Journey of Healing and Connection: Reflections from our Children’s Grief Retreat at the Red River Valley Zoo

by: Heather Larson, Grief Specialist Supervisor

On June 13th, our grief support team had the privilege of spending part of the day with some amazing kiddos at our first-ever Children’s Grief Retreat held at the Red River Valley Zoo in Fargo. Although providing grief support to children is not new for our team, the location and format of the retreat were new this year.

We had a wide range of children, ages six to seventeen, attend the Children’s Grief Retreat. Despite the age range, these kids took an interest in getting to know each other and listening to each other’s individual stories and grief experiences. We began the morning with some fun get-to-know-you activities and gave the children an opportunity to share about their special person or people who had died. It wasn’t long into this sharing that a common theme emerged. Many of the children not only shared about the death of their special person but also about losing their furry best friends – their family pets. It hit home, just how significant the loss of a pet is for children and their families! It also reminded us how important our pet loss resources are at Hospice of the Red River Valley, for adults and children alike. 

Once we had the chance to get to know one another a bit better, we moved on to some educational items. We provided education on what grief is and conducted a cool science experiment that gives children a visual of what grief can look like as well as what happens to our grief when we practice good self-care and healthy ways of coping. Another highlight of the retreat was breaking into smaller groups and playing the board game ‘Dog Gone Grief’. This allows the children to explore their feelings and perceptions of their loss and grief while also hearing the perspectives of others going through a loss.

After our morning snack and free play break, we offered stations with various art projects. These projects provided opportunities for the children to share special memories and talk about their loved ones as well as express their grief in a very tangible way. Each station held one of the following options to make and take home – a comfort tie pillow, a memory box and/or a memory bracelet. 

Although there were some sad and heavy moments, the day was also filled with a lot of joy and laughter. We were mindful about having a balance of time for the kids to share and opportunities to learn and grow as well as time to relax and play outdoors. The natural outdoor play area and fun critters added a positive and uplifting feel to the day, a benefit of having the retreat at the zoo.

After we shared some pizza and conversation, the zoo staff brought a few interesting critters around to meet the children. The kids and staff alike left the retreat with memories and some big smiles. For the kids, it was their special project they made – whether a memory box, bracelet or a comfort pillow. For our hospice team, it was the beautiful imprint these kids left on our hearts. There is a lot we can learn from grieving children! When they grieve, they may grieve deeply at times. Yet they can oscillate between feelings of sadness and longing and happily play in a few minutes. They allow their emotions to pass through them easier than most of us adults tend to. One of the biggest honors of doing this work is seeing a shift in a child who goes from being nervous to be at an event to being much more comfortable and open by the end. It is wonderful witnessing the friendships that have formed during these events. We see their uncertainty replaced by big smiles and a sense of pride as they share their special projects with their families. There is such an incredible transformation that occurs during these children’s events and it’s truly an honor to be a part of that. As we wrapped up our day, one kiddo shared she learned “It feels better when I talk about nana and other kids have lost their nana’s too”. Another attendee who we quickly learned liked to joke and tease, said with the biggest smile on his face, “I had fun!” I’d call that a successful day.



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