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McAbee: Shared grief

by Jeff McAbee

When October rolls around, I’m fairly content to let Saturdays and Sundays roll by while I sit at home lazily watching college football, the NFL, Major League Baseball playoffs or enjoying the Indian summer outside somewhere, preferably near a river.

But when I was asked way back in the warmer months if I wanted to go to Camp Carey in Bailey, Colorado on an October weekend, I didn’t remember how much I liked autumn afternoons to myself.

Camp Carey is a grief camp for little ones, ages 5-12 who have lost someone significant in their life – like a parent or a sibling. I agreed to attend because I knew it would help some people I know, but honestly, as the weekend approached, I found myself regretting the decision. That is, until I went.

Professional grief counselors seek to help children through the grieving process. They equip the adults with some tools as well.

Last weekend, 20 kids were in the program, all of whom showed up at 8 a.m. to get started. I’m not sure that every kid present knew Camp Carey was going to be “this type of camp,” but the atmosphere was attractive and playful to the children, and no one balked.

Each kid was assigned a buddy, an adult trained to accompany the child throughout the weekend whose purpose was just to look after him or her. Then they had some special types of therapy designed to get the kids to open up and to help them realize they were not alone; that other kids were having a similar experience.

Lest you think that this was some grief counselor grilling kids with lots of tough questions about their father’s death with the expectation that they give acceptable answers, it was not. And I can tell you our children are often way more intelligent and keen than we give them credit for.

For example, most of the kids in the room could easily tell the difference between someone who asks them about their missing brother just to be nosy and someone who cares. They’ve got kid radar – even when they don’t have the language to express it.

That’s why I was surprised to hear a counselor tell the kids that when they encountered someone who just didn’t get it, they could go ahead and tell them “yeah, my father died and I am mad about it, so why don’t you shut up, idiot.”

The counselor’s goal was to give words to children who have enough trouble expressing their wants and needs. Talk about “mommy who now lives in heaven?” Tough stuff.

Most of the younger kids were involved in some sort of play therapy. Their grief or their emotions come out in their actions, which at this stage has such a bearing on how they will be as adults.

One kid I know draws trains every time you put a blank piece of paper in front of him and a crayon in his hand. He’s crazy about trains. He isn’t able to say that he misses his daddy. His memory fades each year. He was only 3 at the time. He doesn’t understand when he hears “drunk, passed out and never woke up.” He remembers the sense of joy and security he felt while playing with trains with his father, and so each colorful locomotive he draws represents that void in his life.

My heart goes out to him when he hands me one of those train drawings. I stick it on the fridge with a magnet.

The kids hated a couple of things. First, they can’t stand pity. The last thing they want to be is different or pitiful. One kid gave a description of the sad looks she would get from people. She told us about how mad she would get when someone gave her a canned answer to the question that burned inside her. Why? “God just needed another angel.” I’d be mad too. Well meaning as it may be, kids prefer honesty. One kid said totally off the cuff, “You’d think after all these millennia, God would have enough angels by now.”

A local kid whose dad died recently was having a hard time with all of the people who, in their desire to help, couldn’t see past their own interests – even while trying to assist the family. It all came to a head when the widow drove up to her house one evening. The young boy had blocked off the driveway and entryway to their home with orange cones. He just wanted some space. He didn’t know how to tell anyone, so he took action.

On Sunday, the counselors met with the adults, and then everyone gathered in the main lodge to see what the children had accomplished in the previous 24 hours. It was remarkable, really. They each had planted some plants in pots, and with it they planted, fear, loss, restlessness and sadness.

Each kid made a square for a quilt. We watched and cried as, one by one, the children got up and told us about what they had drawn on their square. “This is my daddy. This is my mommy. This is our dog. This is a chocolate chip cookie. This is an ice cream cone. My daddy really liked Sunday Funday parties. I miss my daddy.”

Some wrote poems, some wrote letters, others said very little, but the catharsis was evident. I found out that these kids, like so many who are going through difficult times, just want an honest conversation and someone to share it with.

Jeff McAbee lives in Breckenridge. He’s a campus supervisor at Summit High School. Contact him at jjmcabee@yahoo.com or via Twitter @Jeff_McAbee.


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