What I Learned from Grieving Campers

The post below is written by Aubrey Hope Downs, a volunteer counselor at our camp in Georgia that was originally published on her own blog.

When my dad died in 2014, I did not let myself grieve. I felt that I was in a grieving period while he was still alive, so when he actually took his last breath…I didn’t see it as any different grieving process.

This proved to be detrimental to my mental health in the coming years. I would be down and out for hours, confused why his death was hitting so hard out of nowhere, when it had been years since I lost him.

I decided to try out a camp for grieving children, Experience Camps, who had experienced the death of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver when I saw an advertisement on Google. It didn’t seem like that tough of a job, just making sure to keep tiny humans alive while they talk about THEIR grief. I thought I could compartmentalize and focus on their grief. However, as soon as I got there and we began talking about OUR grief, I considered turning right back around and going home.

Day three of camp with new friends!

One of my girls had a story very similar to mine. Raised by grandparents, lost a parent to drug addiction and overdose. My feelings were overwhelming me, and I second guessed my being there. I didn’t think I would be capable of helping kids grieve when I myself have not even completely gotten over my own father’s death. (You never get over that kind of loss, but I am still so early in my grieving process eight years later…). I felt selfish, fearful, inadequate. It scared me. The job ahead of me scared me. I truly did not know if I would make it through the week.

The one word I would use to describe that week, however, after being full of a harrowing unknowingness, would be amazement. Utter amazement. The resilience shown in the children I met, after facing some of the most heart-wrenching situations I have ever heard, was some sort of magic to me. The bravery I saw of kids sharing their stories, so insightful and aware of the cards they have been dealt but still being so strong (and vulnerable at the same time!) was just something I can’t even explain to you, dear reader. The way that I and my co-counselors and Grief Specialists were such a safe space that these kids could say things they wouldn’t even tell their best friends or caregiver–it’s life changing. Those kids changed my life, in so many more ways than I can explain!

This is just a big thank you, to Experience Camps. This organization is something I whole-heartedly believe in, and want to support for the entire time I’m here on this earth. The people I met and hearing their stories are times I will not soon forget. I can’t wait to come back year after year.

There was a grief exercise during a sharing circle, where a question was asked. If you could tell your person something, what would it be? Dear reader, I would love to share with you what I would tell my dad if I just had 10 extra minutes with him…

“I wish I could tell you I’m sorry. For not visiting, for not being present when I was there, and for not being the daughter you might have imagined. I tried to stay strong and fought through the fear, but I couldn’t see you in that state. I wish you could see where I am today, and I hope you’re proud of me. I wish things were different. I wish you would’ve never started with the drugs. I wish you didn’t leave me. I wish I was good enough for you to stay clean…was I good enough for you? Why was I not good enough for you to stay clean? Did you even know who I was at the end? Did you think of me at night while you laid awake, like I did? Did you want more for us? I feel so much guilt. I’m so sorry for not being enough. I’m sorry for not staying strong and not visiting you, just seeing you in that bed with no human abilities…its too much for a 9-10 year old to bear. It’s too much. I love you, dad. I miss you.”