NORTH ATTLEBORO - When a 12-year-old loses her mom to cancer, it hurts — a lot.
Most kids don’t suffer that misfortune, so when it happens it makes a youngster feel alone.
That’s what happened to Adriana Francis of Warren, R.I.
She lost her mother Anna Baxter, 44, to cancer on March 21, 2019.
“It definitely took a very big toll on me,” she said Thursday while taking a break from an art session at Camp BraveHeart, a place for grieving children held at the Hockomock Area YMCA in North Attleboro. “I used to sit down and talk to my mom every day and it was hard not to be able to do that.”
Adriana, now 14, is heading to high school in the fall as a freshman.
But now she’s attending Camp BraveHeart, a free program sponsored by the non-profit HopeHealth out of Rhode Island, which provides a number of services including hospice and palliative care for the dying.
She’s been there before and there’s nowhere she’d rather be.
“I like it a lot,” Adriana said. “It’s one of my favorite things about summer. It definitely helps to make new friends.”
It’s a two-day camp run every summer for kids ages 4-17 who have lost a loved one.
It was started in Rhode Island 15 years ago and came to Massachusetts three years ago.
It’s a place kids can find out that they are not alone and that others their age have suffered big losses too.
Sarah DeCosta, coordinator of the camp, said adults sometimes overlook the grief of a child.
“They have a misconception that they get over it faster and that they are more resilient,” she said.
And those things may be true to some extent, but it’s important that kids have someone their age to talk to; someone who understands what they are going through, DeCosta said.
“Kids grieve and it’s important for them to do so and have a place to go and heal.”
DeCosta, who has a master’s degree in mental health counseling and has been a grief counselor for five years, said kids need to know it’s OK to have fun and live their lives even though they are grieving, even though someone special is no longer with them.
Very often the death of a loved one is not discussed in the family, DeCosta said.
As a result, grieving is left to the individual and for the young, who may have never experienced a loss. That can be tough.
“This (camp) shows kids it’s important and OK to talk about it,” DeCosta said.
At the camp, youngsters are divided into groups by age and rotate through a number of activities such as art, sports, ropes, group time, a session called “mindful growth” and another called “peace, love and music.”
For Adriana, the camp is very therapeutic.
“To see kids in the same boat, going through the same thing, with kids my age really helps,” she said. “It really helps to talk to others.”
Adriana lived with her mom after her parents split up.
However, the two were still friends and her dad, Rich Francis, was a comfort for her when her mom died.
“My dad was really there for me through this,” Adriana said.
She has an older brother and sister, Justin DaRosa, 30, and Alexia Moronta, 23, and they helped a lot too.
“They were really good for me when I was upset,” Adriana said.
But she will always miss talking to her mom.
Nothing can replace that.
“She was a really good mom,” Adriana said. “She was always caring and always knew what to say and how to deal with things.”
She said the best word to describe her mom is “kindhearted.”
Dyllan DuClau, 16, of Coventry, lost his dad Jonn on Jan. 17, 2019.
Jonn, a motorcycle enthusiast and truck driver by profession, was in his late 30s and, like Adriana’s mom, he died from cancer.
It’s Dyllan’s third trip to Camp BraveHeart.
Last year it was a virtual camp because of coronavirus and this year everyone has to wear masks, but at least it’s in-person and there’s no replacement for that.
The death of his dad cut deep, Dyllan said.
“I was sad, I was heartbroken,” he said of the day his dad died. “I tried not to cry. When my grammy died, I cried for two hours. I didn’t want to go on like that again.”
Crying or not, the grief was there and it was painful.
He said his dad’s death not only affected him emotionally, but physically as well.
“It’s sort of like when you watch a sad movie and your stomach feels all weird,” he said. “That’s how I felt.”
Dyllan said the best memories of his dad are of “all the fun adventures” they had.
He and younger brother Zackary, 12, who’s also attending Camp BraveHeart, treasure those times.
Dune buggy rides and fishing were among them.
And there were excursions to Great Wolf Lodge, an indoor water park, in Fitchburg.
That’s where the family went on one last adventure which Dyllan described as a “weekend vacation” shortly before his dad died.
The last week of his dad’s life was very hard.
“The week of his death all his friends and everyone were coming in to say their final good-byes,” Dyllan said. “On the day of his death close family came in to hold him tight and then he gently passed away.”
Dyllan and other family members have necklaces containing the ashes of his dad.
But Camp BraveHeart helps with all that, Dyllan said.
“It helps me by talking to other people about what happened,” he said. “It helps with the stress. It does a lot of good.”