Hospital's Healing Quilt program reaches families after child dies

Theme camp for grieving kids is key

A Minnesota hospital system has created a grief program that uses some of the best strategies of hospice bereavement support in helping families who are suffering after the death of their children.

The Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in Minneapolis provides extensive grief support over a two-year period to families who have lost a child, calling the service the Healing Quilt program.

Healing Quilt offers families Camp Connect, which is a weekend retreat for bereaved siblings, ages eight to 18 years.

"We collaborate with another organization in the Twin Cities, and most of the kids they work with are kids who have had a parent die," says Linda Lehmann, MA, LP, bereavement coordinator of Children's Hospitals and Clinics.

"We take the kids away for a weekend and give them a really great camp experience," Lehmann says. "It's a lot of fun, but it also gives them an opportunity to focus on their grief, and the camp is always around a certain theme."

Children attending the camp are divided into small, age-appropriate groups, and they are assisted by junior counselors, Lehmann says.

"The counselors are kids who have been to the camp before, and they come and help out and provide support to the kids who attend the camp that weekend," Lehmann explains.

In 2005, the camp's theme was super heroes, she notes.

"The focus of the weekend was to help them discover the super hero in themselves," Lehmann says. "They may see the person who died as a hero, but the focus was more in helping them to discover what was heroic about themselves and everything they'd been through."

The children made super hero capes and decorated them, and they gave themselves super hero powers that would help them as they go through their grief, Lehmann says.

"We took pictures of them standing behind these costumes they had drawn, and then we put the pictures on cards, so they created their own super hero trading cards," Lehmann adds. "It was just wonderful, and they had to fill out information about themselves on the back of the cards, including what were their special abilities and what advice they had for other kids who had a loved one who died."

At the camp's end, the kids traded their cards.

"So when parents came to pick up the kids, we had a Powerpoint presentation of all of the kids, and we played Mariah Carey's song 'Hero,'" Lehmann says.

The weekend's highlight was on Saturday evening when the camp held a cook-out and the kids were asked to write a message to the person who died, and then they put the messages into the fire and let the smoke take it up, she adds.

The camp theme this year was based on the book, titled Lost and Found, about a girl who went through a journey of feeling very lost when her sibling died, Lehmann says.

Youths attending the camp made fleece blankets, because in the book the heroine took a blanket that was her sibling's blanket and wrapped it around herself to make her feel closer, Lehmann says.

At the corner of the blanket, they wrote messages to the person who died, but the messages were tied into the blanket for privacy, Lehmann says.

In keeping with the "lost and found" theme, the children wore binoculars and carried compasses and flashlights. They also had cards for journaling, and in small groups they met to discuss the book, she adds.

"It's a wonderfully creative program, and strong friendships are formed, and kids leave there changed," Lehmann says.

The program has three strong themes that are recycled every few years, often tweaked a little, she adds.

Another tradition is to have the children sit around after the campfire on Saturday night to have their hair styled and clipped and their faces painted by professional stylists, who donate their time and supplies, Lehmann says.

Teenagers attending the camp also can do a high ropes course, which challenges them to take a risk, and they have opportunities to play basketball, other games, and hang out, she adds.

"Part of the curriculum is they'll do a trust walk," Lehmann says. "They wear blindfolds and go through the woods, trusting the person beside them to direct them."

Whenever there are emotional events scheduled, these are followed by activities, so the stress is relieved as the children move into their deeper feelings, Lehmann notes.

"We have crafts or they do something active, because they can't just stay in those feelings all weekend long," she explains. "They do go home exhausted, but it's a good kind of exhaustion."

One of the popular activities is a polar bear plunge on Saturday mornings, in which the children jump into a river still cold in May, Lehmann says.

"It's a rite of passage for kids who come to the camp, and a lot of them do it," she says.

Another grief activity offered by the hospital is a fall retreat for an entire family, Lehmann says.

Families meet at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, spending a day in the lovely gardens, she says.

"It's based on a theme, and in the morning we spend time where we work with the parents separately from the kids, and then they come back together and have lunch," Lehmann says. "In the afternoon, we have an activity they can do as a family."

The retreat is creative and different because of the unique environment, she notes.

For example, the arboretum had a variety of tree houses on the grounds for several years, and the families would go into each of the tree houses and be confronted in each with a different question about their grief, Lehmann says.

"It's a wonderful getaway for the family for a day, but it's also intentional," she says. "Our program helps families be very intentional about their grief, helping them make an appointment with their grief."

Through creativity and fun activities, the staff helps families look at their grief in a different way and to keep a connection with their deceased child, Lehmann adds.

"All of the services are offered at no charge because the hospital is really committed to bereavement support," she says.

"We called it 'Healing Quilt' because the people who had the vision for the bereavement program wanted to offer families an array of services, and that's where the image of a quilt came into it," Lehmann says. "It has many pieces, and yet it's cohesive — one piece."

The program's brochure features this quote: "When a child dies, one by one we pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and sew them back together into a tapestry of sorrow and tears. But when we add remembrance, love, and hope, we come to realize that we have created a quilt, a healing quilt."

Need More Information?

  • Linda Lehmann, MA, LP, Bereavement Coordinator, Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, 2525 Chicago Ave. South, MS#B500, Minneapolis, MN 55404. Telephone: (612) 813-6622.