Saying goodbye is never easy. It’s something I’ve always struggled with, but my dad’s sudden death five years ago left me with no other option. Yet that tragic event connected me to a group of 9-year-old girls who’ve made the word “goodbye” take on new meaning.
Last summer I started volunteering as a counselor at Experience Camps, a free camp for kids who’ve been through a significant loss. Watching my campers board the bus back home at the end of the week was tough. But it wasn’t until I got home myself that I realized the impact they might have on my life. A full year later, here are some of the ways I continue to be inspired by these amazing kids:
Using their strength as encouragement. The final night campfire is always the most emotional. Everyone has the opportunity to light a candle and speak about the person they lost. I could barely hold it together during my own turn this summer, and yet with just a few words, one of my campers changed the tone of the entire night by looking out at a sea of puffy eyes and snotty tissues and assuring us that “it’s okay to cry.”
I was 9 when I first attended sleep away camp. Even though I went with half my grade, I was still so nervous and shied away from many of the activities. After watching the campers arrive at camp eager to try new things and also work on their grief, I wish I didn’t take so much for granted at their age.
Forgetting the stigma. I returned home from my second magical summer at ExCamps with renewed courage to share my story. Most of my campers talk about their loss in the same way they talk about what they ate for breakfast. I often feel awkward bringing up my dad in conversations because people have a hard time knowing how to react. While there’s no one right way to respond, I find it comforting when people ask questions. It’s just another way to keep my dad’s legacy alive.
Remembering to have fun. I love laughing, and even won best laugh in my high school superlatives. I still laugh, but it was easier to do before losing my dad. I obviously miss his presence at celebrations. But I also get weighed down with guilt whenever I really enjoy myself. Since these girls have come into my life, I’ve been reminded of the importance of having fun. They can find it in anything. I rarely entered my cabin without walking into a dance party or game made up on the fly. When we had streamers left over from an activity, one camper hung them from the top bunk and invited everyone onto her bed. I’m quite sure you could hear the laughter all the way over on the boys’ side!
Experience Camps has a unique and healthy mix of clinical and fun activities. A lot of the counselors need to take a moment to emotionally shift gears. But the kids? Their ability to seamlessly transition between types of sessions amazes me.
Showing compassion toward others. Tears never go unnoticed at camp. Hugs are always within sight and hate is just a four-letter word. Campers will do anything to comfort each other, especially when it comes to their grief. Everyone was asked to bring a picture of the person they lost to camp. Whenever one of my campers took hers out, I knew it meant being late to dinner because everyone would go over and ask about the person in the photo. I never minded; it was too beautiful a moment to interrupt.
Growing my family. It’s ironic that losing one family member led to gaining so many more honorary ones. When I went up to light my candle on that last night, I stood in front of my ExCamps family and thanked them for guiding me on my path to resilience. I’d do anything to have my dad back. But I feel so fortunate to know these girls, because they help make saying goodbye hurt a little less.
Alexandra Zaslow recently moved to Los Angeles from New York City to produce documentaries for Herzog & Company.
Experience Camps are free one-week camps for kids who’ve experienced a significant loss.