No Retreat: Convening Communities of Caring in Times of Loss and Grief

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed
September 2018

As camp professionals we've got a lock on how to plan for, organize, and deliver high-quality summer learning programs for children and young adults. 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.

Jane Tuohy, a founding partner and principal of Cambridge Hill Partners, Inc., a management consulting firm focused on helping organizations reshape, reposition, and create renewed momentum, told me over lunch near Harvard Square some time ago, "camps are really good" examples for large organizations of how to create inclusive, emotionally intelligent ecosystems.

When Things Go Well

In a 2016 article, Lucy Norvell, former director of development and communications for the American Camp Association, New England, spoke to the start of a national trend that would translate into measurable — and profound — outcomes for youth lucky enough to go to camp. She said, "From the time courageous and forward-thinking educators created what has grown to become a worldwide camp movement here . . . they knew that something was lacking in children's overall education . . . Those lucky campers who hiked and adventured along Connecticut's Long Island Sound spent most of their time in the out-of-doors learning. With lots to discover about themselves and about being a member of a group, these were the first of millions of children to benefit from the experiential education that day and overnight camps uniquely provide" (Norvell, 2016).

What are some of the ways a summer camp experience might help young people?

Norvell suggested the following:

  • Physical and mental health
  • Social-emotional learning opportunities
  • Values clarification
  • Independence

Research has also shown that camp encourages the cognitive skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and confidence.

Other valuable lessons taught at camp include learning to use community resources to ask for help and support; making positive choices and accepting responsibility for personal behavior; and embracing opportunities to try new things, make new friends, and contribute positively to a community.

Of course, equally compelling anecdotal evidence abounds. For example, former longtime camper Benjamin Quincy told me, "I believe that camp has given me the tools to live and problem-solve on my own. It has instilled in me the important values of community and the power you have to impact that community positively or negatively." And, "Camp pushed me out of my comfort zone, teaching me how to be comfortable while facing strife."

When Things Don't Go So Well

Ben's acknowledgement of strife, in life and at camp, punctuates the fact that camps and campers may endure times of great hardship. Perhaps none is more devastating than the death of a camper or camper parent during camp or during the off-season. In either instance, our roles suddenly shift from leaders and directors to supporters and consolers.

In a 2014 email to me, Scott Brody, director of Everwood Day Camp, reflected, "A couple of years ago, three parents of campers passed away within six months of each other, one during camp. 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 are feelings that are familiar to you."

They were, as I was dealing with two camp-related deaths of young people in a span of less than 24 hours. Suddenly, I found myself traveling to Westport, Connecticut, and Washington, DC, respectively, to attend funerals and support grieving families and other members of our camp community, those present and those in distant places coming to grips with the enormity of loss.

At the time, a camp mom asked me to publish something to assist parents in helping their children cope with the death of friends. In "A Time Too Short" I wrote, "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. One thing is for sure: parents and other caring adults benefit from information to best guide children and teenagers processing loss and grief.

"To help young people who have lost a friend or loved one (of any age), the National Association of School Psychologists has prepared Helping Children Cope With Loss, Death, and Grief — Tips for Teachers and Parents and Death and Grief: Supporting Children and Youth. The latter details the grieving process, or ‘stages of grief.' Finally, for survivors of suicide, there are many resources online, including ones made available by the Alliance of Hope, the American Association of Suicidology, and the American Academy of Family Physicians."

Such support is critical. And that support is perhaps what camps do best. As Brody offered in his email, "Please know my thoughts are with you and with the good you are doing for these grieving families. This is the work we are called to do."

Concentric Circles of Care

Recent public and highly visible tragedies, such as the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, (and likely many others) present particular challenges in convening camp communities in rapid, impactful ways.

Bobby Harris, director of Camp Coleman in Cleveland, Georgia, spoke to me of the complexity of communication around the loss of 14-year-old ninth grader Alyssa Alhadeff in the Parkland shootings. With speculation widespread and circulating via text messages on that fateful day, he received confirmation of her death after Alyssa's parents had finally been notified at 3:00 a.m. on Thursday, February 15.

Following a largely sleepless night, Harris and his team formulated an outreach plan to virtually convene the Camp Coleman community in a Facebook "healing service" (to be followed by an actual service in Atlanta). Alyssa's unit head, Lotem Eilon, a Coleman year-round employee, was in contact with her campers who shared that they wanted to produce a memory book for Alyssa's family and to raise money to dedicate a swing at camp in her honor. In preparing his remarks for the virtual memorial, Harris wondered, "Who will be watching? To whom will I be speaking? Alyssa's parents, best camp friends, other campers who perhaps didn't know her as well, counselors and staff, and maybe others from the broader Union for Reform Judaism camping world." He asked himself, "Can we provide healing to each level of participant — to each circle?"

Harris spoke about attending Alyssa's funeral and meeting her parents and how her dad, in tears, hugged him and said, "You gave her Jewish songs." To Harris, that spoke to Alyssa's love of camp and the value it played in her life. He said he was deeply moved by her mother, Lori, who shared with Alyssa's friends that if she were there, Alyssa would encourage them to go out and live their lives to the fullest. Harris stated, "That showed the magnanimity of her heart . . . she was so interested in other kids' mental health." It was in that spirit that Lori initiated the #livelikealyssa video, which is dedicated to the Alhadeff family and Alyssa's friends, Parkland Soccer Club, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teammates. Also telling, Harris said, were comments on the Facebook Live page from alumni sending their love to the Camp Coleman community.

Other camps, including Blue Star Camps in Hendersonville, North Carolina, were also affected by the events in Parkland. For his part, Blue Star owner/director Seth Herschthal shared that, while they enjoy the challenge of building a "new" community each summer, they have historically taken a humanistic approach to supporting Blue Star families and staff in times of despair. That was certainly the case in February as they reached out to a large number of Parkland families whose children had attended camp (including one boy who died in the tragedy and an incoming staff member who was wounded). He said that in the run-up to staff training week, they prepared spiritually for whatever would arise then and during the camp season.

Specific plans at Blue Star included Friday night Shabbat services both at the beginning of training and the beginning of the camp season. Victims and affected families were offered condolences and support. In addition, a longstanding "memorial board" in the back of their Elmore Solomon Chapel included reference to the victims.

Taking a page from Ruby Compton of Ruby Outdoors (2018), Herschthal told me they planned to create "brave spaces," designed to allow campers and counselors to connect with emotional vulnerability and authenticity.

Finally, on the action side of the ledger, Blue Star Camps will be spearheading a voter registration drive to encourage staff and older campers to "stay involved" in their communities and have their "feet on the ground and their voices heard."

Addressing Death

Of the myriad of choices camps face when tragedies strike (during the summer or afterwards), it seems clear that some common reactions are helpful:

  1. Speedy relay of information to community members
  2. Transparency in communication (a willingness to have open, honest dialogue with campers, camp families, and staff)
  3. Identifying actions community members can take ("to do something"), such as contribute to a memorial fund, participate in a service, or share memories and mementos

According to writer Lela Nargi, a frequent stumbling block is comfort level in discussing such a difficult topic. In her Urban Family article, "Death and the Grieving Family: Talking about the Last Taboo Subject," she writes, "By some estimates, 10 million Americans are affected by the death of a loved one every year. So our family, no family, is truly alone in the experience of loss. And yet, we live in a culture that is loath to talk about death — either in preparation for it or in attempting to deal with its aftermath. ‘People try to deny the inevitability of death out of fear,' says Lauren Schneider, clinical director of child and adolescent programs at the Los Angeles grief support center Our House. ‘It's the last taboo subject in Western society.'"

To the extent that camps are families, these are relevant perspectives.

Nargi adds, "Little wonder, then, that we don't know how to make sense of death for ourselves when it strikes. Don't know how to share our experience of it. Don't know how to ask for help in coping with it. And certainly don't know how to guide our children through it with any conviction of usefulness or clarity" (Nargi, 2014).

For his part, Gregg Makuch, author of the article "Learning How to Deal With Loss," published by The Clearing, says, "Unfortunately, we weren't taught how to work through depression, anxiety, and healing traumatic experiences in school or at home. Psychology has been taboo because if we were to admit that we had an issue we could be labeled as weak or flawed by ‘them.' The glorious ‘them' being those who sit in judgment of us. We may not have realized, however, that we are ‘them.' It is our own self judgment of our own specific situation that is the issue at hand. As we judge our change in mood it continues to lock it into place. The first step in drastic mood change is befriending ourselves" (Makuch, 2014).

Guiding Our Children

What else can we do as camp communities to connect with and care for our kids and their families in times of crisis?

First up is understanding and sharing information about the aforementioned stages of grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

Other helpful tips can be found in Makuch's piece, and they can be shared with all members of your camp community. He offers, "As we grieve the loss of somebody close there can be a double mourning: the loss of the loved one, of course, but also the loss of our life with that person. This leads you back to you. How are you with you?

"In the face of loss, be gentle with you. Treat yourself with kindness. Balance out the time focused on them with the time focused on you. Do the things you like to do. Get involved. Talk things out. This isn't a time to hold things in. Go to counseling. Often friends will get annoyed with hearing the same old story, so using a friend as a therapist may not do the trick.

"Additionally, be mindful of and make sure you include each of the following areas in your recovery process.

  1. Physical: Get exercise, eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods, take dietary supplements if needed, and get plenty of rest and sleep. Body work (like a massage) can also be very beneficial.
  2. Mental: Replace negative thoughts with positives. Negative thoughts can be absolutely destructive. According to Psychology Today, the average person has up to 50,000 negative thoughts per day. Think about it, that's a negative thought every two seconds! You must replace the negative thoughts with positive affirmations and then repeat them over and over again throughout the day. Also, reduce abstract thinking and keep things simple.
  3. Emotional: Open your heart to you. Praise yourself often. List out what you are grateful for — yes, write it down! There is a powerful connection to the physical act of writing and our brains. Listen to uplifting music. Hug a friend. Write letters to the recently departed and burn them as a way to send them off.
  4. Spiritual: Meditation and prayer tops the list. Attend services if you belong to a certain faith. Seek out and speak with your local priest, pastor, rabbi, mullah, or other spiritual leader. Men and women of the cloth are often excellent counselors and therapists in their own right.

"Loss is something to share with friends, clergy, therapists, and even the dog on a long walk. As painful as it is, it can also be used as a way to improve and even enlighten yourself, if it is your intention. All it takes is the willingness to do so" (Makuch, 2014).

Bottom line: Camps that don't retreat from their campers, families, and staff after the summer, but rather continue to convene their communities of caring in times of loss and grief, are powerfully prepared to provide solace and support in the face of despair.

Photo courtesy of McGaw YMCA Camp Echo, Fremont, Michigan.

References

#livelikealyssa. (2018). Alyssa Alhadeff. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=aq0-Vh4BKn8

American Association of Family Physicians. (2018). AAFP. Retrieved from aafp.org/home.html

American Association of Suicidology. (2018). AAS. Retrieved from suicidology.org/

Blue Star Camps. (2018). Forever home @ Blue Star. Retrieved from bluestarcamps.com/

Cambridge Hill Partners. (2018). Who we are. Retrieved from cambridgehill.com/who_jt.html

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York, NY: Scribner.

Makuch, G. (2014, August 14). Learning how to deal with loss. The Clearing. Retrieved from theclearingnw.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-loss

Nargi, L. (2014). Death and the grieving family: Talking about the last taboo subject. UrbanFamily by UrbanSitter. Retrieved from news.urbansitter.com/blog/grieving-family

Norvell, L. (2016, September 7). 7 ways camp experiences boost children's optimal development. S'more About Camp: A Blog for Camp Families, American Camp Association, New England. Retrieved from ACAnewengland.org/families-public/smore-about-camp-a-blog-for-camp-families/7-ways-camp-experiences-boost-childrens-optimal-development

Ruby Outdoors. (2018, May 3). The intersection of #MeToo and summer camp. Ruby Outdoors Blog. Retrieved from rubyoutdoors.com/blog

URJ Youth. (2018). URJ camps. Union for Reform Judaism. Retrieved from urjyouth.org/camps/

Walker, R. (2018). Welcome. Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors. Retrieved from allianceofhope.org/

Wallace, S. (2013, March 1). A time too short. Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-teens-make/201303/time-too-short

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association, and a parenting expert. Additional information about Stephen's work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.