Photo credit: Courtesy HBO
The Story of a Bereavement Program that Helps Children
after the Death of a Loved One Debuts Monday, April 14
One in seven American children experiences the death of a loved one before age 20, and few adults know how to help deal with the grief that follows. "One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp" highlights the work of professional counselors and volunteers at Camp Erin, a three-day program that encourages grieving children ranging in age from six to 17 to share their feelings and memories of lost loved ones with their peers. The camp, founded by baseball star Jamie Moyer and his wife Karen in memory of Erin Metcalf, a fan who died of cancer at 17, takes place in 43 locations nationwide.
Showing the indelible effect that sharing, friendship and emotional support can have on children dealing with extraordinary loss, the moving documentary "One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp" debuts MONDAY, APRIL 14 (8:00-8:40 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.
Other HBO playdates: April 17 (8:30 a.m.), 19 (4:00 p.m.), 23 (2:45 p.m.), 27 (8:45 a.m.) & 29 (5:40 a.m.)
HBO2 playdate: April 16 (8:00 p.m.)
When children arrive at Camp Erin Los Angeles, which is managed by OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, grief specialists and volunteers greet them with open arms. “We’re so proud of you campers,” says Lauren Schneider, clinical director of OUR HOUSE and director of Camp Erin Los Angeles, at an opening ceremony with campers. “It takes a lot of courage to come to grief camp.” One by one, the campers introduce themselves and share the names of their special person who died, pinning photos of them to the camp’s memory board. Although there are tears, the campers support each other with applause. By the end, the wall is filled with pictures of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, a testament to the magnitude of their loss.
Besides the sadness that children feel when a loved one dies, there is also a sense of loneliness. “For how many of you guys is this the first time you’ve sat in a group of people your age and told someone?” asks counselor Chrissy, after a group of seven- and eight-year-old girls share their stories. Every girl raises her hand.
At Camp Erin, although the campgrounds, cabins and activities resemble any other camp, every aspect of the experience is geared towards sharing, support and healing. One group ventures out on a grief hike, in search of colorfully painted rocks, each bearing a different “feelings” word. “Angry. We can pretty much all describe that,” says camper Samantha when the first stone is found.
While other girls readily discuss the anger they feel over their loss, one camper, Audrey, has a hard time engaging. Her mother Catherine reveals that Audrey’s father committed suicide. “I’m sure they feel isolated…I know other children say, ‘My dad died of cancer,’ whereas my children just leave out the how,” she says.
Another counselor encourages a group of older children to think of a happy memory with the person who died. Erin, who attends the camp with her brothers, recalls her terminally ill father making it to her soccer game, which her team won. Looking back on the exercise, she says, “Remembering the happy thoughts that I shared felt good. Very good.”
Camper Nicole’s mother was the victim of a homicide. At home, her father hopes for the best, but has concerns for the future. “I’m trying to be mom and dad for her, but she needs somebody to teach her things that I cannot teach,” he says.
On day two, during a healing circle, Audrey finally opens up to camp director Lauren and other children. “I guess I was angry, because I had no idea that it was going to happen,” she says, as a friend gives her a hug of support.
On the last night of camp, director Lauren welcomes everyone to the Luminary Ceremony, which takes place by the pool, asking, “How many of you got to say goodbye to your person before they died? Put your hands up.” Only a few raise hands. Each child holds a lantern decorated with drawings and messages for the loved one who died, which illuminates the dark night as it floats over the water in a final farewell.
On the last day, parents and other family members arrive for the closing ceremony. In a Camp Erin Los Angeles tradition, campers join hands in a big circle and pass “the squeeze of friendship and support.” When the campers and counselors perform songs and chants for their enthusiastic audience, the feeling of camaraderie and the new friendships are apparent. All the children wear matching orange camp T-shirts signed and embellished by their friends. As they head back home, they are connected by more than an experience of sadness. They share memories of Camp Erin, the feeling of being supported and the hope for a brighter tomorrow.