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Welcome to Grief
By Alex Caruso
Savannah had been hot and humid all week, but a Thursday storm had broken the heat wave for the weekend. I was on a trolley headed for a children’s grief support camp hosted by Hospice Savannah, where myself and a film director would be immersed in the camp’s activities for two days. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) had given me the assignment of documenting the camp in its entirety. I flipped through my shot list as my cellphone reception faded to zero bars. As I look back, I now realize how truly unprepared I was for this assignment, how unprepared I was to witness grief through a child’s eyes.
Upon arrival, the campers were greeted by a crowd of volunteers who warmly welcomed them with smiles and applause. As I stepped off the trolley a young female volunteer pulled me aside and asked me, “Are you here to film the camp?” I replied with a casual, “You bet”. She smiled at me passively and said in a soft voice, “That’s so wonderful. This camp will change you”. Although this comment made me pause for a moment, I quickly snapped back into business mode. I had a project to complete.
But the words of the young hospice volunteer echoed in the testimonies of the rest of the staff. They described their time working at the camp as “life-changing” and “eye-opening”. I began to wonder, what did they know that I didn’t know? What was I missing? All I saw were kids being kids –children brimming with energy who didn’t seem to have a care in the world. But these weren’t carefree children; all had been touched by loss and were struggling with grief.
The Opening Ritual
A staff member raised her hand in the air and stood silently. The campers saw the signal and mimicked her as well, mouths closed and hands raised. I sat in the back of the large room and nonchalantly listened to the opening remarks. The comments were standard – camp rules, adherence to the buddy system and so on.
But then the woman with light grey hair said, “I’m now going to read you all a story, please listen and think about how you relate to it”. My director and I decided this was as good any opportunity to grab some b-roll footage of the campers quietly listening to the counselor. We set up our cameras, and the story began.
The narrative was about a young native-American boy who had lost his father in a boating accident. It talked about the feelings the child had – feelings of deep depression, of guilt and of anger. I began to think to myself, “Is this story appropriate for children?” And no sooner did this thought cross my mind then a loud screech erupted from the far side of the room. A young girl leapt from her chair and sprinted towards the side exit, sobbing loudly. And as I watched a camp counselor tail the young girl out of the meeting room, I also saw the faces in the crowd. Some children sat with their heads buried in their arms, while others tried to comfort those around them. But almost every child had a tear-stained face.
As the story continued, more children abruptly excited the room in varying degrees of hysterics. I glanced across the room and made eye contact with the young female volunteer who spoke to me when I first stepped off the trolley and she gave me the same passive smile. These children were exiting because their sadness had become too much for them to hold inside. It then became apparent to me that I knew nothing about grief.
A Day at Camp
The camp’s atmosphere the next day was deceptively pleasant. Although the central activity of this camp was talking about and understanding grief, all around me I saw children playing games, running freely and laughing. The campers rotated between activities; some participated in games, while others participated in more serious endeavors. As my director and I roamed the camp, we saw a group of young boys through a window who were writing diligently. I told the director to continue to film the camp’s activities and that I would catch up with him later. I quietly opened the cabin door and grabbed a seat in the corner, away from the young authors.
They were writing letters - letters to their loved ones whom they had lost. The adult activity leader assured them that they were in a safe place and could share what they were feeling. Despite this encouragement, the boys continued to focus on their letters with looks of anguish on their faces. A young African-American teen then declared in a loud but shaky voice, “He drowned. He fell into the river and drowned.” The boy erupted in tears while the others tried to console him. His closest friend had met an early end in the unforgiving currents of the Savannah River.
As I watched the group, I felt my heart drop into my stomach. I wanted to offer comfort as well; I wanted to tell them that everything would be ok. But the truth is, everything wasn’t ok. These boys had come into contact with death far too young and were being forced to confront grief too soon.
Dinner with the Counselors
I saw the day’s dinner break as an opportunity to interact with the camp counselors. But rather than me gather more material for my project; they all seemed to be more interested in my camp experience. A young man, probably in his mid-twenties asked me, “How are you holding up?” And with a knee-jerk reaction I choked out the words, “I don’t know”. I had spent the day listening to stories of loss and my own sadness and empathy for these children had started to weigh upon me. I was new to hospice. I was new to grief. I told the counselors how much I respected them for giving their time to guide these children and asked how they managed their own feelings of sadness.
The camp coordinator, a soft-spoken man with a gentle voice, put his arm around me and said, “We are here with these children, but it is our job to remind them that even after loss, life can be full of joy.” The beautiful thing about hospice is that is has the power to bring bereavement services to these children and the communities they come from, whether their loved ones received hospice care or not. Many people only associate hospice with death, but this camp teaches those who are grieving how to find joy after experiencing a loss.
Dinner ended and I was informed that it was time for the campfire. As I cleared my plate the same soft-spoken man approached me once again to let me know that the campfire ritual was unpredictable and was the pivotal moment in camp when the children confronted the depth of their grief.
My director and I discreetly set up our cameras and sound equipment so that the campfire ritual would be captured on film. We learned that the letters each child had written to their deceased loved one would be placed in the fire, and that the smoke from the burning paper symbolized their message ascending into the sky to be received.
The children marched in a somber procession down to the campfire, single file and placed their letters into a large basket. Once the last letter fell into the basket, two counselors lifted the container off the ground and placed it into the center of the flames. A quiet that I had never before experienced came over the group. Each child was reflecting, wrestling with his or her feelings as the smoke continued to rise.
As the flames sub-sided, the soft-spoken camp director turned on a microphone and announced that the floor was open to anyone who wanted to share anything about their loved one or the feelings they were experiencing. Hands raised and the microphone circled amongst the children and teens. Some shared their favorite moments with their loved ones, and the crowd smiled and laughed as they shared in each child’s memory. But the jubilation wouldn’t last.
A young boy who had not spoken a word during the entire camp slowly raised his hand. The six year old had a blank look on his face as he held the microphone with a slight tremor. He only shared once sentence, “I remember when a man choked my mom, and that’s how she died”. The smiles dropped off the faces of all who were present. This was the first time the young boy had admitted his mother was dead, and with his shocking declaration the momentum of the campfire changed.
Another young boy spoke of his guilt for not fishing with his brother before he committed suicide. Another described how he watched his father die of a heart attack the night before a family vacation. I became overwhelmed at hearing these stories and as my pulse quickened I felt tears roll down my own face. We all shared these moments; we were all present around the campfire.
As the minutes passed, the soft-spoken man re-claimed the microphone. He began telling a story. It was the second half of the story that was presented at the commencement. He talked of the young native-American boy’s struggle. As the story continued, we learned how the native-American boy continued to live, and how he eventually found peace. The children dried their eyes and once again smiles emerged. The rest of the night was filled with laughter as the children were encouraged to play and interact with one another.
A Return to Normalcy
On the trolley ride back to the city I rested my head against the metal siding. I thought of the children, of the counselors and what I learned during my time at this camp. Children are resilient, even in the face of overwhelming grief. The words of the counselor with the reassuring smile came back to me; she had been right. The camp changed me. Death is a part of life, and the cycle is unavoidable. But although these children were forced to face death too young, they would continue to work through their grief with a better understanding that they had gained from hospice. They would continue to live.
My director and I completed our assignment. The camp’s events were captured on film and are chronicled in the video Grief through a Child’s Eyes featured on the Moments of Life: Made Possible by Hospice website.
To read more personal reflections, please visit our blog section.
Alex Caruso is an employee of NHPCO and is also the author of Reflections of a Dying Chaplain.
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