Good Grief Camp helps kids cope with loss of military parent
Camp season is in full swing, and children and teenagers all across the nation are enjoying everything from rock ‘n’ roll camp to soccer camp. Carolyn Horton, 16, of Haymarket, Va., is no exception, although her camp, at least superficially, sounds less uplifting than learning how to jam like Hendrix or bend it like Beckham.
She attends the Good Grief Camp, put on by TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group intended for military children who have lost a parent. Carolyn’s dad, a major in the Army, died in 1999 of gastrointestinal cancer. But contrary to what outsiders might think, Carolyn can’t wait for the annual three-day camp, which she has attended since 1999, to begin.
“A lot of my friends come every year,” Carolyn says. “We can share joy and sorrow without judgment. The main thing is that we don’t feel alone; because of what we’ve gone through, we have a deep connection.”
The main Good Grief Camp, attended by about 250 children, takes place each Memorial Day in the Washington area, but throughout the summer, minicamps, attended by 20 to 30 children, are held all across the nation, says Tina Saari, camp organizer. The main camp, which also provides some services and activities for grieving adults, is $50 a day per person, and the minicamps are free.
“Some kids, when they come to camp, have never even told anybody that their parent has died,” says Mrs. Saari, whose husband currently serves in Iraq as an Army helicopter pilot. “They don’t know how people are going to react, they don’t know who to trust and they don’t want to be judged.”
At camp, though, by the end of the day, the children are opening up and sharing, she says.
“Many of them finally feel they don’t have to watch what they’re saying,” Mrs. Saari says. “They can speak and express themselves freely. It’s the first time they feel like they can really open up without fear of repercussions.”
The peer support — which Carolyn mentions often — plays a big role in this gradual ability to open up, Mrs. Saari says. But the camp staff also employs various staff-led workshops and activities to teach children to cope with their loss and loneliness, manage their anger and find productive ways to express themselves.
A favorite activity is the balloon release, she says. Children write a letter to their deceased parent — mostly dads — tie it to a balloon and then let the balloon drift off toward the heavens.
“That was my favorite part the first year,” Carolyn says. “I don’t know what I wrote except that I missed him.”
Courtney Nyren, whose ex-husband, Nathaniel Nyren, was serving in the military when he died in a 2004 car accident, says her daughter, Brooke, now 10, has benefited greatly from the camp.
“Now she knows that she can write him a letter at any time and that she can go to her room and have a quiet conversation with him whenever she wants to,” says Ms. Nyren of Reston, Va. “She knows he’s always with her.”
Brooke, who has attended the camp three years in a row, says she really likes all the special events and guests that are part of the camp. This year, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus sent a troupe to entertain and educate the children.
“I really loved spinning the plates,” Brooke says. “They taught us how to do it.”
The troupe also taught the children how to build human pyramids and how to juggle — all activities intended to build trust and confidence, Mrs. Saari says.
“We do everything from fun crafts to circle time, where we talk about grief and loss,” she says. “We tell kids to relieve their anger by screaming into a pillow, using a stress ball or writing down their feelings. Everything we do is intended to help them cope.”
One activity — the paper bag exercise — encourages the children to explore hidden feelings and thoughts, she says. On the inside of a paper bag, the children are asked to write how they feel. On the outside they’re asked to scribble down how they believe they’re perceived by the outside world.
“There’s often a big discrepancy,” Mrs. Saari says. “One girl, who is 14, wrote on the outside that she’s expected to feel and act like a teen. But on the inside she wrote that she feels like she’s still 3.”
Ms. Nyren says getting the kind of peer- and staff-led support that TAPS provides and learning how to cope with grief and anger are crucial.
“If children don’t learn how to express their feelings and open up, the results can be devastating,” she says. “Bad grades, getting mixed up with the wrong crowd and acting out, particularly toward the surviving parent” are potential negative outcomes, she says, adding that she has benefited from TAPS adult programs.
As has Carolyn’s mother, Rosalie Horton, now a peer-mentor.
“Once the initial pain — the crushing pain — passed, I started reaching out to others who were going through the same thing,” Mrs. Horton says. “I told them they could call me at any time — even if it’s 2 or 3 in the morning — and I would always listen. [. . .] They know I can relate because I have been there — what it’s like to feel completely alone.”
The children can become each other’s mentors, too. Brooke, for example, was a “mini-mentor” last year, her mom says. The children also are paired with a grown-up mentor who’s a member of the armed forces.
“I wanted my son to have a male role model, someone who’s in the military,” says Carole Hilton of Chesapeake, Va., whose son, Ryan, 9, has attended the camp together with his two sisters for the past few years. “They’re such good people with good values,” she says, adding that her family’s identity still is strongly tied to the military even if she and the children no longer live on a base. Her husband, Navy Lt. Lawrence D. Hilton, died three years ago of heart disease.
Nick Mintz, a senior airman at Shaw Air Force Base, near Sumter, S.C., and a TAPS mentor, says he encourages children to open up by sharing his own experiences of loss.
“This past year my grandmother died. So, I talk about what that was like for me and hope that they will share their own loss,” says Senior Airman Mintz, who has been a mentor to Carolyn’s brother, Tommy, for the past two years.
“I’m always amazed — once the children open up and talk about the death of their loved one — at how strong they are,” he says, adding that his and Tommy’s conversation and relationship are ongoing, mostly via e-mail.
As summer is nearing an end, so are the TAPS camps. But many people are already looking forward to next year’s main and minicamps.
“I plan to be there next year and the year after that,” Senior Airman Mintz says. “As long as I’m not in the desert.”
Carolyn says her pain is no longer as intense as it used to be, but she says she still plans to attend the camp for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t hurt as much, but I still miss him,” she says, her blue eyes tearing up. “It’s hard when you think about all things he won’t be there for,” she says and goes on to mention big events in a teenager’s life: He missed her 16th birthday, he will miss her high school graduation, he has missed her many musical and artistic achievements and he hasn’t seen her blossom as a soccer player. (She used to be a timid goalie more preoccupied with picking dandelions and watching butterflies than defending the goal; now she’s a skilled midfielder.)
Then a smile spreads across her face and she concludes:
“As long as I feel I have something to give back, I’ll be going [to camp],” she says. “I know what it’s like in the beginning when you don’t trust anyone, and I also know what it’s like when you finally open up and realize it’s OK to trust people again.”
Somebody to lean on: Bayleigh Dostie, 7, talks with her mentor, Pfc. James Bowman, as she gets ready for the day’s events at Good Grief Camp in Arlington, Va. The camp helps children cope with losing a loved one in the military, including in the recent Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.
Joseph Jones, 15, of Virginia Beach, Va., and his mentor, Capt. Pete Mask, take a break to talk during a tour of Arlington Cemetery. Prior to the tour, the group had lunch at Fort Myer and visited the Caisson Stables, which houses the horses that pull caissons during military funerals at the famous cemetery.