Mike, Jim, Sarah, Eric, Jake, Marina, Michael, Hunter, Pierce . . . the names roll off my tongue too readily, capturing the enormity of loss too often.
In the life paradigm that is a calculation of risk vs. reward, it can be difficult to fully capture and embrace the existential role of camp professionals in establishing meaningful relationships with the goal of advancing positive youth development. Yet it is within our surrogate role as "en loco parentis" that we can perhaps best meet the gold standard of "helping kids to feel lovable and capable," as expressed by former Tufts University Professor Lonnie Carton to a green group of camp counselors.
The sheer magnitude of that responsibility transcends a transactional approach to leading campers, settling instead on a relational one that encourages personal connection and an increase among youth of self-agency, ever important in a world in need of resilience, compassion, and engagement.
While many no doubt take this responsibility to heart, those same hearts can be somewhat shattered by early death. Such is the nature of cumulative grief, which I recently discussed with Harriet Vogel, a grief counselor and author of Sad Is Not Bad: It Is How We Grieve After We’ve Loved (2015). She explained that such emotions can result from the occurrence of multiple deaths, either at the same time or in an iterative way.
"The loss of a young person, by accident or by design, devastates families, communities, and institutions. It may also prompt a series of questions, some answerable and some not" (Wallace, 2013).
One such question, inspired by a more declarative statement of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson: "Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?"
I asked and answered that during my eulogy in Westport, Connecticut, of a former camper (and staff member) who died in a horrific car crash at age 20. And I thought about it again two days later after another crash claimed the life of a 19-year-old alum, whose funeral in Washington, DC, I also attended.
On our responsibility as caretakers, I have said, "Amidst the rush of preparing our staff to be effective counselors of youth, establish meaningful mentoring relationships, and model such important constructs as sensitivity, positive risk-taking, conflict resolution, and leadership, we may unwittingly lose sight of the fact that one of the most seminal achievements of our work is creating communities — year after year" (Wallace, 2018).
Longtime camper Benjamin Quincy told me, "Camp pushed me out of my comfort zone, teaching me how to be comfortable while facing strife."
Ben’s acknowledgement of pain, at camp and in life, punctuates the fact that camps and campers may endure times of great hardship. Perhaps none is more devastating than deaths of close ones during camp or in the off-season. In either instance, our roles subtly shift from leaders and directors to supporters and consolers.
I received an email from a friend and seasoned camp director reflecting on such roles and the importance of self-care. Of his community’s sequential losses, he wrote, "I remember wondering if it would ever end. Of course, it did, but it was difficult finding a way to be there for others while also caring for myself. I am sure those feelings are familiar to you."
Too familiar, in fact.
Tennyson’s assertion remains an important measure of the saliency of life-changing relationships forged at camp. There, those most affected by loss are surely inclined toward empathy, according to Vogel.
That choice, for me, is easy — though carrying the scars of serial loss is not.
Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is a camp professional and president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE). Additional information about his work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.
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- Vogel, H. (2015). Sad is not bad: it is how we grieve after we’ve loved. Denver, CO: Outskirts Press.
- Wallace, S. (2018). No retreat: convening communities of caring in times of loss and grief. Camping Magazine. ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/no-retreat-convening-communities-caring-times-loss-grief (30 Nov. 2020).
- Wallace, S. (2013). A time too short. Psychology Today. psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-teens-make/201303/time-too-short (30 Nov. 2020).