In my years as a staff trainer/advisor, perhaps one of the most challenging issues I have had to deal with is helping campers, staff members, and families deal with illness and death occurring prior to or during the camp season. Recently, in a community from which our campers come, I was approached by a camper parent who wanted to reiterate how helpful I had been in helping not only his child, but he and his wife navigate the emotionally overwhelming illness and death of a grandparent during the summer. It was a reminder to me of how significant the professional interventions made in the camp setting can be to the families we serve.
“Camp is a bubble.” How often do we hear those words, or some similar expression, indicating that summer camp is separate from the real world? Camp is a place where kids can be kids, where the pressures of home and school are left behind, and where we are insulated and isolated from the realities of city life.
My own camper experiences began 57 years ago. I was ten and, for me, camp was all of the above. There were no bunk notes sent and received via fax or e-mail. Mail was via the postal system, with letters between Chicago and northern Wisconsin taking up to ten days to arrive. Telephone communication was sketchy at best. Cell phones and instant communication were nonexistent. Parents didn’t expect to be involved in their children’s summer camp experiences, and children tended to be less involved in family issues. There was less societal focus on family communication. When family members were in different locations, staying in touch was challenging.
Today, with instant communication a reality of camp life, camp is more like a sieve than a bubble, with information flowing easily in both directions. Many parents share more openly with their children about family issues and want them to fully participate in all life cycle events and transitions.
One of the most highly charged ways in which the “outside world” interfaces with camp is around the issues of death and illness. Each situation is unique, requiring an individualized response, and yet there are commonalities. In my years working as a camp advisor/staff trainer, the range of situations dealt with has included (among others) the sudden and tragic death of a parent, impending and anticipated deaths of loved ones, death of peers from illness or accident, and the demise of family pets.
How Do We Learn of a Death in the Family?
Death is a crisis. It is sometimes a normative and developmental crisis, and sometimes it is sudden, tragic, and overwhelming. But whatever the specific circumstances surrounding the death, family members will often experience moments of shock and sometimes confused thinking regarding the needs of their children.
There are times when a camper — or staff member — is notified of a death before the professional camp leadership has the opportunity to provide her with the appropriate support to face this life-altering event. Although cell phones are not officially permitted in our camp (as in many others), notification of a death may arrive via a text message, call, or e-mail to a staff member or via a bunk note to a camper. This sometimes startling manner of informing children can create more disruption than is necessary. Our preference is that the camp be notified before the camper is told of potentially traumatic events, such as the onset of a serious illness or a death in the family.
In this preferred scenario, the family notifies the camp office and consults with the director or a staff trainer/advisor to determine the most supportive way of notifying their child of the death. This enables us to work collaboratively with the family, often being supportive to those at home as well as the children in camp.
How Is Our Response Impacted by the Way in Which We or the Child Learns of a Death?
When the child learns of a death before we do, we are in a position of playing “catch-up.” The child is usually emotionally distraught, with initial support having been provided by a fellow camper, counselor, or family friend who may feel emotionally overwhelmed as well. With prior notification, the camp professionals are able to consult with the parents, decide who will inform the child, address the management and impact of information coming into camp through informal channels, and discuss together the steps that need to be taken.
Considerations in Determining Who Informs the Camper
Who should inform the camper of a death or an impending death? Should this be done by the parents or a supportive adult in camp? One approach is that parents are responsible for informing the child of a death, and camp professionals should not be the ones to initially share the information. A consideration is to prevent the imprinting on the child’s mind of the camp adult as the bearer of bad news. Adhering to this approach has led to countless walks across the campus with an adult leading the way to the office. Whether the death has occurred in the family of a counselor or camper, she has usually been told, “Your parents want to talk to you, but don’t worry, everyone’s all right at home.” The walk often has a morbid feel to it, in spite of the best attempts at reassurance. The adult is aware of news that may be devastating to the camper, and may unconsciously project this knowledge even as she is attempting to conceal and deflect. The adult may find herself being less than truthful, responding when asked that she doesn’t know what the call is about or that parents want to share information about “Grandma’s condition.” After the call, when the adult is being supportive, the child may feel less trusting, having already been lied to once before.
A second approach is for the camp professional to inform the camper of the death and then immediately call the family. In this scenario the child has heard the truth, felt supported during the call to her family, and is cushioned from hearing shocking news for the first time over the phone. This approach negates the necessity of a tense walk across the campus to the office, as a quiet spot can easily be found for sharing the news.
Neither approach is perfect, and in making the optimal choice, options should be discussed and the preferences of the family honored.
Framing the Experience for Ourselves, the Family, and the Child
Each summer is unique. There may be a summer session where death and/or serious illness issues may seem largely irrelevant. Camp truly is that bubble where kids can be kids, the peer group reigns supreme, and most daily challenges involve managing routine conflicts that are part of navigating adolescence. However, during other summers senior staff may feel inundated with bad news, especially for those camps that run all summer or multi-week sessions. Longer sessions increase the chances of a crisis occurring at home that must be faced at camp. Those are the summers when it feels as if we’ve been hit by a tsunami of phone calls informing us of serious family issues.
During one overwhelming season, I overheard a colleague refer to herself with dark humor as “the Angel of Death.” I was struck by this comment, as the framing of our own experience impacts our personal and professional demeanor, and on a subliminal level is projected to younger staff and campers. It is the task of the responsible camp adult to maintain a professional demeanor and approach, just as it is mandatory with the many other challenges we face throughout the summer.
Death is a part of life. We are all born into this physical world, and at some point we will all make our exit. We in the Western world live in a society that rejoices in birth and both fears and denies death. Often there is minimal or no conversation about death as a natural event, the meaning of death, existential questions about the body and soul, or how the bereaved can stay connected to the memory of the person who has died but also continue on with their own lives.
To inform children about death, and to engage them in conversation about an impending death or one that has already occurred, requires that the adult professionals be comfortable themselves with this very charged emotional issue, and able to relate to death as a natural, normal part of the life cycle. To create an effective support system for children in the face of the death of a loved one, we must be free of our own emotional baggage.
What Is Our Preferred Protocol?
We have developed an effective protocol in informing children about the death of a loved one, considering both immediate needs and the required follow-up.
The protocol works best when the camp administration is the first to be informed of the death. Once information has been received, an advisor/staff trainer (optimally with a background in social work, psychology, education, or spiritual guidance) will talk with the family, express condolences, help family members choose how to inform the child, and discuss the advisability of the child going home for the funeral. If a close relative has died, we encourage the participation of the child in the funeral, as well as staying home with the family during the initial mourning period.
In the Jewish tradition this period is seven days, beginning with the day of the funeral. This period of time allows the child to go through the initial stages of the grief process in the context of the family, which is far more natural than the camp setting. If the child returns to camp too quickly, we are complicit in reinforcing the stage of denial, preventing the child from moving through it and beginning the process of internalizing the loss. Although children’s expressions of grief are different from adults’, they still need to be given the opportunity to experience their loss fully in a loving and supportive environment. As supportive as camp is, it cannot replace the sense of anchoring that the family provides.
Once decisions have been made with the family, the advisor will inform the age cohort group leader and counselors of the death in the camper’s family. A counselor will then escort the camper to the advisor, who will either inform the child or place a pre-arranged call to the family who will share the news. After speaking with the family, the advisor and cabin counselor will continue the conversation with the child. There is the opportunity for tears, support, and when appropriate, a conversation about the broader issues of death and dying. The child is in the presence of an adult role model who is able to validate the expression of feelings and facilitate a conversation about the meaning of death. This conversation can contribute to providing campers with tools that will enable them to process what may be an overwhelming experience, beyond their current resources.
Next, additional relevant staff is informed, and meetings are held with the cabin group as well as other campers when indicated, sharing information and working through whatever thoughts and feelings are evoked by the death. By sharing information openly, we accomplish several goals in addition to helping children acknowledge death as a part of life and giving them the opportunity to be supportive of each other. We teach them how to:
- Approach a person who has just experienced a death in the family
- Act appropriately in an uncomfortable situation
- Talk about death openly
- Ask questions knowing that they will be honestly responded to
- Deal with their own feelings and fears
- Differentiate between their own life narrative and someone else’s
We believe this to be a wonderful gift that we are giving to both campers and counselors. Throughout, we continue communication with the families as we monitor the child’s adjustment to a changed reality, and when relevant, to time the re-entry of a child into the camp setting. Timing is dependent on the specific situation, the parent’s wishes, and our professional assessment.
Some additional considerations:
- Never minimize the impact of a loss — including that of a family pet. In many families the pet is regarded as a member of the family, and the pet’s death can be as overwhelming as that of a close relative.
- Painful and difficult news should never be shared with campers at night. It is imperative to take into account the developmental stage of campers, and to recognize that sharing bad news at night, in a setting far from home, may segue into overwhelming levels of anxiety or nightmares.
- Sometimes on hearing of a death, old anxieties and/or traumas may be activated. This may be observed in the camper/staff member immediately affected, or in a bunkmate or friend. Staff should be taught how to identify distress signals, and how to be emotionally present and supportive to upset friends or campers.
- Bunkmates may become overwrought as anxiety is triggered by the loss their friend or counselor is experiencing. Children may personalize if they are still developmentally unable to empathize. Support must be provided for those children who strongly react to the news that has been shared. I have been called into cabins where the majority of the cabin group is in tears after hearing of the death of a friend’s family member.
- Because all discussions mentioned here take place with, and in the presence of the counselors, we have the opportunity to model for staff how to deal with a significant life cycle issue, as well as to empower them to move into a supportive role with campers.
- Factual information should be shared when possible with others who may be impacted by the news, taking into account the importance of respecting the privacy of those in mourning.
- When a death occurs during the camp season, whether affecting a staff member or camper, we can frame it for ourselves as a teaching moment. In addition to what has already been mentioned, we have a wonderful opportunity to teach about the process and stages of mourning, and the ways in which our faith and/or cultural tradition supports us during significant life transitions.
A Natural Part of Life
Death is a natural part of life. Camp is made up of real people from real families. Notification of deaths will come into the camp. It is up to the professional leadership to do its best to manage the process of notification when a death occurs. It is also up to the camp leadership to recognize the inherent teaching moment and to address every step in the process with thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and honesty. By doing so we are modeling the best in supportive, open communication.
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Ditter, B. (2013, March 23). Summer camps 2: Talk to children about joy, benefits of camp”. New Haven Register.
Grollman, E. (1996). Bereaved children and teens: A support guide for parents and professionals. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
James, J.W., Friedman, R. and Matthews, L. (2002). When children grieve: For adults to help children deal with death, divorce, pet loss, moving, and other losses. New York: Harper Perennial.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Scribner/ Reprint edition (1997).
Schonfeld, D. J. (2007). Coping with the death of a student or staff member. U.S. Department of Education. Emergency Response and Crisis Management (ERCM) Technical Assistance Center 3(2).
Minda Garr, MSW, was a staff member for 38 summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Beginning as a counselor and division head, she was a staff trainer and advisor for 35 of those summers, the position from which she recently retired. Minda also spent seven summers as a camper at Camp Ramah. A retired faculty member of the School of Social Work and Social Welfare of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, she continues to teach at the Hebrew University and has a private clinical practice in Jerusalem. Minda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: To prevent burdening the reader, the feminine gender is used throughout the article, although campers, counselors, and
advisory/training staff are fully represented by both genders.
Photo courtesy of Camp Kupugani, Leaf River, Illinois.