Camp brings magic to kids grieving loss of a loved one

Photo courtesy of the Berry family

Amy Berry loves sharing stories of her older brother, Gus.

Like the times they made super-tall Lego towers. Or how he loved dinosaurs. His favorite was the T-Rex. Gus and Amy got along pretty well for siblings. He called his little sister "Amers" -- and "he was really caring," she said.

Amy lost her brother in 2010. Born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect, Gus had a series of surgeries from the beginning of his life. At the age of nine-and-a-half, a virus attacked his heart and he went into heart failure. Amy, now 10, and her mom and dad, Janet and Tim, had a lot of grief to work through after losing their son and brother.

Tim Berry, who was doing electrical contracting work at SSM Cardinal Glennon Medical Center, got to know Sister Judy Carron, a Sister of Mercy and a coordinator with the medical center's Footprints program. She told him about a summer camp for kids being put on by SSM Hospice and Home Care Foundation and suggested it might be something good for Amy to attend.

Camp MAGIC (Mending a Heart, Grief In Children) is a one-day retreat for children ages 6-12 who have experienced the death of a loved one. Through activities and the help of volunteer adult partners providing companionship, campers take part in activities, such as making memory boxes, reading books, a butterfly release and other crafts, designed to help identify and express their grief.

Katie Taggart, a bereavement coordinator with SSM Hospice, started the camp two years ago, after coming into contact with many children of adult family members who were part of the hospice program, which serves about 1,000 patients and families each year in St. Louis and the surrounding area.

The licensed clinical social worker said support was being given to families, but there wasn't anything formally being offered to the children. Taggart started bringing activities with her on her visits, but she knew something more was needed. "I felt with more training on my part, this (camp) was something we could implement." Camp MAGIC initially was for children of hospice patients, but eventually, it was opened to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one, said Taggart.

"My hope is they come and number one, have fun, but number two, realize that they are not alone," she said. "It's easy to feel isolated as a young person. That's not something kids talk about on the playground or at school. What camp does is give them that peer support -- that's the fabulous thing about it. They make those connections by having something in common."

Amy Berry, who was paired with Sister Judy during camp, excitedly scrolled through pictures of camp from her Mom's cell phone. One of them was from a butterfly release at the end of the day. Having a butterfly land on her finger was a new experience. "It tickled," she said.

Janet Berry said the camp was a help to the family by having others around who have been through a similar experience of losing a loved one. "It's good to have other people around, to make sure we're all heading on the right path," she said.

The Berrys also credited the overwhelming support they received from their parish, Most Sacred Heart in Eureka. The catechists who were Gus' teachers in PSR wrote notes that went into the bulletin. The family also had the visitation and funeral Mass at the church, celebrated by former pastor Father Alex Anderson. The priest baptized Gus and gave him his first Communion and was with the family during his illness.

Of Camp MAGIC, Amy Berry said she'd do it all over again. "I wanted it to be every single day -- except the weekend."

Why? "So we could spend time with our families," she explained with a sweet smile.
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