make memories with their new friends. In summer sessions, that means traditional camp pastimes like swimming and canoeing. At the fall session, the kids had a chance to enjoy the exhibits at the Museum of Science.
And then it’s back to learning something a little more personal.
“Can someone tell me — maybe a camper could tell me — what coping skills are?” Wiles asked the group.
“When you go breathe in and out,” a young girl answered.
“That's an awesome coping skill!” Wiles replied enthusiastically. “Breathing in and out.”
The camp also gives grieving kids a forum to honor a lost loved one. The group decorated candles to be used in a remembrance later in the day.
“I like my candle so far,” Arlo Loyd said as he showed his creation to his mom.
Arlo spelled out "DAD" and added stickers he thought his father would have liked.
“His favorite color was brown,” Arlo said. “And Mom found this brown lion. So I put it under ‘DAD.’”
“You think Dad would like it?” his mom, Alexis Loyd, asked.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“I agree," his mom told him.
Alexis Loyd's own mother died when she was 6. And, she said, there was nothing like this for her.
"I mean, I think that I had a pretty traumatic experience,” Loyd said. “And my whole goal as a mom is to make sure that Arlo doesn't have a traumatic experience, as much as possible. Right?”
Arlo, whose father died a little over four months ago, said it's been good to meet other kids here who are like him.
“I have friends, but they don't really — they've never really lost somebody,” he said. “So it's good to have friends who understand.”
Camp Erin Boston’s director said that’s the point: No one should feel like they’re going through this alone.