Kids at this summer camp go in heartbroken but come out stronger than ever.
'There isn't a simple recipe for grief.'
Liz Eddy was only 9 years old when she lost her father to cancer, but it wasn't until she reached college that she finally let herself grieve.
"I pretty much ignored it completely and tried to go back to normal life," said Eddy. "There isn't a simple recipe for grief."
Over time, of course, grief snuck up on her, and she had to face it. That's when she heard about Experience Camps — weeklong not-for-profit summer camps designed to help kids cope with the death of a loved one, free of charge.
The camps were started back in 2009 by Sara Deren, whose husband ran Camp Manitou, a boys' camp in Maine. That first summer they had 27 campers, and now they have almost 400 in three different locations across the country.
Eddy volunteered to be a counselor at Experience Camps back in 2013, and she now serves on the camp's board of directors. Like 90% of the campers, she simply can't stay away.
Experience Camps give all the kids (and counselors) the chance to deal with their emotions and grief in their own time, in their own way, while surrounded by other people who truly "get it."
"Most of the kids they know haven't had someone close to them die, and it makes them feel different and alone," wrote Deren in an email. "Being at a camp like this shows them that they are not alone, gives them an opportunity to talk about their person who died, and release some of the weight they carry around with them."
In everyday life, there's often a lot of pressure to keep grief hidden, Eddy notes, even when around family members who are experiencing it too. "[The campers] don’t want their families to hurt anymore," Eddy explained.
At Experience Camps — where there's an underlying understanding that everyone is struggling with similar feelings day-to-day — that pressure seems to melt away.
When the campers aren't working through their grief, it's also just a great camp filled with summer activities and lifelong friendships.
Anyone who's been to camp knows how quickly bonds can form there. Whether kids are doing mundane things, like brushing their teeth, or exciting things, like learning to water ski, camp friends become their second family. For kids who've experienced a great personal loss, their camp family is often the only group of people with whom they feel comfortable being completely vulnerable.
Eddy recalled one instance were she saw a bunch of boys having a great time on stand-up paddleboards. They told her later that the excursion prompted them to go back to their bunks and show each other pictures of the family members they lost over laughter and tears. The boys ended up a whole lot closer for it.
The camps emphasize that the best way to cope with loss is often through finding a balance between grief and joy.
"It's OK to grieve for someone and still find happiness in life," Deren wrote over email.
The camp offers sharing circles where campers can talk openly about their feelings with clinicians and share memories of lost loved ones, but that's not the only place for "breakthrough moments." These moments are just as likely to occur during a rousing basketball game or while walking through a field after a bonfire.
"You just don’t know when [grief is] going to come out, but the most beautiful thing is everyone is open and aware and ready to listen,” said Eddy.
One night, Eddy was walking back to her bunk after the final bonfire of the week — a time when many kids finally open up — with a 9-year-old girl who had been closed off most of the week ... until that very moment.
"She looks up at me and says, 'I didn’t cry,'" Eddy recalled. "I started to go into mom mode saying, 'No. it’s okay! You don’t have to cry. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel anything!' And she stopped me and said, 'No, but you don’t understand. I feel her. I feel my mom in my heart.' And we both immediately just start crying in the middle of this field."
At the end of the summer, campers leave Experience with the tools they need to continue working through their feelings as they grow into adulthood and to help others do the same.
Campers learn there's no one magic way to get through grief, that everyone processes it in their own unique way, and that the feelings that go along with it are going to change over time. They leave knowing there will be great days and terrible days, but that they've got a support system that will always be there for them when they need it most.
It comes down to a story the counselors tell the campers about an invisible string: Even though they can't see it, this string ties all the campers and counselors of Experience together and acts as a constant reminder they are never alone.