What Helps?

Grief can be very isolating. Most grievers will tell you that nobody understands how they're feeling, and even well-meaning friends can offer misguided and hurtful reactions. Most people just don't get it. By sharing these stories from 5 of our campers' caregivers, we hope to help others understand what helps and what, most definitely, does NOT.

Writing, praying and music help me to overcome the deep sadness I still struggle with. It helps to know that grief is a journey that has no end. The pain doesn't go away, but you do learn how to cope with it and how to live with it. Give yourself permission to be sad. You are the only one who knows how you feel and what is best for you. Those that helped me were the ones that didn't say anything at all. They just held me and cried with me. It helps when others talk about him and share a memory or have acknowledged either his birthday or the anniversary of his death. Statements that never help: "I know how you feel." "Time will heal." "Aren't you over it yet?" - Samantha Sage

When others asked me how they could help, I would give specifics. I needed help with my yard and learning how to take care of my home.  Friends and family stepped up to help and teach me the things that I need to know.  I talk about him.  I have not attended any grief support groups, but other widows have reached out to me to talk.  I read many articles and books on grief.  And I attended counseling (still am, but less often)...I go to his grave and have coffee with him - that is still something that I miss the most - having our early morning coffee together. - Emily Arredondo

I went back to school a few years after my husband passed.  I am now a psychiatric nurse, working with suicidal, drug addicted, and mentally unstable patients.  I feel like I have made a huge difference in the lives of my patients just by treating them with dignity and respect.  I couldn't save my husband, but if I can prevent 1 family from going through what we have gone through, it would mean the world to me. One instance of something NOT helpful was when my boss told me that she knew what I was going through because her husband had to be away for work for two weeks, which turned into four weeks. I couldn't even verbalize to her how hurtful that was.  Much later, I did have the opportunity to tell my boss that her situation was very different because she could have phone conversations with her husband and she knew he'd eventually come home.  I still think she doesn't realize how awful that was. - Christine Guerrier

To cope with my own pain and guilt I try to spread awareness to anyone that will listen. I talk about [my friend who died] and explain to people how vibrant and intelligent she was. How she took all the right steps to protect herself and even though her outcome was death, theirs does not have to be. I attend events sponsored by her foundation and post a link to her site with advice on social media for anyone that may be dealing with domestic violence. I speak with close friends and her mother to share memories about Tiana. I have shared her story with my children as it is important to me that they never experience domestic violence. - Andrea Voedisch

The first thing I did was go to counseling, and got the kids in as well. That really did help. Other things I do are still celebrate his birthday in a small way, make one of his favorite desserts, and I try to go out to eat for what would be our anniversary. I have also been back to where the accident happened a few times, not to make some sort of makeshift shrine but just to sit quietly and "talk" with him the last place we spent happy time together. What has not helped: Strangers or distant acquaintances who want details,  or being in a grocery store and having people talk about you or the accident like you are not even there.  The biggest though is friends who are there the few days after it happens and promise support and time but are nowhere to be found when you need help. Friends that offer time with my kids but never follow through.  - Ann Morin

Coping with the Holidays While Grieving

Experience Camps Clinical Director, Jenny Schreiber, and Jeff's Place Program Director, Melissa Kennedy Panto, share some important coping strategies for grieving through the holiday season.

The holiday season is often marked by an extended period of time of anticipation, frenzy, excitement, and stress.  Many non-grievers experience “holiday blues” and a myriad of emotions.  Given that situation, it is natural that one who is bereaved may experience significant distress during this season of “holiday cheer.”

Below are some suggested guidelines to consider as you, or as you help others, prepare for the holiday season while grieving:

  1. Plan ahead and don’t let any holiday “take you by surprise”.  While our emotions routinely surprise us and may even overwhelm us, it may be empowering to strategize how you will manage the day(s) ahead.
  2. Don’t do it alone!  Talk with your family or friends about how to make the day manageable and even meaningful.  If children are involved, it is especially important to include them in the conversations so that their thoughts and feelings are respected and validated.
  3. Take time to think about your unique rituals related to specific holidays, and whether you want to keep them the same, modify them, get rid of them and/or create new ones.  This is a fluid process, meaning you may do all of the above, and it will take many discussions!
  4. Take care of yourself!  This is extremely difficult for most of us, but it is especially challenging while one is grieving.  Create as conducive an environment as is possible so that you are eating, sleeping, and exercising in a healthy manner.
  5. Give yourself permission to “lose it” from time to time!  The idea of “good enough” can be very helpful.  Try to focus on the steps rather than simply the outcome.
  6. BREATHE DEEPLY AND SLOWLY… allowing yourself to get through moment to moment if that’s what you need.

Abundance from Scarcity

By Sunil Arora

We often live our lives consumed more with the things we don’t have - scarcity - instead of appreciating everything that wonderfully surrounds us - abundance. The shift from a scarcity to abundance mindset typically occurs as a result of an impactful but ephemeral experience such as a transformative event in life or a travel experience that connects you to a different culture or existence. The increasing popularity and discussion around meditation and mindfulness are part of a needed movement to understand how to effectuate this shift on a regular basis in the course of our daily lives. Something that is not typically considered, however, is the possibility of turning scarcity into abundance. How can you take something that you don’t have and turn it into an appreciation of abundance? Experience Camps answer this challenging question in a beautiful way.

Experience Camps bring together kids who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling. The scarcity is real and it is deeply painful. These kids have to contextualize death at entirely too young of an age and navigate their lives without an integral part of their family while being surrounded by peers who do not have to deal with such a predicament. It would be understandable, if not expected, for these kids to focus on who and what they don’t have in their lives. But every year, hundreds of kids leave Experience Camps appreciating and celebrating the love, community, and support they have in abundance.

It serves as a wonderful example for us as adults who often think about wanting more - love, time, money, recognition, and many other things - when in reality we are immersed in abundance. Taking a difficult circumstance of loss that alternates between a dull ache and a sharp pain and turning it into something that constantly reminds you of what you still have is no easy task but Experience Camps make it happen. The resilience of the kids is combined with an appreciation for the duality of grief - it hurts but also binds those who share it - to create a truly special community.

The best part of all of this is that, for the kids, this all happens at camp while just being kids - laughing, playing, bonding, and competing their way through games, recreation, and carefree silliness. As counselors and staff, we go to Experience Camps to guide and help the kids with a missing part of their lives, but we come away with a much bigger lesson on learning how to see and appreciate all the abundance that surrounds us in our daily lives.

The Great Unifier

In recent weeks, 3 police officers were shot and killed in Baton Rouge and another 5 in Dallas. Those 8 officers left behind 11 children in total. According to the Washington Post, 533 people have been killed by police in 2016, most of whom were armed and dangerous, some of whom were not. For some reason, the press doesn't report on which of those victims had children, but let's assume that at least a handful did.  On the surface, it may seem the children of those two groups are on different sides of a great big wall that divides right from wrong or black from white.  In reality, all of those children have joined a club that makes them more similar than different in the most important way that matters to them right now. Each of those children has lost a parent. Many people in their lives won't know what to say or do to make it better. Most of them will feel like nobody understands what they're going through.

Grief doesn't know black from white. It doesn't care who was holding the gun and who wasn't. It doesn't know wrong from right. Grief has no correlation to wealth, privilege, socioeconomics, religious beliefs, or political views. It is the great unifier. At Experience Camps, those in the club seek out the others who "get it". They look for similarities in their stories and experiences to feel normal in their own. They recognize differences with compassion and a desire to understand.

This year, we spent a lot of time in the off-season talking about Inclusion and Diversity. We have reflected on our own perceptions and beliefs and have broken down assumptions about individuals and groups of people that we didn't even know we were making. We realized a vision for Experience Camps that values difference and the need to respect, understand and embrace those differences. At camp, we will relay this vision to our campers in words and actions and they will know there is at least one place they can go where they are accepted and safe. Maybe some day the rest of the world will do the same.

A Day at Camp

by Josh Hahn...

No two days at Experience Camps are ever alike. They are a roller coaster of activity and emotion but always seems to strike the right balance; the highs and lows, the joy and pain, the tears and laughter.

Following the raising of both the American and Experience Camps flags, it’s on to a hearty breakfast and then instructionals. From tennis to waterskiing, rock-climbing to radio, baseball to hockey, instructionals provide an opportunity for campers to explore both their favorite activities and new ones, and receive organized instruction that leaves with them with improved skills and self-confidence. There are very few things as rewarding as the joy on a camper’s face when he or she waterskis for the first time, or hits a ball further than ever before.

Two periods of morning instructionals give way to arguably the most significant hour at camp, the sharing circle. This bunk activity provides the unique opportunity for our campers to share memories of their special person that died.  Some circles get very deep and emotional; others are light and filled with happy memories. Either way, it's an important time in the week for the campers to establish the bonds and openness with their bunkmates that are so important to their experience at camp.

Afternoons are reserved for College League, our highly spirited week-long competition. All the campers and staff are placed on a team, named after a college, and they compete in a wide array of both athletic, artistic, and mind-bending games. Points are awarded, team loyalties run deep, and cheering and enthusiasm overflow. By emphasizing sportsmanship and the spirit of competition, campers learn the value of teamwork, lifting up those who fall, and how to win and lose gracefully.

Some afternoons are reserved for non-college league activities and provide the ideal opportunity to explore the beauty of our natural surroundings…a boat trip on the lake, an oceanside hike, or a trip up one of the area’s amazing mountains to capture some majestic views. These moments of rare beauty and tranquility are ones that no camper could ever capture back home.

Food is a always a highlight of the week and dinner meals shine. Pasta bar, lobster rolls, steak and fries, homemade BBQ pork, lavish salad bars, vegetarian options and spectacular desserts like baked Alaska and whoopie pies. With a schedule of non-stop activity, dinner time can never come soon enough.

With the night still young, evening activities abound. Favorites include Steve Hirsch Night, or, in simpler terms, a big milkshake party. Game shows, talent shows, and the always popular Mr. or Ms. ExCamps competition round out the week. A further evening highlight is the trip to the local mini golf course. As if golf and ice cream are not good enough, this activity allows the youngest campers to be paired with their CIT (counselor-in-training) buddies. The buddy program provides our younger campers with someone looking out for them while our older campers have the opportunity to give back to those whose shoes they once stood in. It’s amazing to watch these relationships develop and to see how it benefits all the campers, young and old alike.

Most nights will typically end with a moment of quiet and reflection. Perhaps a campfire with a camper or staff speaker or song or an opportunity for the campers to write a quiet note to their special person and place it in the fire on the way back to the bunk. Unquestionably though, the week truly culminates with the final evening’s closing campfire. There are no words to properly set this scene or describe just how powerful it is. As the CITs line the entrance to the campsite, campers once inside have the opportunity to light a candle for their loved one and bravely speak to the entire camp, telling their story, sharing a memory, or thanking their friends. Tears flow, warm embraces follow, and love fills the air.

Despite the vast amount of activities, the amazing facilities, the incredible food, and the caring and enthusiastic staff, it’s friendships and connecting the invisible strings of a shared experience that bring our campers back each summer.  And, as we like to say, it’s what make a grieving child’s time at Experience Camps the “best week ever.”

 

My Kennybrook Experience

Each summer, a counselor or camper is asked to kick off a campfire by sharing their story or thoughts about their grief and time at camp. As you might imagine, it is an amazingly touching way to remember someone, share thoughts that are not often shared out loud, and model the openness and support that are the foundation of our experiences at camp. Below are the words that first-year counselor, Zach Bergman, read at the closing campfire at Kennybrook Experience last summer. 

A Letter Home

By Zach Bergman

I wake up everyday when all of a sudden the harsh reality sets in.  My best friend, my hero, my dad is dead.  It has been just under 4 months since my dad has died but yet these emotions of anger, sadness, confusion, frustration are all very palpable day in and day out.  I miss talking, laughing, playing, and learning from my dad.  I am scared to experience life without my dad.  He was the one I turned to for support, guidance and advice. I find myself asking how will put the next foot forward?  How will I make the right choice without his guidance?  How will I know the answers to my questions without him there?

I, like many of you, thought “I am okay”, “I will get through this”, “ I don’t need anyone’s help”. But then I came to Kennybrook Experience.  I, too, was scared and apprehensive about coming. But then I met the amazing staff.  I participated in circle time with a bunch of my peers who I didn’t know.  I was able to open up to a bunch of people who I have only known for a few hours.  I was telling them things I wouldn’t tell some of my closest friends.  I am not entirely sure what drove me to do this but I think it had something to do with the "magic".  That magic made me feel at ease and made me feel comfortable.  I was not even here for 8 hours but I know this place was special. The moment the kids stepped off the bus headed to the basketball court I knew I was in the right place.  I felt excitement, nervousness, but mostly eagerness to get the week going.  The energy, the enthusiasm, and the excitement of camp brought me right back to my element.  I was having fun and living like a kid.  The outside world didn’t matter.  I forgot about work, I forgot about my problems, but most of all I forgot about the loss I was feeling.  Then circle time ensued, a time where 4 counselors, 8 campers, and 1 clinician had a safe space.  A space where we can let all our emotions out and feel them together as one cabin.  To hear every single one of my campers share a piece of their story was not only touching but it was also reassuring.  I was reassured that there are others like me going through the same thing I am going through.  I am not the only one dealing with these emotions and feelings that I am currently feeling.  Shortly after circle time concluded the kids were back laughing, playing and having fun and putting our discussions we just had on the back burner and forgetting the stresses of the outside world.   To me, that balance is like no other.  No other place are you able to empathize with your brothers and then five minutes later laugh over something silly.  I need that balance. With such sadness I need happiness.  I have truly found that perfect balance at KenEx.

I look out at you 40 kids and am absolutely amazed.  I was lucky enough to have my father for 24 years of my life.  He has given me the tools to succeed in life.  He taught me how to be a man, how to respect people, and how to be kind.  While I was fortunate enough to have my dad to teach me and to mold me into the man I am, many of you don’t have that figure in your life to teach you. Yet so many of you have those tools: you are so kind, respectful, and amazing,  I commend each and every one of you.  I wanted to come to camp and teach kids how to better themselves but I think the opposite has unfolded.  You guys taught me about myself.  You have taught me how to open up, how to be a better person, and how to open back my heart to love again.  While no one can take the place of my dad I have found ways to use that part of my heart again and that void is filled by all of you.  

Often times I don’t like talking about my father’s death.  It is uncomfortable and people don’t get it. I have a found a safe place here where people do get it.  A place where I can talk about things, a place where I can cry and have 50 other people picking me up and comforting me.  Religion, race, background all go out the window and we stand here connected. We are all connected by a loss, a loss none of us wish we had.  However, this loss has brought us here. This loss has connected every single one of us, and for that I am thankful.  I have learned so much about all of you.  Your willingness to talk and share is a gift I encourage all of you to keep.  Thank you for giving me the strength I have been yearning for since my dad died.  With darkness comes light.  Thank you for everyone who has made this camp possible.  

Leader of One

The following was written by Damon Leary and read to the CIT2s at Manitou Experience on the last day of camp. It was inspired by all of the leaders he witnessed at ManEx who made him think, feel and lead in a different way.

Sometimes a word, after too much repetition, loses its meaning. The word 'leader' is often times such a word. We use it a lot here at camp with regard to you guys in particular, the CIT's. I urge you to fight against this natural desire to tune out the meaning. I urge you to keep yourself in the leadership conversation despite the fact that maybe you don't consider yourself a leader at this exact moment in time, or maybe don't think you want to be one in the future. Maybe you just want to write a novel and live in the woods. Maybe you want to start a small company and not deal with a bunch of people. Whatever it is you think you want to do, or don't want to do, right now or in the future, never take yourself out of the leadership conversation. Why? Because whether you become a leader of a team, town, city, company, family, or no one at all, you need to always try to be a great leader of one person, yourself, or you risk being a bad leader for all. Even more importantly you risk not enjoying life as much as I know you all are capable of. You risk not enjoying life as much as you all deserve to enjoy life and that is truly what is at stake. 

Soon you guys are going out into the world. Soon you guys will be given the keys to you. And for the first time you will be in the driver seat. It can be a scary time, yes. But it’s an exciting time too. You have all demonstrated great leadership skills with the ones around you. I urge you to demonstrate those same skills with regard to leading yourself.

Employing the 5 CIT principles that the CITs before you so ingeniously came up with, you can be a great leader of one and great leader of many if you so choose.

Wisdom

Wisdom occurs when intelligence meets experience. You can’t have wisdom without experience. There are super computers out there much smarter than all of you combined, but they lack your experience and they are therefore not as wise. The name of this camp is Manitou Experience because everyone here has an experience to share. We have all experienced “loss” and are in the process of turning that loss into wisdom to move forward. 'Forward' being the key word. While none of us would have wished for these experiences to have occurred, we can all use them to gain wisdom. It’s an opportunity. 

We have all experienced setbacks, and on the road ahead we will experience more setbacks. Some of which are completely out of our control. Others will occur by our own hand and these types of setbacks are called “mistakes”. We all make mistakes. In fact I don’t think you are living life correctly unless you are making mistakes. Why? Because that means you are trying new things and pushing yourself to new limits. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you are making different mistakes. Let’s say a full life requires 100 big mistakes, don’t get stuck on number 5 and go back to one and repeat. That’s like taking this new car you’ve been given and driving around in a circle your whole lives. While it might be easier in the short term it will be less rewarding down the road. Learn from each setback and mistake to gain wisdom and move forward.

Responsibility

This week we set the bar high for you guys. We gave you a lot of responsibilities and you met all of them. Do the same for yourself. If there is something in life you want to do: get a Hockey scholarship, learn guitar, learn to speak French, get better grades, be a computer programmer, write a novel, whatever it is, then take responsibility for that dream, make it a goal, and stick to it. Know that most goals will not happen overnight but they can happen in time. Say it takes 150 hours to learn guitar on a basic level, realize that you will not achieve this goal overnight. Chisel away at it bit by bit. 2 hours here 2 hours there. Take it from us older guys, 150 hours is nothing in the big picture. Put that goal ahead of other things if and when your schedule allows. Say you have one free night to practice guitar or do your paper, and your friends are watching the Sox, or you just got a new video game, or your friends are staying out late, skip it for one night. It’s hard but it’s worth it. If someone offered me to trade all the hours I watched the Yankees, Giants, Knicks and Rangers, all the time I spent playing video games, or just hanging out, if I could trade all those hours to be fluent in Italian or good at guitar or to have written a novel, I would do it in a heartbeat. The games and parties and video games will always be there willing to take your money and time. The money you can make back, the time you can’t. Yes, have fun, have as much fun as you possibly can when you can, but put aside some time for your goals and achieving them will be a lot more fun than the collection of hours you spent just hanging out.

Brotherhood

You guys have been phenomenal at supporting your buddies, and fellow campers and counselors. Make sure you support yourself too. You guys love the guys around you. Take time to Love yourself too. This might sound obvious but I, for example years ago found it easier to love other people before loving myself. It was easier for me to say “I love you” to another person than it was for me to look in the mirror and say it to myself. You all are worthy of your own love for yourself. Literally look into a mirror and say I love you. Literally give yourself a high five. You make a mistake, cut yourself some slack. Don’t beat yourself up. Also, if you are having a great day, then soak it in. It’s ok to have a great day, you deserve it. We all do. Don’t cut it short and then wallow in guilt. Guilt can be a trap. Guilt is like a pothole which can be as big as a baseball or it can swallow your car if you let it. Any loved one of yours, living or dead, would want all your days to be good ones. Each and every one of you deserves great things from life. Have high standards for yourselves. If you find yourself in a situation that is beneath you, then get out as best as you can. If you get a C on a Paper and you think you deserve a B, then speak up, the teacher will respect you more either way. You deserve to be treated with the same respect you display to others. You deserve a raise and don’t get it? Speak up. If your peers are disrespecting you, screw them. Their loss. They are not true peers. They can live with their own negativity and you will benefit from your own positivity. If you are not able to speak up then make sure it rolls off your back. One of the great things about getting older is that more and more things will roll off your back if you let them. Love yourself and let them roll right off. It’s not easy but it will get easier in time if you work at it which you all are doing right now. Be a good brother to yourself. I’ve seen you guys carry other guys up hills, make sure you carry yourselves too.

Versatility

This might be the most important one of the batch. Be flexible in life and be flexible with yourselves. Trying new things and listening to feedback are both keys to being versatile. Don’t talk yourself out of trying new things and going to new places. Don’t talk yourself out of having a good life. You don’t need to travel far and wide to try new things. Don’t just say, “Well I don’t have the money or time to travel so what’s the point?” Most of my best memories have occurred in my own back yard so to speak. Go climb a hill near your house to watch the sunrise simply because you’ve never done that before. Take a break from your normal TV show to watch a documentary on something you know nothing about. Watch a classic movie just to see what it’s like. Take a class that’s out of your comfort zone but might turn into your life’s passion. These are all forms of travel but don’t require a lot of time or money. A better future might be around the next corner but you will never get there if you don’t go around the corner. That “weird” guy sitting across from you in class or at work could be your next best friend. You will never know this if you are not flexible enough to talk to him and more importantly to LISTEN to him. Good leaders can be vocal. The best leaders are good listeners. They listen to feedback and adapt and learn. Listen to your own feedback and respond. This is versatility. Don't stick to a plan that your gut is telling you isn't working any longer. The battlefield of life is littered with the remains of inflexible plans clung to by bad leaders who refused to adapt. Don’t be one of these leaders. Our legs were made to take us in all directions not just one. Try new things and LISTEN to yourself and respond.

Balance

Balance is putting all of this together. You might say “how can I have high standards and be flexible and wise and versatile?” How can I cut myself some slack and be responsible for my goals? How can I listen to one guy and let another guy’s words roll off my back all at the same time? The answer is: you can’t. Not at the same time. The good news is you don’t have to. Life is always changing. Day to day, week to week. Each situation requires a new interpretation and response. Sometimes you will put yourself to bed early. Other times you will be staying up late into the night having a great conversation with a friend you just met. Sometimes you should be hard on yourself to meet your goals. Other times you need to cut yourself some slack. All times you need to love yourself and lead yourself. This is the balance of life. You will be in that driver seat soon as I said. You can let the car drive you around a circular track or you can lead yourself and drive down the ever changing and more rewarding road that is life. It’s not going to be easy at first. There will be some boring straightaways, sudden hairpin turns, long uphills yes. But there will be many more long downhills with beautiful views if you simply try your best to drive forward and be a good leader of one, yourself.