Sporting her therapy dog vest, colorful bandanna and a beaming smile Erin leapt from the backseat upon arrival at our destination, a retreat center located on the banks of the Savannah River. We've traveled to participate in a weekend grief camp for children from the ages of 6-17, the invitation to provide comfort to youngsters dealing with the death of a parent or sibling was eagerly accepted. Personally there was nothing more rewarding than watching the face of a youngster light up upon seeing Erin so there was no hesitation when asked if we'd be interested in spending some time with a group of children in various stages of grief. Arriving ahead of schedule she was allowed to explore the surroundings outside the wooded complex, underneath a canopy of majestic trees she ran from one trunk to another peering upward for signs of squirrels to harass but spotting nothing of interest, we made our way towards the complex.
Laughter mixed with jovial shrieks could be heard coming from behind a series of buildings so we headed in that direction, children divided into groups based upon their ages were under the supervision of camp counselors. After a round of introductions with the staff and what was expected of us, Erin and I wandered into the middle of a swarm of children whom were involved in every outdoor activity imaginable including swimming, basketball, kickball, and other hijinks’ that kids do when gathered together. Many kids rushed over to greet the dog crashing the party while others were having too much fun to even notice us but that was quite alright as this was their weekend to unwind and heal as desired. As we made our way around the edge of the pool to meet those stretching outward to pet Erin, an impromptu game of splash the dog took place; a handful of boys decided to splash water into her face which quickly drew the wrath of counselors who saw the entire scene unfold. It was certainly uncalled for but that goes with the territory and it was quickly forgotten by all involved.
Continuing to stroll about, stopping to engage in conversation as needed. Erin received much attention in the form of hugs, strokes, and compliments and her rapid tail wag told everyone that it was okay with her. However not every child was outgoing and gregarious as some were sitting alone mired in their own thoughts; I made sure we visited as many of these youngsters as possible in the allotted time. Sometimes it was obvious when a youngster was walled off from the world but if they showed the least bit of interest in Erin then usually I could get them to open up and forget about their troubles for a few minutes which was my ultimate goal. Not trained in grief counseling the details of death were avoided at all costs thus I concentrated on bringing a ray of happiness into their life; to witness a smile while bonding with Erin made everything worthwhile as whatever tragedy had befallen them was a distant memory for the time being. Children were fascinated by the vest adorned with various patches proclaiming "I'm friendly pet me" or "Therapy dog at work" and the younger inquisitive crowd couldn't resist asking "Why does your dog have a driver’s license?" as they examined the picture id validating her as a certified therapy dog; it was so cute to witness despite seeing it repeatedly over and over.
Erin and I were invited to join in on a therapeutic session where the grieving youngsters were asked to draw a picture of their deceased loved one as fondly remembered; on the plush carpeting the elementary school-age kids laid with their sketch paper. crayons and magic markers. Plopped down amongst the children was my fur kid who proved to be a major source of comfort during this difficult time, she stretched out near them as they lavished attention upon her while working on their assignment. Seems every child present connected with Erin in some manner which concluded with the presentation of the pictures and a few words being spoken about the artwork.
Sketch of a father as a fireman, mother's cooking dinner and many other scenarios were shown to the room often with much sadness and hesitation; I could only imagine the sorrow weighing them down at this difficult time. As the children spoke it was common to see Erin’s paw or floppy ear being caressed for support, the words were occasionally mingled with tears and vividly I recall one little girl who drew a picture of her baby brother with wings. Sobbing she said he was an angel now and all the while her free hand continually stroked Erin's side; the child drew much comfort and strength from my own angel. We participated in several other group sessions designed to soothe the aches where from a corner of the room I witnessed her continually lift the spirits of those around her; as a proud father and friend I heaped much praise and love upon her.
Outdoors we continued to spend quality time with the grieving as the situation dictated; Erin melted many hearts with those soulful eyes, calming center, and friendly demeanor. It's no secret that many kids are unable to communicate with parents or authority figures but therapy dogs are an effective tool because they don’t judge and many children felt comfortable enough to divulge personal information or let down their guard to shed some tears with Erin. Letting the child hold a portion of the leash empowers them, often they smile when I say "Erin trusts you" and while I pretend to be looking away, they engage in a round of dog/kid therapy with secrets being revealed that no one else is privy to. She focuses her concentration upon whoever is speaking while I sit nearby for reassurance but occasionally her gaze will turn towards me thus she's told "Daddy's here" thus she relaxes and continues to pour love from her untainted heart.
It was so rewarding on many levels as we got the chance to bond with many great kids, often opening up to Erin they revealed emotions and thoughts that could be told to no one else. To draw forth smiles was our aim and that goal was surely achieved but we also gained the trust of several despondent kids who needed a friend and found one in the form of Erin. A glimmer of hope could be seen as these grieving kids and dog bonded in a special way and their trust in us was justified as their words are forever sealed in the heart of Erin. For two more years we visited Grief Camp where a group of new children saddled with personal issues came to heal in their own way and there's no doubt Erin helped mend the ache in their hearts. I'm unbelievably proud of Erin and her ability to touch the life of a grieving child; she possessed a gift to soothe the ache and she did it well.
God bless my Angel in Fur and the suffering children!!!