Losing A Family Member, Gaining 100 More

When my dad died on August 4th, 2012, I didn’t have many friends who could relate. And I had no idea what to do with the feelings I was feeling.

I was 23 years old and had a lot on my plate – a good job, lots of close friends, parties, dating – all while just trying to find my footing as a recent college grad living in New York City.

Before my dad died, I felt like I was on the cusp of that time in a man’s life when he starts to become friends with his father. My dad and I especially were so alike. In between chemo, petty arguments about the present, and unresolved tension over the past, we were starting to become genuine friends.

When he died, I felt like I lost the best friend I never had.


Brian (on left-hand side, 2nd from front) with the guys of MenEx, who gather to play, connect, and share their grief

Navigating grief alone

Shortly after he died, one of my actual best friends–who also lost his dad far too young–told me about an organization called Experience Camps. It offered free one-week camps for children who had experienced the death of a parent or sibling. It sounded cool. But I was busy–busy building things, figuring out who I was, and trying to make my dead dad proud.

For four years, I navigated my own grief journey alone. I say that now, but at the time, I didn’t know what the heck a grief journey was. I was just doing my best.

Right after he died, I spent some time in therapy–eight weeks to be exact. Then I did some traveling. I changed jobs. Built a business. Started another. For the most part, I was happy. But my relationship with my dad and my grief felt incomplete. There were a lot of stones unturned.

Finding the courage to apply

In 2016, I finally drummed up the courage to apply to be a volunteer at Experience Camps. That one week as a volunteer counselor changed my life.

Sitting in a circle alongside young men and fellow counselors, sharing experiences with death and grief, helped me do that long awaited processing. Hearing the stories of kids as young as eight years old who lost parents and siblings really put things in perspective. And finally, I was connecting with more people my age who got it. Dudes like me who experienced the death of a parent, who were open and willing to talk about their feelings.

For a group of us dudes, our one week of camp together didn’t feel like enough. After all, we were there for the kids (#FTK). But like those kids, we craved a space to talk about our own grief. So we created it, together.

The origins of MenEx

My good friend Dan sent an email after my second summer as a counselor, with the subject line “Keeping the connections going.” I found that email when writing this and want to share one line from it:

“I have a lot of love and support in my life, but I can’t shake how special it felt to sit with each of you and acknowledge how hard it was to get through that first period of loss, and how even now I still have that hole there. And just like we want the campers to feel connected to each other and to camp year-round, I think we deserve that too.”

The rest of us responded enthusiastically, and MenEx was born.

We started by meeting up every few months at a different apartment. Whoever was hosting that day would kick off the conversation with some things that have been coming up for them, and a question for the group. Then we’d sit in a circle as men and talk about our feelings.

When MenEx was at Frank’s apartment, Matt brought his famous hand-cured gravlax. When it was at Dan’s place, we hung out on the roof and drank beers. When it was at Jon’s, we ordered pizza and sat on Adirondack chairs. When it was at mine, I grilled burgers on my deck. 

Crazy outfits and great hangin’

That winter, we planned a ski trip. Only half the group skied at the time. I don’t think Hoosh had ever seen snow in his life. But we did it for a weekend of quality hanging. Some of us carved up the mountain. Others spent most of the day eating snow. But when the day was over, we’d head back to our Airbnb, circle up, and talk about our grief. Then we’d play games and compete over who would have to wear the most ridiculous costume that Wiley brought the next day out on the snow.

The ski trip has become a yearly tradition. We have an active group text thread to this day. Since we started the group back in 2017, dudes have gotten married, had kids, changed jobs, and moved around the country. But MenEx remains as strong as ever.

Now when we hang out, we don’t talk about our shared experiences with the death of a parent as often as we used to. When we circle up, it’s more likely to be for a game of poker than to talk about our grief. But we understand each other. After sharing feelings and stories for years, we can just hang out as close friends, knowing the context within which life is unfolding today. 

When shredding and riding the chair lift with Frank, I know what his family ski trips were like growing up, and the role his mom played in his life. When Zack brings up his dad, I know how awesome of a guy Mike Bergman was. When we’re back at camp in a grief circle with our longtime campers, I can nod at Luke when one of them brings up something I know we can both relate to.

Still making space for grief

Sometimes we still dive into the grief stuff. A few of us grabbed drinks recently, and we did a quick grief circle at our table in the middle of Lillie’s in Union Square. We went around and talked about how much we all wished we could talk to our parents who are no longer with us about everything going on in our lives. It was a special moment. Then I took the last chicken wing, and we went back to talking about how Lee’s daughter is using words like “slay.”

Grief brought all of us together. And while our experience with the death of a parent far too young is a big part of us, it doesn’t define us. What’s kept us close is that we all love to have fun (preferably outdoors) and feel most fulfilled when helping and supporting others. To me, that’s what being part of the Experience Camps community is all about.

We’re all members of a club that no one wants to be a part of. The club where every member would do anything to have their person who died back so that they didn’t have to be in the club. But it’s also a club where everyone gets it. The club where the connections and support between members are strong and lasting.

Sitting in countless circles alongside men of all ages, sharing our experiences with death and grief, has helped me become the person I am today. I’ve processed and integrated my grief to the point where I can talk about it freely. And when difficult emotions come up, I have dozens of supportive people I can talk to. Every moment connecting with a member of the Experience Camps family reminds me that I’m not alone.

Brian Helfman is the Founder & Chief Experience Officer at Third Nature, an organization that designs & facilitates adult summer camp weekends, corporate workshops, and weekly Conscious Conversations. With 10 years of experience as an entrepreneur, experience designer, facilitator, and coach, Brian creates experiences where multi-passionate people feel empowered to be their true, full selves. Brian has been a volunteer with Experience Camps since 2016, and is now the Program Director of Experience Camps For The Adults and runs the Leaders in Training program at their Pennsylvania camp.