By TIM BULLARD
If crying children don’t affect a person, you’ve got a heart of stone.
“You do cry, but that’s OK because crying models behavior, so if they see us crying, they’ll know it’s OK to cry and comfort each other when they cry.”
Cookie McMillan is describing Camp Ubu, an innovative, emotion-packed project which has risen to become a highly successful outlet for children suffering from grief.
McMillan, who serves as the camp director, works for Mercy Hospice of Horry County.
The project is for youth ages 4 through 17 who have experienced the death of a loved one. It normalizes the experience by putting them together in a group and gives them age-appropriate activities so they can understand their feelings that relate to grief and deal with them.
“Little kids, you have to give them a name for feelings and show them in a good way how to let those feelings out. It’s the same with other kids. They know what they feel, but they don’t know what to do with those feelings,” said McMillan.
Physical activities at the camp promote trust-building identities because death has a way of destroying trust, especially in adolescents.
Two Horry County sisters who attended the camp had lost their mother in an accident just seven months prior. Jessica Taylor, who will be in high school in the fall, said the camp is helpful. “We talk about our feelings, about how we feel about whoever passed away.”
The 14-year-old was also the first to volunteer for a 40-foot catwalk venture. “We had a harness on. I wasn’t too scared,” she said.
“For some kids, this is the only place they have to talk about what is going on and what has happened. They don’t want to talk about it at home because they don’t want to get mom upset or crying; the name of the person who died is just not mentioned. This is the place where they can do that, and I am glad that Mercy Hospice is able to offer this type of event for children,” said McMillan, who admitted that sometime she herself cries.
One of the main activities at the camp is the compilation and display of memory boxes. According to McMillan, memory builds the trust that death destroys. “Everybody feels like they will forget the person, and we help them build the memories so they know they will not forget this person. They bring items from home, and these are linking objects that connect them to that person. A lot of times you never know how it’s going to be.”
At the closing of the camp, children write messages that they want to send to the person who died, and camp workers put them in helium-filled balloons.
“Then at the end of day at the closing of camp, we let the balloons go. Kids want to know when they’re going to get a message back,” McMillan said with a grin.
Once the camp concludes, contact is kept up with the youth at least six months after this camp. Workers even send the children Christmas gifts.
Wilma Lucas, a member of St. James Catholic Church in Conway, loves assisting at the camp. A retired school teacher, her experience comes in handy.
“I got involved with Mercy Hospice because of the way they work with patients. Last year I decided to do the camp for grieving children. One of the women at the church had done it, and she spoke highly of it. It’s quite an experience,” Lucas said.
A small box is held by her buddy, a young girl, which has photographs of her late mother inside.
“We hook up, and I stay with her all day,” said Lucas. “We do craft things and processing of feelings and how they feel about the person who died. We try to get them to cope with anger, which is part of grief. We try to get them to name who they are angry at. Yesterday we threw eggs. We threw eggs against the wall to express our feelings. Today we are doing grief services.”
One counselor’s husband had died two years ago, and her children attended the camp to help deal with the emotional aftermath.
“That’s why I’m involved in it,” said Linda Stapleton of Garden City. “It really helped my children with the pain in the loss of their dad. They are able to identify their feelings better because of this camp. I think it helps them see how death affects a lot of other children too. I think they feel isolated in their cases. When they can all come together and know that other kids are hurting, it brings a normalcy to death. They can work through it with other kids.”.