If your Kleenexes are collecting dust, or your heartstrings are–and you happen to have HBO–their latest documentary will take you where you need to go. It’s only 30-minutes long, but One Last Hug has the abreactive torque of an emotional 18-wheeler. It details the stories of a handful of children, and three days of their stay at Grief Camp. Camp Erin is a nationwide network of camps for children who have lost family members. It was founded by former major league baseball player Jamie Moyer, after meeting Erin through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Diagnosed with liver cancer at age 15, Erin became acquainted with the intense loneliness that often accompanies young sufferers facing death. After her death in 2000, Jamie Moyer and his wife Karen decided to build a camp in her honor that would normalize suffering in the lives of suffering children. This past year, Camp Erin held 41 camp sessions and had over 2600 campers–all children who have faced or are facing the death of a loved one.

How, though? Camp Erin’s philosophy is rooted in communication and emotional awareness. Kids are asked to approach their anger or confusion, to remember the faces of their lost loved ones, to give the goodbye they weren’t always able to give. Doing this in a group setting not only normalizes the children’s suffering–it also develops in them a heart of empathy and understanding for kids who have, on the whole, found themselves utterly isolated by their trauma. Their website says this:

How does a grieving child benefit from an experience like Camp Erin?

  • Being a grieving child is a lonely experience. Often he or she is the only one in class who has lost a mom or dad, a brother or sister. At a time in a child’s life when it feels very important to fit in, grief can make him or her feel different, isolated. Camp Erin allows a grieving child to be with other children who share these feelings. It is such a relief for them to know that they are not alone.
  • Grieving children learn that their feelings are perfectly normal. The feelings that accompany grief can be intense and overwhelming. Sometimes people even worry that they are “going crazy” with grief. Camp Erin shows children that what they are experiencing, although painful, is perfectly normal.
  • Grieving children have an opportunity to address their feelings and memorialize their loved ones. Children often do not have an avenue to express their grief or to honor and remember the person they held dear. Through a variety of activities including drama, arts and crafts, creative writing and physical activities, children have the opportunity to “get their feelings out” while memorializing their loved one.

Watching it on film, two feelings stood out. First, the dissonance it lends between the idealization of the child and the real-world suffering of a child. Often, the notion that a child is purer, or more uninhibited, or less jaded than the average adult–while true on the surface–discolors the more common darkness that has entered life already. Some of the statistics mentioned are striking as to how many small children have lost family members. And yet, watching very small children speak so frankly about suicide, or cancer, seems almost unconstitutional. For me, at least, it invited the question: is it unconstitutional that a child should be processing these realities at so young an age, or is it unconstitutional that I have spent so much energy–in my more jaded years–trying to dislocate myself from these realities?

And the other, of course, is the beautiful depiction it lends to the theology of the cross–particularly as it took shape in Christ’s ministry to “the least of these.” While not explicitly religious, Camp Erin is a haven for sufferers, a place to belong in light of what love stands beyond the circumstances. Camp Erin is a place where crying is normalized, where strength is weakness and weakness is strength. It reanimates the paradoxical nature of death and resurrection–that, in facing the darkness, we are brought through to new life.

To find about more about Camp Erin and The Moyer Foundation, click here.