Grieving kids connect in healing circles, make memory boxes at Camp Coho

SPONSORED: The one-day camp helps kids deal with losing a loved one to cancer.

Losing a loved one to cancer is devastating—for anyone. But, when a child loses a parent or other family member to the illness, the effects can be far-reaching and traumatic. Adjusting to life without a loved one is challenging, as well as cycling through levels of grief and emotion that even adults have difficulty processing—let alone a child.

Which is why the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, funded by support from the Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation, created Camp Coho, a one-day program that provides grief support to rural Alaska Native children dealing with the loss of a loved one. The camp is geared to children ages 6-12 and incorporates Alaska Native culture and values to honor their loved ones. It is a place where children can share their feelings among peers experiencing their same loss, as well as interacting with adults who have dealt with loss as well. Karen Morgan, the program coordinator for the ANTHC Cancer Program, modeled the camp after one in the Lower 48 and opened its doors in 2007.

"Our staff identified a need for grief support for our rural Alaska Native children and families, as the resources in many Native communities are not the same as those in more urban areas," said Morgan. "The goal in developing Camp Coho was to provide a safe and supportive environment for grieving children, helping them share and understand their feelings about the loved one who died."

Camp activities include healing circles, memory box building and working with a "big buddy," an adult who has lost a family member to cancer and can empathize with the campers' experience.

At the beginning of the camp, children are paired with their big buddy for the day. Darsha Squartsoff has been a big buddy at the camp for two years. She's originally from the village of Ouzinkie, near Kodiak, and decided to participate in Camp Coho as a big buddy after she lost her father and aunt to cancer.

"Camp Coho offers a variety of ways for youth to cope with grieving," she said. "Everyone grieves differently, and they provide options for that and make it a safe place for children to express themselves."

Tina Woods, program director for the ANTHC Wellness Program and a licensed clinical psychologist, has worked in the tribal health system for more than 15 years and helped create the healing circles activity at the camp.

"Many years ago, I worked with a program for at-risk youth who were encountering the juvenile justice system," Woods said. "That's when I first learned about healing circles as a therapeutic tool. I started training with a Tlingit group out of Carcross, Canada, and eventually facilitated using healing circles with Camp Coho."

The healing circles uses an object called the "talking piece." Whoever is holding the talking piece is the only one allowed to speak. The rest of the participants in the circle actively listen and help the speaker stay grounded, Woods explained. She uses a feather as the talking piece during Camp Coho's healing circles, which Woods said that Elders teach represents light, and as it journeys through the circle it captures negative energy. She's tailored the healing circle exercise to accommodate children who might not want to sit through long periods to work through their emotions.

"For adults, we would do three rounds with the talking piece—but you can't do that with kids," she said. "We do one round per sitting and then they get to work on their memory boxes or have snacks or play. The emotional drain is too much for children in one sitting."

During the day, the children are given memory boxes to decorate with photos or mementos of their family member that they've brought from home, which gives them something concrete to take home with them. "We encourage them to bring photos, decorations, anything they'd like to use," said Woods.

Woods said over the years they have gotten positive feedback on Camp Coho and some families choose to have their children attend camp more than once.

SPONSORED: ANTHC_CampCohoThumb2"Feelings can resurface for children as they get older and go through events that trigger memories of the person they lost, when they realize that person won't be there for life's milestones," Wood said. "It is good to see families recognizing grief as a lifelong journey."

Squartsoff said the benefit goes both ways. She had a tough time when her father went through cancer treatment and was raised to not express her feelings or cry. She's happy she give back in a way that allows children to know that it's okay to feel the emotions of grief and that tears can be healing.

"It is so important to allow yourself to fully grieve and be able to lean on others for support," said Squartsoff.  "I love Camp Coho because it provides that support system for youth going through such a difficult time."


This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.