Camp Reflections, Transitions GriefCare’s day camp for grieving children and teens is around the corner. T-minus less than a month until the big day: Saturday, May 14 at Lake Wheeler Park. Things are ramping up and I can’t help but reflect on last year’s camp...

I’m standing on the gravel edges of a large shelter, surrounded by oaks, listening to the gentle whisper of the breeze above me and the hum of nearly 40 kids—a sea of orange t-shirts—clambering around the picnic tables, buzzing with anticipation about the day ahead. Some of them sit together, focused on finding the perfect sparkly stickers for their nametags; others run around in a frenzy, playing tag with kids they met five minutes before. A couple of big lap dogs lay on the cool concrete soaking in the belly rubs from small hands brushing their fur in all directions.

Given this scene, it’s hard to believe these kids were gearing up for a grief camp. But despite the perceived sadness one may think of when we talk about grief, there also is hope, joy, and deep meaning found in the experience of camp. The circumstances that bring participants to camp is like an invisible badge of courage where the proverbial elephant in the room (death) doesn’t loom so large. In a world where grieving people often hear "Be strong" or "Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened," there’s an unspoken "You get it" among peers here.

Rear view of friends hugging.

Studies show time and again the benefit of giving kids opportunities to share their grief feelings and reactions in a variety of ways. Peer support is one way to provide a sense of normalcy, offering a place to hear others’ stories, to express feelings, and to know it’s ok to find joy even in life’s most challenging moments. We also know that kids need to have fun—they use play as their language to communicate. Camp gives both of these: a place to connect with peers and trusted adults as well as time for fun.

The day provides a time for campers and their caregivers to honor, remember, and name the person who died. Sometimes, remembering out loud brings tears, other times, laughter, and many times, both. Children also have the chance to share about their loved ones with their small groups, and it is striking how even the youngest campers sit captivated by their new friends' stories. "I learned I am not the only one," shared one camper. This statement has been echoed time and again by other children over the years.

Parent comments mirrored the children's. As one parent put it, "We are not alone. Other families experience the same emotions as we do. Hearing others helped us understand our own."

During a day packed full of children’s programming and separate caregiver sessions, Transitions LifeCare employees and volunteers are integral to providing support both directly with participants and behind the scenes. Each program is carefully planned and facilitated by trained bereavement counselors. At any given moment, multiple groups of volunteers prepare for the next camper activity.

The day can be exhausting for everyone on many levels, but that doesn’t hinder the energy of the day. After camp last year, one volunteer noted, "I loved every part of camp. It was truly the best camp ever; I had the best job ever. It is such an incredibly great offering and I’m so grateful to be a part of it."

At the end of the day, campers, caregivers, volunteers, and employees gather together for our closing ceremony. It’s a time for reflecting on the camp day and the lives of the loved ones that brought our participants together. I remember a moment during the closing ceremony, watching a young girl bring up a ribbon with a message written for her parent who died. She confidently shared about her loved one and spoke into the microphone about how camp had helped her "get out my feelings." For some of these campers, this day is the first time they’ve felt comfortable enough to announce their deepest feelings and memories.

As the children and their caregivers packed up to leave, I noted the sounds of kids pleading to stay a little longer. Some of them were already making plans to come back next year. And so was I.

--Kate S., children's grief counselor