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Grieving Long Island kids, adults find support at local camps

Kennedy Young, now 10, of North Bellmore, pictured

Kennedy Young, now 10, of North Bellmore, pictured at a birthday celebration with her late grandfather, Gilberto Atkinson, will be attending a camp in November to help her deal with the grief over losing him to COVID-19. Credit: Gillian Atkinson

In addition to gathering around the campfire making s’mores, playing basketball and creating art projects, children at Long Island’s new Camp Good Mourning will be able to talk about the grief of losing a family member.

The weekend overnight camp, scheduled for Nov. 5 to 7 at Camp Pa Qua Tuck in Center Moriches, is free for children 7 to 17 who are mourning a parent, a sibling, or, in some cases, an extended family member who lived with them, says executive director Paul Rubin.

Mental health professionals will lead four age-appropriate, small group sessions. On Friday afternoon, campers will have "the opportunity to share their grief stories from beginning to end if they want to," Rubin says. A Saturday morning session will lead them to explore feelings and an afternoon session will help identify positive as well as unhealthy coping skills. Sunday’s session will explore how to stay connected to departed loved ones as well as friends made at camp. "Those are the ones who understand what they’re going through," Rubin says. "It’s really important that they know they aren’t the only ones."

FIRST IN-PERSON CAMP

Camp Good Mourning launched in 2018, with a target of camp beginning in 2020. The grassroots, not-for-profit effort is funded by donations, sponsors and grants, Rubin says. The pandemic forced activities to begin virtually; November’s event is the first in-person offering. Some of the children served so far have lost parents due to COVID-19, Rubin says.

Kennedy Young, 10, of North Bellmore, lost her grandfather, Gilberto Atkinson, 83, to the coronavirus in November 2020; he had lived with the family in a multigenerational household. Kennedy attended virtual camps and is signed up for the November weekend, says her mother, Gillian Atkinson, 50, director of intercultural engagement and inclusion at Hofstra University.

"She wasn’t coping well. None of her friends really could conceptualize having lost someone she lived with at 9 years old," Atkinson says. After attending the virtual Camp Good Mourning, "There was a shift in her mindset. I think what she got out of it was a sense of community. To have Camp Good Mourning kind of swoop in and show her that’s she’s not alone, that it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel the loss, it’s OK not to be okay, gave her a sense of empowerment she didn’t have before."

The experience taught Kennedy ways to grieve, such as drawing pictures or writing a card to her grandfather or even pounding on an exercise ball when she felt angry. "They gave her tools to cope with the death of her grandfather that I didn’t know how to give her," Atkinson says.

Says Kennedy of sharing her feelings with other campers about losing her Papi: "We mostly talked about memories about him. It helped me feel a little bit better because everyone is going to lose someone they always loved." She says she’s looking forward to the November weekend.

HOPES TO EXPAND

Camp Good Mourning plans to continue to offer two weekend camps per year, one in the fall and one in the spring. The organizers purposely are avoiding summer so as not to duplicate other grief services, such as day camps, already offered to families. "Kids don’t just grieve in July and August," Rubin says.

Andrew Ward of Long Beach, then 11, for instance, lost his father in February 2020. The weekend after the funeral for Daniel Ward, 58, a police officer who died unexpectedly, Heather Ward, 46, a professional bread baker, began looking for a bereavement group for her son and found Camp Good Mourning.

Andrew initially was reluctant to participate in a virtual camp. "I thought it would be a little bit boring. I wanted to go outside and play with my friends," he says. But it worked out well. "It was good. It helped me recognize how I was feeling. it just made the whole thing much better."

After Andrew participated, Heather sent the camp this message: "You’re helping heal my boy's broken heart. Thank you." She adds: "I couldn’t be more proud of him."

Camp Good Mourning hopes to expand to also offer a parent camp simultaneously, Rubin says.

The deadline to sign up for the November camp is Sept. 5 at Campgoodmourning.org; 631-772-9115.

ALTERNATIVE THERAPY FOR ADULTS

A new series of retreats to help Long Islanders cope with grief through interaction with horses will begin this October.

The equine therapy retreats begin with an Oct. 8 weekend geared toward women grieving a divorce and will continue with weekends in November and December for grieving a spouse and grieving during the holidays respectively, says Marisa Striano, owner of Marisa’s at Blossom Hollow Ranch in Riverhead. The key is the group setting, she says. “Groups work so much better than one-on-one. People say, ‘Me too! I feel the same way you do!’” Striano says.

Retreats will begin on Friday evenings and continue to Sunday, with participants securing their own housing in the area and paying a $1,100 registration fee that includes Saturday lunch and light dinner and Sunday lunch.

Friday evening will entail sitting around a bonfire with background guitar music as an icebreaker.

“Saturday morning we go right to the horses,” Striano says. Each participant will have a turn interacting (not riding) in the round pen with a horse, to find comfort from the animals, Striano says. “I had one man with a horse, he could not get the horse to move. He started crying. He said, ‘I’m stuck in my grief just like this horse,’” Striano says. Others will watch and write in their journals about what they are seeing and feeling and process it afterward with the help of a social worker, she says.

“The horses are so intuitive. They read people,” says social worker Jean Langan Behrens, who will be working at the retreat and who also works with East End Hospice, which has done equine therapy with Striano as part of its programming in the past.

A half day on Sunday will include a team-building exercise.

To sign up for the retreats, visit marisastriano.com.

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