BA Student Research Assistant, Tufts University, Boston, MA
The Pink Fish girls understood why they were at this camp, bluntly asking each other “Who died?” and “How are they dead?”
Some camp activities were traditional camp adventures while others, including a symbolic stone craft, a hand drawn pillowcase, and aromatherapy, were guided by the grief counselors. When all of the campers gathered for the first time, I could feel tension, sadness, and silence in the air. I admired the respect and support seen among the campers during the first activity, which was creating a large memory board honoring all of the campers’ loved ones. Personally, I found their stories to be an immense amount of information to hold. I wanted to cry for the boy who left hyperventilating. I wanted to hug the groups of siblings, as I could imagine their family as a whole. In the back of my mind, I feared that this weekend would be too much for me, but at the same time I wanted to give these campers my all, especially after hearing firsthand what they have been through. At first, I worried I would say the wrong thing or freeze when a child needed comfort. However, I saw the appreciation in campers’ faces when I told them their memories sounded lovely and their artwork honoring their loved ones was “beautiful” and “important.” I learned how to encourage children to be open by reassuring them that they were “special” and “brave” for being present. I found myself naturally repeating these words of encouragement frequently throughout the weekend.
Grief camp taught me how to empathize to a greater extent. It made me realize you cannot always say the right thing or fix sadness, but being present and supportive means more than anything. I had worried it would be uncomfortable to face the reality and permanence of death with these campers, especially the young girls to whom I was assigned, but I learned to not avoid the blunt, harsh words such as “dead.” Instead, I learned to redirect back to the campers and see what they had to say or how they felt about things. I found the easiest way to encourage 6- to 8-year-old campers to express their feelings or share their stories was through arts and crafts. It was easier to ask open-ended questions—who or what a drawing was of, what was taking place, why it was special—to allow the campers to reflect on the happy memories more so than the loss. I was really able to gain insight on what their losses meant to them by how they remembered their loved ones.
I feel more confident in my ability to sit in silence, listen, and hold information regarding loss and sadness without feeling awkward or pressured to say anything.