Editor’s note: Some of the stories in this post may be disturbing to young readers.
Camp Brave Heart sits just outside of Wimberley, near the Blanco River. It looks just like any other American summer camp. But here the swimming, bonfires and camp songs are secondary to the main mission.
All Brave Heart’s campers have experienced the recent loss of a loved one.
Emily Fisher is 10 years old. Her face is red from the sun and long strands of blonde sweaty hair surround her face. Everyone here calls her “Fish.” She loves to swim.
Fisher’s parents died in a motorcycle accident.
“I lost my mom and dad, at the same time,” she says. “They were coming home and a trailer was backing out or something and my dad was going really, really fast and so his head kind of got smooshed in, and my mom flew over the trailer 20 feet away. She passed away in the hospital the next morning.”
Daniel Lanuza is 8 years old. He’s a bit shy. His big brown eyes look up at me when he talks. We’re sitting in a golf-cart in the shade. That’s where I learn his cousins died in a house fire.
“I want to give away my madness and my sadness,” he says. “This is very fun and it teaches you how to forget stuff sometimes.”
Forget is what all the kids say they want to do.
One thing that’s helped Fisher is to know that her story is not unique.
“There’s this kid named Moses. Me and him – we lost our mom, so we know what it feels like,” Fisher says. “So I was helping him feel better, because we were at the fire and he started crying. … And then I was over there at another place and then I started crying and he started helping me.”
For almost two decades the non-profit Hospice Austin has helped kids heal through Camp Brave Heart. The healing includes meetings with their support group, guided crafts that commemorate their loved ones and writing down their memories.
Counselor Tino Phillips was a camper a while ago. Her dad died of cancer of when she was 10.
“Our main goal here is to open that door, in case if at home … that door isn’t open for them,” Phillips says. “We open it, and if they want to they can walk through it, and if they don’t want to … they’re here for camp.”
Experts say kids grieve in bursts or windows. Kids can be playing one minute and needing to express their loss the next. – and asking what’s for lunch right after. That back and forth can be disconcerting to grown-ups. Camp counselors and volunteers say our society is “grief illiterate.”
Erika Schmidt leads the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. She’s an expert in children’s grief.
“(Grief) stirs up in other people a lot of very difficult feelings,” Schmidt says. “If people aren’t comfortable, or if we don’t have rituals and ways of helping people with that, you don’t know what to do.”
Schmidt says we, as a society, need to become grief literate – not just the campers. Just look at the world, the country, or your neighborhood. As a society we are experiencing grief because of recent shootings and other disasters. You can’t shelter children from that grief, and if you do – that’s even more damaging. It leaves those children feeling both that they can’t talk about those things – that there’s a taboo. Children can interpret it as they’re not allowed to talk about things that adults get upset about.
Schmidt says it’s important to truly learn that loss is a part of life.
“This idea about loss is a very human experience,” she says. “It’s something that we all have, whether we have it in the same exact way as somebody else, or not.”
So, Schmidt says, there are ways to tap into those feelings.
The main way is to talk about it. Even if it’s hard, campers say it works.