In August of 2023, I got to spend time at a camp for grieving children with Experience Camps on the edge of Catoctin State Park in the mountains of Thurmont, Maryland. What I thought would be a week of volunteering to be of support to a group of young, broken hearts would turn out to be an experience I will never forget.
When I arrived at Experience Camps, I was ready to be of service. I was ready to turn on the wackiness and silliness that only summer camp can bring. I also went in with the mindset that I knew what it meant to hold space for grief; I’ve been doing it for so long for others and was ready to do so for these young hearts. I would be a counselor that they remembered. Very quickly, however, I learned that my service to them would be eclipsed by everything that I would be given in return.
Experience Camps describes themselves as a “ national, no-cost program for grieving children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver.” With camps in multiple locations all over the United States, Ex-Camps has built an organization dedicated to allowing children to honor their grief while playing and working through it. Working in the field of grief and story as a death doula, I was contacted by a member of their staff earlier in the year to consider being a volunteer camp counselor. Of course, with my own experience of childhood grief, saying yes was a no-brainer.
I didn’t know these people and it is an understatement to say that I had no idea of what to expect. To say that the camp experience and the week-long involvement were intense, would be to minimize its magnitude. It was OVERWHELMING in the best way possible. Children from the DMV area flooded in and we counselors were faced with not only providing them with a fun and exciting time, but also a safe and therapeutic one. Add into that trauma and behavioral needs and you get a pretty energized atmosphere. Talent shows, sports and artistic events, and friendly and fun competitions were on the schedule every day. But so were sharing circles, moments of grief exploration, and conversations with children that flooded my senses and brought back so many memories of pain and grief. A lot of space was held.
I met and lived with camp counselors who have been returning volunteers for 8-plus years. I met staff and clinicians who have dedicated their lives to grief and bereavement. I met staff who have been deeply affected on both a personal and professional level by camp life. Even the Chief Executive Director, Sara Deren, was there holding space and being completely present with the kids.
The highlight of my week was the final campfire. That campfire was a light within a very sacred experience. I have often described my interactions with grief after the death of my mother at age 7 as feeling like I was dropped off in a strange and foreign land and tasked with finding my way home, alone. Dark, lonely, often rainy, many years of my life were lonely, dark, and unsafe. The campfire and the darkness surrounding it brought all of that back.
There I was at the end of the week, sitting in the middle of a dark forest in front of the fire, surrounded by 40-plus children who I would barely see in the fading light but who were feeling the same way I had felt. I looked up into the trees, dark and sinister, and felt like I was navigating the darkness all over again. Around that fire, those vulnerable, yet brave kids told stories that made grown men cry. Stories of watching parents die in front of them, of siblings dying on street corners, of pressure to care for surviving parents. They told stories of cancer and heart attacks. Of abusive partners. Kids that had smiled and screamed with joy during the week amid their activities, never sharing their stories, did so around that fire with tears in their eyes and wails in their throats. They were held by counselors, surrounded by candles, and cared for by professionals educated in grief and bereavement. I sat around that fire, seeing and feeling a connection to these children that I did not anticipate.
I didn’t think that I would be so affected. Naive, I know. I was ready to serve, not be served. But at that moment, I understood that although I had walked with many others in their struggle with loss, the child in me had never had an experience like this. The child in me, who watched his mother die at his feet, had never been held. Never been given the room to feel supported like this.
And I realized that I was at Experience Camps not solely to be of service, but to receive what I had always needed. The dark forest had not changed; I was sitting in a very real one feeling what I had always felt. But now, here, in this place, I was not navigating the dark alone. Others who had been dropped off in the land and shadow of sorrow as well were calling out with their voices, welcoming me to be a part of their story. And we were all listening to each other, groping and finding hands in the darkness to hold.
My heart burst around that fire. During that last sharing circle, I cried in a way that I had never cried before ( I have cried many times before, but I have always cried alone). Not only because the stories were so sad and overwhelming, but because I had finally found a place where the stories were heard. I was crying with joy because I had been found.
I believe that as a volunteer, I fully supported and served the children I was assigned to. I believe I did my job. I also believe that Experience Camps gave me an experience that I have always needed. And it is in that space where service and receiving meet that true change and support and held space happened.
If there is one thing that I believe in, I believe that holding space for others in their grief means more than giving them the room to share and be with the loss or pain. It also means being welcomed into it, witnessing it, and embracing the connections that are made. I held space as a volunteer with Experience Camps during that week. And I was also invited in and given space to have my own experience.
For that, I am grateful.
In Service and In Gratitude,
Experience Camps is a nonprofit that champions the nation’s 5.3 million bereaved children and runs a network of no-cost camps that help grieving children thrive. Since 2009, Experience Camps has transformed the lives of thousands of children by reframing the experience of their grief and empowering them with the confidence, skills, and support to move forward with their lives.
Please, learn more and consider donating to Experience Camps. You can do so here.