The Dirt on Grief Camps

Author: Molly Pickett and Tina Barrett

I don’t pretend to fully understand what happens at grief camp that changes the way grief feels, but I do believe in it. Deeply. I believe in it because I lived it. I was 12 when my dad died and I was launched into my own grief journey. My life was changed. Not for a day, or a week, or a year. It was my life – changed forever.

Grief Camp

I felt wrecked. Wrecked is the accurate word. Reflecting back 16 years later, I realize that hopeless was also the right word. My family was devastated, ungrounded and hopeless.

Not forever, not doomed, but at that time, we were six beings fumbling through life in the darkest of times and looking for any sign of light. As a child who loved biking dirt trails, dancing in the rain and all things outdoors, it perhaps isn’t surprising that years of grief camp at a mountain lake brought some of that hope back to me. It taught me a new way of being in my “new world,” and buoyed me along my healing journey.

So what is it about grief camp that can bring light back into the darkest places? Dr. Tina Barrett asked hundreds of campers, (including me – over 15 years ago), essentially this question. She listened. She sifted through their answers – the wisdom, the hurt and the hope and healing in their words. What emerged, again and again, were these themes...

Connection

After the death of someone so close to us, the lens through which we view the world changes. Each day we walk through the halls, the office, the subways, the schoolyard and muster up a response to "how are you?" in some sort of socially appropriate way. Amid despair, we often force some sort of routine in order to keep up with the world. Not because we want to, or even feel like we can, but because the world keeps moving. 

What a gift it is to look around a circle of individuals and, without saying a word, know there is a shared understanding. Grief camp is a place where you look into the eyes of another being and know they "get it." When another camper says, "I know," it holds different meaning than it does around town. It is healing. It is powerful. To share in this deep understanding together leaves us feeling connected and not so alone. And feeling not so alone makes this grief a little more bearable. 

Time to Honor and Remember 

Sometimes we want to talk about our person who died and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we find ourselves wanting to share and honor them and sometimes not. But one thing is true: We are thinking about them. We remember. Grief camp creates space to honor and remember. Even when we don't want to talk, draw, dance, light a candle or make a shrine- the opportunities remain. These opportunities to honor our family members through art, words, movement or symbolism help mark the place of our precious loved ones whether we choose to engage in the activity or not. 

We want to remember. We want to not forget. Camp offers us ways to do this. Memory tables. Flags of honor and remembrance. Candle lighting ceremonies. Talking circles. Rituals. Sand dancing. All of these become ways to introduce our people to the world and take care of the relationship and memories we carry with us. 

Permission to Have Fun 

We know sadness. We know the experience of loss and watching our family members navigate their own tumble into a reality that we so wish wasn't our truth. Though camp holds moments of profound emotion, camp is also filled with joy, delight and fun. The outdoors is a natural playground and camp is full of chances to splash in a lake, sing songs by a campfire, eat s'mores, explore wild places and play games. 

We get to laugh again. It is refreshing to experience joy and belly laugh surrounded by others who know the significance of our loss and our pain. We deserve to give ourselves and one another permission to have fun, knowing it doesn't diminish the profound love and hurt tied to our loved ones. It's appropriate and it is often different than what we have become good at in our grief process. 

Nature

We don't need to manipulate nature. Simply being outside or interacting with the living world can both stir and calm something within us. These experiences offer moments for contemplation and reflection. Metaphors abound. The way a river moves mimics our path weaving over, through and around life's hard places. The wind in the leaves whispers reassurance. The dirt underneath our feet reminds us how to feel grounded as we trust the unwavering gravity holding us to the earth.  

One young camper gracefully articulated her connection with the great outdoors: "It was peaceful where we were. It was pretty and you could just go sit and be alone and be with the water or be with the trees or be with anything." 

Freedom to Be 

Grief is an individual process. There is no guide or map that tells any of us how to do this. We each find our own path. Camp can give us permission to be exactly where we are, at each precise moment, on our very personal grief journey. Without judgment, camp can give us space to just be. 

In my words from a discussion with Tina nearly 15 years ago: 

"There are times when you want to laugh the rest of the day and there are times when you want to do nothing but sit down and cry. There's so many different feelings. There are times when everyone wants to be funny and hilarious and times when people want to be serious or times when people feel like laughing or just talking or being quiet and shy. And everyone is good with it. Everyone is fine with how you feel. That's what helped me, just to know that I wasn't alone and there were gonna (sic) be people who were going to cry and I could cry if I wanted to and if I wanted to laugh I could laugh." 

Filled with strength from a recent camp with grieving women, these themes ring true for youth and adults alike. Without question, grief camp is not a cure-all, but rather can be one piece of a much larger puzzle of healing and finding our way. As humans, we thrive amid relationships with others; moments of sheer delight; opportunities to remember, commemorate and share; and the splendor and tranquility of the natural landscape, all the while embraced in the gentle support of competent leaders. For me, camps have been pretty significant stepping stones helping me find my footing along a complex journey back to hope. 

Authors: Dr. Tina Barrett focuses on best practices of nature-based support with trauma survivors. Barrett has been volunteering for TAPS since 2008. She serves on the TAPS Advisory Board and as a Senior Consultant for TAPS Youth Programs.

Molly Pickett, MA, LCPC, blends her personal experience in group homes, clinical settings, classrooms and bereavement camps to support TAPS programs where she has volunteered since 2014. She has a special focus on healing after suicide.