C.T. was anxious for the entirety of last week, leading up to the hospice-sponsored grief camp he attended during the past few days. As Day 1 of camp approached, his tears and grief trickled out, but more persistently than they do during a typical week. He tried to explain to us how angry he is to have had such little time with Zachary. How cheated he feels that he was never able to spend time with Zachary when he was healthy and able to interact. WHY didn't they let me come? I would not have brought any germs with me. I could have changed my clothes and scrubbed by arms and hands, just like you did. He worried that he wouldn't have enough "Zachary stories" to share at camp, that he would be jealous of the sheer time, the volume of memories, represented by the other kids, who he imagined were afforded more time with their deceased sibling or parent. He explained that he was concerned about crying in front of strangers (thank you, society) and about not being able to stop crying, once he got started. We spent a couple of days last week just trying to purposefully hash out these deep, painful emotions and concerns, so that he would feel heard and ready for Day 1 of camp. It was an exhausting week, keeping pace with the overflow of C.T.'s emotions, the escapes he needed in between and my own heartbreak for him and us.
Drop-off on Day 1 was really difficult for both of us. He clung to me, tears in his eyes, when it was time for me to go. I knew he didn't want to admit that he was part of this grief "club", didn't want to get to know these other stranger kids and their sad, sorry stories. It's a feeling I know all too well. I felt the exact same anxiety and disgust upon parking the car to go to my first support group meeting when B.W. died. And, then again, when I joined a another support group after Zachary died. Is this really me who is participating? And, again?! Is this really my life? I tried to assure C.T. of everything we had talked about throughout the week, kissed him and then left him there in his neon yellow hospice camp shirt, in the care of experts and camp counselors. I sobbed as soon as I reached the elevator and had trouble driving the 15 or so blocks home.
I held off as long as I could, but about four hours into the camp day, I sent a text to the head camp coordinator (who said she was open to dialogue with parents or caregivers throughout the day) to ask how C.T. was doing. She noted that he wore his sunglasses the entire day - even while they were indoors - and that he had some tears, but that all was okay. I guess the sunglasses were his last ditch attempt to protect himself from feeling like everyone was watching, during the times when he cried.
The camp turned out to be a really beautiful and meaningful experience for C.T. He even relaxed and took off his sunglasses. Each day, he became more comfortable and more willing to go back again. The staff had planned so many different (even fun) grief activities..., and all of the children got to feel "normal", in the company of other bereaved kids, and adults who understand and encourage them to talk about their deceased family member.
The kids were able to share pictures of their special someone and talk about him/her, in front of their small group. They had two volunteers dedicated to sitting with each child to design a photo slide show, set to music selected by the camper. (The volunteer who worked with C.T. was named Zach. C.T. made sure to tell me that his full name was Zachary and pointed him out to us, at the closing ceremony.) The kids made screaming boxes - a place to physically send their screams of anger at their loved one's death, a way to visualize it leaving their bodies, if only temporarily. They talked about their complex grief emotions and some healthy ways to express them. They talked about wearing a mask sometimes and how that sadly becomes part of life, to some extent, when your sibling or parent has died, and then they made their own grief masks. There was professional storyteller who delighted them with all kinds of stories, incorporating the reality of loss and grief as an integral part. With a music therapist, they created a beautiful camp song that they performed at the closing ceremony on Sunday.
After their second discussion about complex grief emotions, the kids were asked to lay down and be traced on gigantic pieces of butcher paper. Below is C.T.'s outline and how he chose to represent what he says are his own three primary grief emotions. He was so proud to take B and me over to the display wall, after the closing ceremony, and tell us how he feels his anger in his chest and feet (black), his sorrow in his head and arms (blue) and his nervous (worried) feelings in his core (orange).
I was just so proud of C.T. for attending camp and so thankful that I followed through on getting him signed up. The experience of watching Zachary suffer and die, of having his brother stripped away from his life forever, on top of knowing there is an older brother who has also died, is just so heartbreaking that it's tempting to try and look away from it. To just look ahead, push forever onward and beyond, hope for no more tragedy to befall this poor child. B and I absolutely never take this approach, but we have felt it in some ways from society and definitely from C.T.'s school. From the camp experience, our beliefs were confirmed that there is so much value for C.T., just as it is true for us as his parents, in grieving and remembering and continuing to express love for Zachary and B.W.