Counselor Jen Sorrell believes adults can learn a lot about grief from children. She certainly has.
This week, 29 elementary school students — most of whom had lost one or both parents — attended Camp Braveheart.
The camp is a four-day bereavement program that helps children work through their feelings of loss in a safe, fun environment.
Today is the camp's last day, when students and their families have a closing ceremony and release balloons with messages to their lost loved ones. Of the 29 campers, 27 had lost a parent, Sorrell said.
It was their largest group ever.
Camp Braveheart meets in a refurbished barn on a sprawling property in Lula. Northeast Georgia Medical Center Hospice started the camp in 1995 and collaborates with school counselors to reach out to grieving children.
The camp runs almost solely on private donations from individuals and businesses, counselor Karla Owens said.
"We could not do this without our volunteers," Owens said. "This is really something exceptional about our hospice."
At Braveheart, campers shift between lighthearted playtime, therapeutic art sessions and group talks that can be emotionally challenging even for volunteers.
In the morning, the campers sat in a wide circle and gave a one-word description for their feelings — from "happy" to "angry" to just "nothing." Later they returned to the circle to talk about the family members they lost, recounting painful details and old memories with surprising candor.
Children process grief the same way adults do, but often in a much more direct fashion, Sorrell said.
"The stages are similar, but kids have a way of going there and talking about the big stuff."
Before long, students opened up to one another, exchanging hugs and tears.
Minutes later, they were off like a shot to the pavilion or the creek to play. The day is punctuated like that, Sorrell said, to keep the children from getting overwhelmed by their feelings.
"We go there, then we play, then we go there, then we play," she said. "We keep coming back to it."
Also, it's important for them to remember it's OK to have fun, even after a family member has died, Sorrell said.
"They're still kids, and death can sometimes make a person grow up too quickly," she said. "We want to bring them back to being kids, and just let them play."
On Wednesday, the campers slicked themselves down with sunscreen and played on an inflatable water slide and obstacle course. The day before, Wildlife Wonders Zoo to You from Cleveland brought a host of animals for the campers to look at and touch, including a baby kangaroo and a monkey-tailed skink.
In daily art therapy sessions, the campers created journals, which they decorated and filled with pictures and a list of "I Believe" statements.
Jerad Lowe, 11, wrote "I believe my mom is somewhere special," and "I believe I will find someone great like my mom."
Campers also made memory boxes to fill with things to remind them of their lost loved ones.
Sean Lowe, 11, made a seashell necklace in memory of his mom, who died three years ago.
"I lost my mom and my dad, and this camp is really helping me," he said.
Densi Murilo, 10, lost her father to cancer in March. Her brother Victor, 11, was also at the camp, and their older sister attended the middle school camp in June.
"He told us he loved us too, too much," Densi said of her father. The two share a birthday, she added.
At Braveheart, Densi said she reached out to another camper who misbehaved and didn't want to share his feelings. After their talk, the other student started to play and laugh, she said.
"If you feel bad about something, just talking to someone, you feel better," she said.
Sorrell said she hopes the children remember what they've learned this week, and the friends they've made as they work through their grief.
"They know they're not alone in what they're going through," she said.