The activities mirrored those held at any other day camp for kids. There were snacks and the children wore matching colored T-shirts. Throughout the day, the youth oscillated between art, music and dancing.
But the camp's activities were designed to be more than just fun. They were teaching the children how to deal with the realities of life often associated only with adults. Each child in the camp had experienced a loss.
The entire camp was for children who are grieving.
On Saturday, for the 15th year, Hospice of Chattanooga hosted Healing Hearts Grief Camp for Kids. Hosted at Christ United Methodist Church, the day camp taught strategies for children to process grief, said Susan Latta, director of bereavement for Hospice.
A 5-year-old's understanding of grief and expression of loss is different than an 11-year-old's, and both are different than a 40-year-old's, Latta said. Young people often express their struggle in pockets.
Hospice of Chattanooga: hospiceofchattanooga.org
For example, a child may mention the person they lost one moment and then run off to play. The next day, the child may say how their loved one died. Children often do not sit and cry, and want to talk about their grief like adults do, Latta said. A 2-year-old will likely not understand death but the child may feel longing or anxiety, whereas a teenager may be sensitive to being different among peers after suffering a loss.
The 35 kids, ages 5 to 12, who participated in the camp moved between big, loud activities, such as drumming and an obstacle course, and quieter, more reflective activities, such as art projects. The camp was designed to give children a chance to learn coping strategies, Latta said.
The day was also a chance for young people to connect with others who have gone through something similar.
"Often for kids, when a death happens, it feels like no one understands," Latta said. "The camp is a chance for them to talk about it."
The weekend camp is not the only way people are supporting those in the Chattanooga community who have lost a loved one.
Every loss is unique
Alex McFadden volunteered at the kid's camp on the recent Saturday, bringing along her daughter. This was the Hixson resident's fourth year helping with the camp, an opportunity to give back the support she received, she said.
McFadden was hospitalized in Maine for three weeks in December 2010 when she went into preterm labor. Her daughter, only 22 weeks old, could not survive outside the womb.
"Infant loss is a unique kind of loss," she said. "People don't feel comfortable talking about it with you."
People often make assumptions about the depth of grief someone may feel based on their relationship to the person who died, McFadden said. For example, how a child who is just a few years old feels compared to a husband who loses a wife of decades. These presumptions can minimize people's sense of loss and were something McFadden felt in losing her daughter, she said.
"It doesn't really matter the title of the relationship. Everyone's experience of grief is unique," she said.
McFadden was encouraged by her own experiences in a support group and now co-leads one through Hospice for adults, a six-week class she has hosted for the last five years.
The group stresses that all emotions are natural. There is grief, but there is also anger for people not understanding or people not wanting to talk about it. Then, there is reconciling feelings of happiness in what some may perceive to be a period reserved for mourning.
'Half of your whole life'
For nearly 40 years, groups have gathered across Chattanooga to care for one another after the death of a spouse. The Forward group meets monthly at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and smaller groups meet throughout the city for weekly sessions.
There are not many local options of care for people who have lost a spouse, said Patsy Schwall, who facilitates a group. She lost her husband around six years ago, she said. At the time, she did not know how to understand her loss. The Forward group was an important outlet.
"When you've lost a spouse, you lose half an income. You lose half of your whole life," Schwall said.
The groups not only help participants understand their emotions, but some of the logistics of living alone as well. Many couples have one person designated to handle the finances or the shopping. One member had never pumped gas before, so other participants took her on a trip to the station to learn. The classes move through a series of topics that build a community, said Susan Whelchel, co-president of Forward.
"There's something very powerful about being in a room where everyone has lost a spouse and knows what you're going through," Whelchel said.
The groups meet at Alexian Brothers, as well as St. Paul's during the summer and First-Centenary United Methodist Church in the spring and fall. Gene Hunt started the group in 1979 shortly after he lost his wife, he said.
Hunt was running a financial planning and insurance business and had attended several seminars on how to improve his business when he got the idea that a similar program should be created in Chattanooga for people going through challenges similar to his own, he said.
Helping other people for decades has been a great reward, Hunt said.
"I think it's the most fun there is," he said. "You get to help other people and make some new friends."
From the reporter
I became a journalist to help people see people as people. But highlighting the human side of every policy decision, and how it is affecting your community, takes time as well as support from readers. If you believe in telling the stories of people in your community, please subscribe to the Times Free Press today. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Find me on Twitter at @News4Mass.