What the Heck is Grief Camp?
A couple of weeks ago, I packed my car, sleeping bags and all, drove through the flat desert floor of the Antelope Valley, past Pear Blossom, and climbed the steep, narrow, winding road to Idyllwild for grief camp. No one ever imagines themselves ever wanting to go to grief camp—no one.
But, after attending this gathering of families who have experienced the loss of a child and facilitated there for the past four years, I found myself looking forward to returning.
Why? Because, as one attendee put it, “This is the only place where I can go and talk about my sister.”
I have heard this over and over again in every year.
This is why a gathering place for our grief community is being created “Justin Time”.
The people who show up to grief camp are there because they want to be heard. They also want to hear others. This basic need to hear and be heard is the most therapeutic endeavor I’ve seen for grieving people.
At grief camp, I arrived with Jess, Jojo and Jacob ready to eat. Jess had driven the whole way, which was awesome, because I got a nice nap in and I knew I would need it. I am so proud of my kids for being willing to give up their weekend for this time of sharing and being cell-phone-less.
Every year, upon greeting each other, I can see a little more light in the faces of friends as they have gotten another year farther from their child’s death date. The newly bereaved families have a visible melancholy about them. Their shoulders slump a little lower, their step is a bit slower and their eyes—their eyes tell it all.
When I arrived, I step into the main dining hall and I am transformed from the hectic life of running a household and starting a foundation of my own. My cell phone does not get reception so I use it only for its clock as I lead a group of parents in sharing stories of where they are in their grief: the valleys, the swamps, the mountains.
When I sit in our group of 10 people or so, and I have the honor and privilege of hearing the most sacred of inner experiences from kindred souls, I am blissful. Their stories of longing and missing and dreaming remind me of the oneness of loss.
We are the same.
At our core, we all process the loss of our child similarly. Not the same day or in the same way but with the same purpose—trying to understand.
After that first dinner, we welcomed each other and headed to our cabins. We were placed in one of the original rustic ones. We unloaded the car, made our beds and spread out all over the ten bunk beds lining the walls. Dave would be joining us the next night. As we laid our heads on our pillows Jess said, “Is this cabin crooked? My head feels lower than my feet?”
“Yup, these floors are definitely crooked,” I said and wondered how many children affected by cancer had padded across those crooked floors. How the weight of their bodies may have caused the floors to shift. This site is the Ronald McDonald Camp for good times used for over two decades as a source of comfort and freedom for kids with cancer.
Yes, Grief Camp is not for the faint of heart but neither is the cancer experience. Our kids taught us that and so much more and many times in our grief experience it feels like our head is lower than our feet and our foundations are warped. But, being together, the way I was with my family and friends, brings a sense of comfort and familiarity which is rarely found down the mountain.
I look forward to bringing some of the camp experience home and sharing it Justin Time.