My Manitou Experience

By Sunil Arora

The yin and yang of grief is not something that is often contemplated, let alone highlighted. In dealing with the death of my father when I was in college, I certainly did not immediately appreciate the dichotomy that results from a deep personal loss. And so I had a full range of emotions ­ curiosity, excitement, apprehension ­ as I embarked upon my first experience volunteering as a counselor for the Manitou Experience, a weeklong summer camp for kids who have lost a parent, sibling, or loved one. The camp provides a safe environment for kids to learn the tools to express and manage their grief while maintaining a sacred rite of childhood ­ carefree and competitive fun. I went into the week unsure of how overwhelming it might be, and how I would balance the joy and grief while being out of my comfort zone but I came away from the experience with a deep appreciation for the powerful effects of this camp. My personal experience at camp was marked equally by new learnings and inspiration. I learned that as much as you want to tangibly help a child who has suffered a tragic loss with specific advice or guidance, the best thing you can do is be consistently open and present with them. I was also exposed to a new kind of rejuvenation ­ the kind that comes from disconnecting from work and the digital trappings of our modern world because you want to, not because you have to. Many of us struggle with balance of doing and being but you don’t have a choice at camp ­ you just have to be, both through the light hearted fun and play and with the deep, emotional sharing. As you might expect, I was continually inspired by the strength and resolve of the campers and my fellow volunteers, but what surprised me was the depth of the bonds that were established in a very short period of time. These genuine connections were rooted in a shared desire to be surrounded by others who wish to embrace the complications associated with grief in life.

You might be wondering, as I was before I went, how the camp maintains the difficult balance between joy and sadness. It starts with the understanding that working through grief, like all progress, is incremental, and can’t be forced. The range of camp activities allow for a natural evolution of friendships, teamwork, and sharing. Nowhere is this more evident than with some of the campers who begin the week ambivalent about being there and end it by sharing deeply with new best friends and counting down the days before they can come back in a year. The camp facilitates this transformation by providing an environment that is consistently comfortable and protected but also fun and normal ­ a critical element for kids who have spent a large portion of their lives grappling with isolating abnormalcy as a result of their loss.

We learn and grow by authentically sharing and listening; everyone has a story and the Manitou Experience lets you tell yours in a profound and lasting way.