Inside the TAPS Good Grief Camp

Author: Heather Campagna

Many people wonder just what takes place within the borders of a TAPS Good Grief Camp…and adult survivors have often said it looks like more fun to be on the kid’s side of our national gathering! Undeniably, the Good Grief Camp involves events that can lighten young hearts, but all of our activities are also specially selected to offer a safe place for each child to “just be” wherever they are in their grief. That can have a very different meaning for each child depending on their personal journey and their developmental age. Nevertheless, whether the child is four or fourteen, the focus of the Good Grief Camp is to share feelings, learn coping skills, and share memories of loved ones, just like the adult National Military Survivor Seminar…we just use different methods to get there! 

balloon release

Part of what makes the TAPS National Good Grief Camp unique are the hundreds of trained mentors who volunteer for this special weekend, most of them active duty military personnel. Each is paired with a surviving child to act as a big brother or sister throughout the weekend. This shows the TAPS child that there are people who are there for them, that they are not forgotten, and that they are still a part of the military family. Within groups of approximately 20 same-age children or teens, there are 20 mentors and two group leaders. One leader has a professional mental health/education background and the other is a seasoned military mentor. The bonds that are formed over this very healing weekend can be life changing for all involved.  

Some of the traditional fun activities at the TAPS National Good Grief Camp are field trips, art projects, and our annual GGC party. We visit the memorials around Washington, DC, to show each child how the country honors their loved one’s sacrifice. The children make a wreath to lay at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Constructed of red, white, and blue cut-outs in the shape of each child’s hand, each piece carries a message to the children’s loved ones. Despite all of the beautiful flowers laid at the tomb, this wreath is often the one that gets the most attention. On Saturday night we have an incredible time at our traditional Good Grief Camp Bash, where the mission is to “just have fun and be a kid.”

In between field trips and other activities, we spend time helping kids and teens learn to cope with grief, which is always our primary focus. Our grief work sessions typically involve Circle Time where each child and teen understands that they are able to talk freely about concerns, fears, and their deepest feelings. They know that what they share during our sacred circle time won’t leave the room. This is time when a young survivor, often for the first time, is able to talk about the loss openly with people who truly understand because they have been there themselves. Although participants are encouraged to speak freely, it is never forced. At the TAPS Good Grief Camp participants learn that they don’t have to be strong for their remaining parent or loved ones, that they don’t have to make excuses for why they feel sad, and that they don’t have to try to act normal when they have emotions that don’t make sense to anyone else. They are accepted for who they are, the way they are. 

At the close of each TAPS Good Grief Camp each participant launches a balloon with an attached note. This is a special opportunity to tell their loved ones something they may not have had the chance to say or a reminder that they will always be loved. (Note: All balloons are biodegradable.)

The TAPS Good Grief Camp gives children and teens a chance to understand that they are not alone in their grief. They learn that there are others who understand and will accompany them through their journey. They are also reminded that their loved ones were an integral part of the military family and that neither they, nor their loved ones, will ever be forgotten.

Here’s what they say about the GGC!

I thought it was going to be a one-time weekend thing. But that weekend completely changed my life forever! Since that first weekend I have become involved in the lives of hundreds of children across the country. Being a mentor is the most gratifying and peaceful part of my life. I count the days until I can see all of my friends in the TAPS family again. In the end that is what we all are to each other, just an extended version of our own families. ~ US Army Staff Sergeant Shawn Callan, GGC Mentor since 2005

I was 14 years old when I joined the TAPS family and was very reluctant to come to Washington D.C. for Good Grief Camp. I was angry, sad, hesitant, and most of all, scared. I felt like I didn't need any help with my grieving; I was fine. It seemed hokey and unnecessary. As time went on our group loosened up. We shared experiences together that meant more because we had all been through similar circumstances. We all saw it through similar eyes. We also did the thing I feared most: shared our feelings. Through this we built a connection. We formed some sort of bond that was protective and sibling-like toward each other. Though it was never said, it was understood that we looked out for one another. Thank you TAPS, for welcoming me even though I wasn't completely accepting. Not only do you help to heal the hearts of individuals and form bonds that can never really be broken, you teach life lessons that can't be taught or received quite like they are in this environment. ~ Jena Greene, Good Grief Camp Participant

TAPS has been a great thing for my kids, especially my two teenagers. After my husband died we moved back to Michigan. The girls felt alone with no one to truly understand their feelings. We attended the national seminar and it was an amazing experience. We found that face-to-face connection with others going through similar situations. We weren't alone! It wasn't only our fellow survivors who helped us. The military mentors have been a tremendous help with all my kids, especially my nine year old son. We are part of a much bigger family now and have made lifelong friends that make a difference in our lives. ~ Debbie Wert, Parent of camp participants    

Heather CampagnaBy Heather Campagna, MA, EdS, CT, National Good Grief Camp Director: Heather Campagna is a military wife who has worked with TAPS since 2005. She is a School Psychologist by training and obtained her Education Specialist and Masters Degrees from The Citadel. She has worked in the school setting with preschool children to college level students, as well as the clinical setting at The Medical University of South Carolina. Heather’s husband presently serves full-time in the Army National Guard.