Last weekend I attended Camp Bearable as a “buddy.” Camp Bearable is a weekend-long overnight camp for children ages 6-17 who have lost a loved one. It was started by my hospice agency 13 years ago and is offered free of charge. Each camper is paired with an adult – a buddy – that is with them for the whole weekend. Activities in the camp included normal things like games, campfire, eating together, and crafts. Other activities were focused on helping these children deal with their loss, and simply to be there for the kids. Music therapy is one of the activities, which is how I was introduced to the camp in the first place. At the suggestion of my supervisor, I decided to volunteer the whole weekend as a buddy, instead of just coming in on Saturday afternoon to help lead the music therapy sessions.
I was paired with a girl who was very spunky and didn’t seem too sad…she had been at camp the year before and she was looking forward to the fried chicken. But at certain times during the weekend she became tearful, and a couple times she opened up to me about her loss. She was sad, angry, confused, frustrated, but also had good memories of the one she lost. Above all, she missed her loved one. A lot.
Most of the kids had lost either a parent or a grandparent. A few had lost siblings or aunts, uncles, or cousins. Some lost them to cancer, car accidents, other medical issues. Some lost them to suicide.
I am grateful and proud that my hospice agency offers this camp. The kids have a chance to say anything they want about their loss and they won’t be reprimanded or shushed or told they “shouldn’t say that.” We were taught to simply be there, listen, and validate their feelings. I found they were pretty resilient in their grief, compared to adults. They could easily go from being sad and crying to laughing with their friends and racing down the hallway to the cafeteria.
On the last day, when everyone was physically and emotionally exhausted of course, we did a balloon launch. Everyone (buddies included) wrote a note to their loved one and tied it to the ribbon. We went outside in silence and let the balloons go, watching them ascend, getting smaller and smaller until you couldn’t see them. It was quite an emotional release. I stood behind my girl with my hands on her shoulders. After a little while she turned around, put her arms around me, and tearfully said “I miss him so much.” I told her, “I know you do” and hugged her as tightly as I could. Her girlfriends, who were also crying, came over to comfort her and I found myself wrapping my arms around a group of 5 eleven year olds, with my girl’s arms still wrapped around me.
These kids hurt. Grief is hard because everyone wants to fix it. You can’t fix it. You just need to be there. And wrap your arms around the hurt. The love being poured out and the trust that is reciprocated will lessen the sting and loneliness.