Good Grief Camp Corner

Author: Jonathan Kirkendall

It was May 2006. I was a civilian, a mental health professional, and I was standing in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel in Arlington, Va., feeling lost.

Good Grief Camp Kids

A few weeks before, I heard a radio interview with Bonnie Carroll talking about a program called TAPS. With a brother and a nephew serving in Iraq, I was intrigued. I was struggling to find a concrete way to support the troops - especially since the troops were my family. As a mental health professional with experience working with children, I looked up the organization and sent off an email with my resume. Soon, I received a response: Would I consider being a group leader for 11-year-old children? 

And there I was. I stepped into a world that I knew little about. My heart was pounding, and I was running late for the 2 p.m. training I had been told to attend, but not only could I not find the room, I was also told that the woman running the training was at Fort Myer. 

I called my sister-in-law, an Army wife with both her husband (my brother) and son (my nephew) serving in Iraq. "I'm here at the hotel waiting for this training to begin, but no one's here!" She laughed. "Welcome to the military world! Hurry up… and wait." I waited, and it paid off.

Before long, the Good Grief Camp director arrived, and I started my first training as a group leader for TAPS Good Grief Camps. 

I was not new to working with children going through rough times. I was the senior supervisor of the American Red Cross Emergency Family Shelter in Manhattan, a facility that housed 250 moms and more than 500 children, all fleeing fires, condemned buildings or domestic violence situations. Before that, I worked with homeless children, helping them identify points of stability while they were being shifted from shelter to shelter, school district to school district. 

But I had never stepped into a room full of children, each dealing with a very direct experience of grief. 

And when I did, it changed my life. 

Since that first day, I have learned the importance of play during a time of loss. I have learned that healing can come in the most mundane moments. And, as I have watched our military mentors work with the Good Grief Camp children, I have learned about the primary role that loving relationships play in the healing process. 

So I kept coming back and now 10 years later joined the TAPS staff. I cannot express how happy I am to serve in the capacity of Youth Programs Manager.

What do I love about my job? It comes down to two things. First, the extraordi-nary people I get to call co-workers. We have an experienced team with a busy year ahead of us: monthly regional Seminars from Hawaii to New England, two nation-al Seminars, and a summer full of camps.

Second: Kids! I get to play tag, read great books, go on walks, ride horses and play with therapy dogs. I get to do all of this to create an opportunity for children to befriend their experience of loss, to learn they are not alone and to understand that this country honors their heroes. 

At Good Grief Camps, we use a myriad of tools to help children express themselves. Unlike adults, they do not have the capacity to conceptualize, intellectualize and talk through their grief. They approach their thoughts and emotions through imagination, play and activity. 

Children can express themselves through bibliotherapy. 

Bibliotherapy is a fancy word for using books for healing. When children read, or are read to, they identify with the characters in the story. As that character begins to grow and have insights within the story, that begins to happen for the youth who are reading or listening to the stories. One of my favorite times at Good Grief Camp is when the children gather around, and I get to read a story. Some of my favorite stories are "The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm," "The Invisible String" and "Rabbityness." 

My favorite resource for good books is the website, which is dedicated to children and teen books that inspire healing. Any of their recommended books are worth pulling up a cozy chair, grabbing your child(ren) and spending some time in the healing pages of books.

Movement dance therapy can help the healing process. 

Children love to move. They love music. They love pretend games. Combine the three, and you have a very powerful way for getting them to express how they are feeling. For several years now, TAPS has invited trained movement dance therapists to volunteer their time at our National Seminar. A few years ago, a group of dance therapists arrived at a Good Grief Camp with a bag full of scarves. As the music started, the children were encouraged to each take a scarf. It was amazing to see. The room was transformed into a stage full of sound, color, movement and emotion. 

Equine therapy creates a space of peace and healing. 

The ancient Greeks were the first to write about the therapeutic value of horses. Equine therapy is remarkable. The bond between humans and horses is undeniable and deep. Horses are highly intuitive and interactive. They can bring about feelings of peace and create a sense bonding between horse and companion. In that space, healing occurs.

Children at a recent Good Grief Camp experienced the liberation of interacting with horses during a special session. Typical challenges fell away as our youngest survivors touched, rode and interacted with horses. Alternative choices such as equine therapy give our Good Grief Campers the freedom to work with their story of loss and help them recognize the release that occurs when we can lean into our challenges and do not simply avoid them.

By Jonathan Kirkendall, MA, LPC, Youth Programs Manager: The son of missionaries, Jonathan grew up in Beirut, Tehran and Bangalore.  A graduate of Wake Forest University and Narapo University's Masters in Counseling Psychology, he has over 20 years experience in working with children, teens and adults, and, outside of TAPS, manages a small private pratice in D.C.