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Grandfamilies 4: At camp, a place for kids to heal 

  • Individual services director Bree Cosgrove, 26, of Danville sits outside the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua on June 15, 2017. Cosgrove is a family liaison at Camp Mariposa, a weekend camp for children with parents who are either struggling with an active addiction or have fatally overdosed. The camp is run by the Boys & Girls Club and The Moyer Foundation. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Individual services director Bree Cosgrove, 26, of Danville sits outside the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua on June 15, 2017. Cosgrove is a family liaison at Camp Mariposa, a weekend camp for children with parents who are either struggling with an active addiction, or have fatally overdosed. The camp is run by the Boys & Girls Club and The Moyer Foundation. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bree Cosgrove wants children to know that their parents’ addiction isn’t their fault.

Cosgrove organizes Camp Mariposa, where kids can go swimming and hiking like other overnight camps. But here, in the shadow of Mount Monadnock in Southern New Hampshire, children ages 9 to 12 have the chance to discuss bigger issues in their lives that bind them together in a way few others would understand.

All campers have parents who are either struggling with an active addiction, or have fatally overdosed.

“There’s the learning portion, then there’s a clinician portion where they learn tools and have activities based on what they’re going through,” said Cosgrove, who organizes the camp on behalf of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua. “And more than anything, it’s a place for them to get away and just be a kid, and have that fun time.”

Rising numbers

With New Hampshire in the throes of an drug epidemic that killed nearly 500 people last year, more programs are emerging to help children who are struggling to cope with the loss of a parent.

Camp Mariposa is one of 12 similar camps around the country, targeted to the children of those who are struggling with or have succumbed to addiction.

“We have help for the person that’s addicted, but there’s no help for the family and the kids who are also affected by it,” Cosgrove said.

Demand for the camp has risen sharply since its first year in 2014, when Cosgrove and other organizers were scrambling to get enough attendees. Now, they have families regularly asking how they can get their kids enrolled and are working with other local agencies and police departments to find more who could benefit.

And it’s not just Camp Mariposa that’s seeing increased demand from children who have lost a parent to addiction.

At the Good Grief childhood bereavement program run by Home Health and Hospice Care in Merrimack, program coordinators have seen their enrollment grow as more children have lost a parent to addiction.

In 2012, the program saw one child who fell into the category. Just three years later, 50 percent of the children in Good Grief had lost a parent to addiction.

Of that group, 90 percent are children age 10 and under.

Eleanor Owen, Good Grief coordinator, runs two separate groups based on age; there’s one for kids ranging in age from 4 to 13, and another for high school students.

“Last year was the most significant spike in numbers,” Owen said. “I’m getting a lot more calls from grandparents who are now caretakers of these children and who have lost a child themselves.”

The stigma of addiction

Processing any death is difficult for a child, but addiction deaths are especially challenging because of the stigma attached to them.

Owen said it’s similar to the stigma surrounding suicide. In the cases where she encounters family members who still haven’t told their children or grandchildren the truth, she encourages them to be honest.

“Overdose, like a suicide death – it offers another level of complication to the grief experience,” Owen said.

At Camp Mariposa, Cosgrove has also encountered children whose parents are in jail for dealing drugs. Now that deadly fentanyl is in the mix in New Hampshire, she has seen young children whose parents are facing steep sentences for dealing drugs that resulted in a death.

It’s not unusual for campers to show up without realizing that a family member’s addiction is the real reason they are there.

“Some of the kids, their parents didn’t tell them why they were there,” Cosgrove said. “A lot of them know, but for the few kids that didn’t know, they were surprised. Like, ‘What are you talking about?’ It was really tough.”

The grief comes out

Children can experience loss in different ways than adults do. Rather than grieving all the time, Owen said, children often get bursts of emotion that can manifest in different ways.

“It sort of bubbles up,” she said.

They may refuse to eat, be unable to sleep or suddenly act out. A young child who has been toilet-trained may need to go back to being in diapers; teenagers may need to sleep next to their surviving parent or family member.  

One of the biggest anxieties Owen and others see in children is the fear that the surviving parent, grandparent or other family member will suddenly leave them.

Owen said this is especially difficult for teenagers, who are at the developmental stage where they are supposed to start separating from their parents.

Another common experience is children blaming themselves for the death of a parent.

“They think it’s their fault,” Cosgrove said, adding that one of the children she works with at the camp “blamed his guardian that if he was never taken away, he could have saved his mom, but since he wasn’t home, he couldn’t save his mom.”

The process

Owen said the point of bereavement programs is to help children process a relative’s death without having to relive the details.  

“It’s important for a child to understand,” Owen said. “Understanding is one of the most important aspects of grief.”  

To help children cope with the loss, Owen and volunteers at Good Grief help them with projects like drawing the outlines of their bodies and pointing to where they are holding their grief, or constructing memory boxes.

“They’re beautiful because the idea is that the memory does not die,” Owen said.

Feelings and memory boxes are made at Camp Mariposa, but one of the most significant activities is letter writing, where children pen letters to their parents’ addiction.

“That’s always an extremely emotional activity to do,” Cosgrove said. “If they don’t want to do it, that’s fine. If they want to draw a frown face, that’s fine too.”

Recently, campers started sharing their letters with one another, which Cosgrove called “mind-blowing.” Even though they come from diverse background, a lot of the children realized they have shared similar experiences.

“It makes you feel more like a family,” Cosgrove said.

After the kids write and share their letters, Camp Mariposa staffers build a big bonfire, and everyone tosses their letter into it.

They watch the letters flame up and turn into ash.

When the process is over, Camp Mariposa turns back into a regular camp; counselors pass out sticks and marshmallows, which the kids roast for s’mores.