Helping kids cope with losing a loved one


The children who go to the camp have all had to say a 'forever goodbye'. Photo: Caleb Woods/Unsplash

A painted pot full of violet pansy flowers sat next to eight-year-old Riley Fowler while she sat on a plastic lawn chair eating a popsicle. The outside of the pot was decorated with purple acrylic paint of her own design.

“Well it’s purple,” she said when asked about the artwork. “Because I like purple.”

“Someone else liked purple too,” her mum, Kelsey Fowler said.

Riley nodded. “Grandma,” she said.

Riley’s and her 11-year-old brother Thomas’s grandma passed away this February. “It was a Wednesday,” they said in unison. After being signed up for the programme by Kelsey, the two attended the three-day Central Wyoming Hospice Kids Grief Camp in the United States this week.

“The kids are all here because they’ve had to say a forever goodbye. They start guarding their hearts because it’s hard to say goodbye to a loved one, but it’s also hard to say hello to a new one,” Karol Santistevan, the co-founder of Reach 4A Star Riding Academy, said.

“It’s a pretty intensive camp that lets them experience a lot of different things. We have play, storytelling, art, we have a couple different units of horses, all to help them find what’s going to connect with them.”

Partnering with Central Wyoming Hospice and Transitions, the camp first opened in 2014, and has been in operation every summer since.

Over the course of three days, campers are engaged in different exercises meant to understand and improve the ways they process or deal with grief. Some of the activities include playing bonding games, learning to connect with horses and making a memory garden – like Riley’s purple project.

“Adults have a hard time putting words to what they’re experiencing, kids even more so because of different developmental stages of their life,” Todd Von Gunton, the grief care coordinator at the camp said.

On day one, the kids designed “brands” meant to represent aspects of their loved ones. On day three, the kids set out with paper blueprint in hand to transfer over the designs onto the horses with paint.

The groups were given a palette full of multicolored paint, safe for the horses, and a brush to work on their designs. Surprisingly, the horses remained very still while the kids worked, but every once in a while they would to shuffle to the left or the right.

“The canvas is on the move,” Santistevan laughed as one of the horses began to turn.

Most campers enjoy the sessions with the horses. Photo: Laura Adai/Unsplash Most campers enjoy the sessions with the horses. Photo: Laura Adai/UnsplashPaying it forward

The horses were always accompanied by two handlers in the arena, too. One of those was 18-year-old Madelyn Cuartas, who first attended the programme in 2020.

She came as a camper after losing her dad to a battle with brain cancer. At the time of her Dad’s passing, Cuartas was 16 and mixing in the loss of her Dad with her other teenage struggles, she said. Her Mom originally signed her up for the camp thinking it would help her process her grief and “be good for her.”

Turns out, it was, she said.

“When my dad passed, I didn’t know anyone who had lost a parent,” Cuartas said. “Being so young, not a lot of people understand what they’re feeling, not a lot of these kids know what they’re feeling and if it’s normal ... so I got to connect with some other teenagers who lost grandparents and parents and were dealing with the same thing I was. Just knowing that you’re not alone.”

This summer, her name tag has the title “Teen Mentor” in bold beneath her name. When she first attended the camp, Cuartas said she had only been around horses a few times. Now, she was the one instructing the kids on how to interact with the animals.

Since her first day at the camp in 2020, Cuartas has graduated from high school and will major in Environmental Land Management at the University of Wyoming in the fall. An adventure she said she’s really excited about.

Also occasionally holding the reins was Rick Dellise. Starting at the camp in 2018, Dellise moved to Wisconsin after two years with the programme. When he and his wife made the decision to visit Wyoming over their summer vacation, Dellise made a call to return as a volunteer too.

“I have to be honest, some of my best friends in Wyoming are the horses. Even after being gone for two years, most of the horses remember who I am,” Dellise said.

“I made a point when I came out here that I was gonna get involved and take the time to help people ... spending time with the horses and working with them was good for me.”

Back in Wisconsin, Dellise said that horses are often referred to as “pasture pets.” Here though, the horses work for a living. To them, the paint is just another day on the job.

“It’s amazing to see how the horses touch these kids,” Dellise said. “The horses will tolerate things with these kids that are hurting that they won’t tolerate from an adult.”

A metamorphosis

In fact, Riley said her favorite part of the whole camp was the horses. Specifically Ollie, the tallest of the horses, a white stallion. Riley said sitting on his back felt like being on top of the world.

“The horses felt how I felt,” she said. “It kind of made me happy that I got to ride them and it made me happy that they could understand my feelings. They kind of helped it a lot too, just feeling my feelings.”

The horses were also a large part of the closing ceremony too . On the final day, the three painted horses trotted around the arena while the kids’ families and friends sat on plastic lawn chairs to watch. The kids took turns using a mic to describe the meaning behind their artwork.

Some of the designs included birthday cake, a flying UFO and the superman symbol. Riley’s was a surplus of cleaning supplies and a painted hand print signature.

Not all of the kids felt comfortable sharing their brands themselves, so Santistevan offered to describe their designs instead.

“It’s a way to tell a story without having to talk ... but we also give them the opportunity to explain how they came up with their brand,” Santistevan said.

“Maybe they simply stand next to that brand and say, this is mine. And that’s all they’re able to say, but they’re still able to express in a way that they might not be able to express in a regular setting.”

The campers and their loved ones then moved outside to complete the final activity. Standing in a circle, each kid was given a butterfly to release.

Von Gunton, leading the exercise, informed the kids that when a caterpillar first makes its way into the cocoon, the cycle of metamorphosis can be difficult. During the process, the caterpillar turns itself into a gooey substance during the pupa stage.

“It then knits itself to better together piece by piece and makes itself into a butterfly,” he told the group. “It’s a hard thing to do, to go from a caterpillar to a butterfly ... it might hurt sometimes, but it’s what you will become. Your life will change forever and you might be able to come out as a butterfly.”

The kids were then instructed to release their butterflies from their hands. Riley leaned over hers and whispered a message to her grandma before letting go of the insect.

“I told her that I love her and miss her very much,” Riley said. “I asked her if she could send a message back.”

“So what are you going to do when you get upset about grandma?” Kelsey asked Riley after the final ceremony.

Looking at her Mom, Riley paused to think about her answer.

“I know that she can hear me when I talk,” Riley said after a while. “And that I can always talk back.” – Casper Star Tribune, Wyoming/Tribune News Service

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family , grief , loss , coping


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