May 28, 2011 -- As the nation remembers those who died while serving their country this Memorial Day, nearly 500 children who lost loved ones in war are gathering outside Washington to attend Good Grief Camp, a weekend of workshops and events aiming to help children grapple with their loss.
Lauren Stubenhofer, an 11-year-old from Bristow, Va., has attended the camp for four years along with her younger brother Justin, 9, and sister Hope, 6. Their father, Army Capt. Mark Stubenhofer, died in December 2004 in a firefight while serving in Baghdad, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"I sometimes get sad because all of my friends, they have their dads with them," Lauren said. "I am just real sort of proud of him because he gave up his life to save us and keep us free."
For Lauren and the 475 other children attending the camp, the weekend provides them with an opportunity to channel their feelings and learn how to deal with the difficult emotions accompanying the loss of a loved one.
"We talk about what our loved ones did when they were alive and how they served in the military," Lauren said. "We talk about stories that we have about our loved ones and we share the memories that we have had and we learn to cope with not having them here anymore."
Since 2001, 6,029 servicemen and women have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving behind families and friends struggling to cope with their losses.
Organized by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, the Good Grief Camp offers children workshops teaching them skills to cope with their loss, pairs them with a mentor, and links them with other children trying to handle the loss of a loved one from their time in military service.
"It's nice that you know you're not the only one who has to deal with it and you have other people surrounding you to help you," Cheyenne Pearson, a 13-year-old attending the camp, said.
Cheyenne, whose father, Army Capt. Andrew Pearson, died in April 2008 while serving in Iraq, has attended the camp for the past three years along with her three siblings. In her first year, Cheyenne was paired with a mentor named Jacob, who serves in the Air Force and now considers Cheyenne as his second family.
"She's like my little sister that I've never had," Jacob said. "It means a lot and especially having family members who have served before and seen their funerals and being honor guard, it gives you a completely different perspective on what the family goes through."
"He's always been there for me so I know he'd be there for me throughout life," Cheyenne said.
Ranging from the age of 4 through their high school years, the children roam throughout the camp with a mentor almost always by their side.
The children participate in age-appropriate activities, from using playdough to describe the way they are feeling to creating art projects signifying their feelings about losing their loved ones to war.
"It might look like a simple poster drawn by a child, but it becomes a tool for us to help children understand their feelings and talk about them, talk about the loss, and also get some of that out," Ami Neiberger-Miller, a public affairs officer with TAPS, said.
"Children are a lot like adults in that everyone in the family is grieving and yet sometimes they feel like they have to bottle up some of those feelings inside, and so some of the activities we do here at camp help them get some of those things out," she said.
For the first time, TAPS had to create a waiting list for families trying to enroll their children in the national camp. TAPS also sponsors 20 regional camps across the country at various points in the year.
Along with the 500 children attending the camp, 800 adult survivors met at the National Military Survivor Seminar to participate in workshops about surviving grief along with helping their children and loved ones cope with their losses.
And throughout the weekend, the families remember to cherish the gift their loved ones gave through their service to the country. When asked to describe her father's life in heaven, Lauren said she thinks he's enjoying one of his favorite pastimes.
"Yesterday we drew what we think our loved one's doing up in heaven," Lauren said. "I drew my dad watching football, eating potato chips."