At Camp Oz, Grieving Kids Learn About Loss, Love and Living

At Camp Oz, a common experience unites the campers — the death of someone close to them. For these kids, camp is a place of healing and a refuge. Like other camps, this one has games, crafts and singing. But there also are comfort circles (for small group sharing), memory boxes and an opportunity to write messages to loved ones who have died. That's because at Camp Oz, a common experience unites the campers — the death of someone close to them. For these kids, camp is a place of healing and a refuge.

"Grief is like a tornado. It comes and rips your life apart," says Jeanne Petroske-Atkinson, bereavement coordinator for the hospice program at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, Minnesota. And just as Dorothy kept trying to get back home in the Wizard of Oz, "kids who have lost a loved one want life to go back to the way it was before their loss," she says. At Camp Oz, counselors lead campers down a "path of hope" that will help them reach a new destination, a place of "healing and acceptance."

The day-long camp for school-aged children and teens "gently guides" campers "through the complex emotions of grief" using "activities, playing, sharing and being together with others who know the pain" of loss, according to the program brochure. And while there's time to grieve together, we're told "fun is a priority" at Camp Oz. Children "learn that it is okay to laugh and to play," and that "it is not a betrayal" of their loved one "to enjoy life again." The camp, which is free to campers, serves about 50 children a year. And feedback is overwhelmingly positive, according to Petroske-Atkinson. Parents report that their kids feel "respected" and "safe when they share" their stories and difficult emotions. And campers say they find comfort in knowing that they aren't alone.

Kellie Lange, a volunteer counselor, has been there herself, and she says that realization "basically changed my life." She first came to Camp Oz as a 15-year-old grieving the loss of her brother, Kyle, who died when he was just 2 years old. Before she went to camp, Lange says it "was hard for me to talk about Kyle and hard for me to figure out my feelings." But Camp Oz changed that, giving her "a new understanding of death" that has helped her "handle it better." That led her to become a volunteer. "It's so rewarding" to see the kids make friends and support each other, she tells us. "I would recommend volunteering at camp to anyone."

That's good news, because Camp Oz depends on those volunteers, many of whom return year after year. Petroske-Atkinson says Camp Oz welcomes new volunteers, too, and provides training. This year's camp will take place on Oct. 3 at Camp Patterson in Madison Lake, Minnesota. For information on volunteering or registering a camper, contact Petroske-Atkinson at 507-385-2989 or

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