Rachel Corcoran held the ring between her skinny knees at Camp Phoenix, long brown hair falling over her face as she laced purple yarn back and forth to spin a web in it.
"It's a dream catcher," she said, explaining a Native American legend that a web hung over a bed would catch bad dreams but let good dreams drift through a hole in the center.
Rachel, 8, has been having a lot of bad dreams. Her grandmother, known to the family as Gee Gee, who had sleepovers and gave lots of hugs, died in January. Rachel used to call her every night before she went to sleep.
"I'm going to write, 'Gee Gee, I miss you,' " she said, looking at the letter beads on the table.
This summer, Rachel and her 10-year-old brother, Stephen, went to Camp Phoenix in Lusby for three days of swimming, making crafts and talking about what it's like to lose someone. The camp, in its 10th year, is sponsored and paid for by Calvert Hospice as a means to help children grieve -- and see that they're not alone.
Brittany Dorman, 13, who went to the camp last year and met other kids feeling the same things she's feeling, came back this year. She said she talks to one or two of her friends about her dad, who died in December 2002 of a brain aneurysm. "But most [kids] don't know what I'm talking about," she said.
Stephen Corcoran, Rachel's brother, said he talks to his parents or to his pet rabbit, Adam. He'll hold his bunny, pat him and talk to him about his grandmother. "He keeps my secrets," Stephen said.
Cathy Corcoran said she worried that her own grieving made her children hold back. "Sometimes they would come to me; sometimes I think they were hesitant to talk about it. They didn't want to upset me," she said.
At Camp Phoenix, each child, wearing a yellow T-shirt, was matched with a grown-up volunteer buddy in a blue shirt. The buddies, who are trained by the hospice, coached them through crafts, played basketball, asked questions about how they were feeling.
"For about 21 hours" over the three days, said Mary Robinson, a retired clinical psychologist who volunteers to help the 7- to 15-year-olds at the camp, "each child has the undivided attention of a caring adult. That's a very powerful thing."
The children talk about anger, guilt and forgiveness in small groups. But often, Robinson said, the most helpful conversations are with their buddy while playing or making crafts.
Travis Dorman, Brittany's 9-year-old brother, who has the same red hair and sly smile, was bouncing off the walls when he started making a dream catcher at the camp earlier this month. As he laced the beads "D-A-D" onto a strand of yarn, volunteer Michael Parrish asked him what he used to do with his father.
"He was funny," Travis said, suddenly quiet. "We used to play games and build stuff. He built a fort on telephone poles -- he cut them in half to hold it up. He went in the fort with us."
His dad was really good at riding a unicycle, Travis said. "He could go down hills and stuff." Parrish said his niece has taken lessons for three years, and that a unicycle is awfully hard to learn to ride well.
"Yeah," Travis said. "It only took my dad one year." Parrish widened his eyes, impressed.
When he's a little bigger, he's going to learn to ride, too, Travis said.
Another volunteer was talking with his sister, Brittany, about whether she ever got angry. "At first I was mad at the doctors," she said. "I thought they could have done something to save him. They said he would have been brain-damaged and not able to do anything. But I thought it would be better to still have him here, even if he couldn't talk or . . . "
Since last year, she said, she feels a little better about that. "I'm not really mad at the doctors now. Now I kind of think there was a reason he had to leave," she said.
Tammy Dorman, her mother, said she was worried about Brittany last year. "For the longest time, she just couldn't accept it. When anyone would talk about her dad, she'd be like, 'I don't want to talk about it.' "
Once Brittany and Travis started going to another hospice program called Bridges, she began to talk about her father again, Tammy Dorman said. "She talks about how they would have 'Dad and Brittany day,' go roller-skating or bowling -- and how she misses that."
Sometimes the grown-ups at the camp gave the kids advice. Stephen said he sometimes feels kind of mad at Gee Gee for leaving him, but at camp he found ways to let his anger out without hurting anyone. "I could scream into a pillow, or throw eggs at a tree," he said, particularly taken by the egg-smashing idea.
His mother heard about Camp Phoenix from one of Rachel's friends, who went last summer. She was so worried about how to help her children that she was relieved to find the hospice offered so much.
"She was just having an awful time with nightmares," Cathy Corcoran said.
Rachel wasn't sleeping well, and she would often ask to sleep with her mom. "You could just tell a difference in her personality. She was edgy, more irritable, talking back more, which she had never done before," she said.
At Camp Phoenix, Rachel chose purple because it was her and Gee Gee's favorite color. Stephen strung little foam fish onto his dream catcher because he and his grandmother loved looking at fish. Rachel put pink sparkly teddy-bear beads and yellow smiley-face beads on hers, and tried turquoise feathers in various positions. "Or we could try this," she said, looking to her buddy for advice.
"I'm going to put this up in my room," Rachel said, holding up her dream catcher, "and when I see it, I'll always think of her."