Katie Sabe won’t ever forget how it felt to take part in the closing activity at grief camp.
Counselors had set up two giant plywood walls when camp began, one labeled “love” and the other, “anger.” On one wall, campers like Sabe, who was 12 and had recently experienced the loss of her grandmother, wrote happy memories and feelings. On the other wall went all of their negative emotions and thoughts. The campers kept adding to the walls, not knowing what was coming next.
“When camp came to a close, we were handed a bunch of eggs that were for us to pelt at the ‘anger’ wall,” Sabe said. “Once everybody had a chance to release that negative energy via egg throwing, the hate, sadness, anger, bad memories all streaked down the sheet covered in egg slime, all blurring together, while the ‘love’ wall full of beautiful memories and happiness stood tall and proud beside it,” she said.
That was 13 years ago. Now Sabe, who became a licensed mortician in Moose Lake, Minn., volunteers as a counselor at the camp, called Hearts of Hope Family Grief Camp and run by the nonprofit Children’s Grief Connection. Founded by a group of funeral directors during the 2001 Minnesota Funeral Directors Association conference, Hearts of Hope Family Grief Camp is one of the oldest grief camps in the U.S. The founders hoped to provide some kind of support for the families they work with but usually don’t see once a funeral is over.
The free camp experience is designed for children who are mourning the loss of a significant person in their lives, but adult caregivers benefit, too, as entire families attend the camp and take part in activities tailored to their age group. It’s a place where they can connect with others going through the same things. It’s also designed to be fun, said Alex Treitler, the group’s executive director, as activities vary between “raucous and playful, and quiet and thoughtful.”
For Sabe, who recalls being nervous before she arrived, grief camp was truly transformative.
“On top of all the emotions I was feeling, the last thing I wanted to do was meet a bunch of people who didn’t understand and have to re-explain everything I was already so upset about. Little did I know, all of those people I was worried about were also confused, sad, hurt, upset, and grieving just like me,” she said. “Camp didn’t make my grief magically disappear. It did the next best thing: provide me with an understanding and create a steppingstone for my journey with grief.”
On Nov. 7, Children’s Grief Connection held its 18th camp at the YMCA Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wis. Because of the pandemic, Children’s Grief Connection modified the experience — condensing a long weekend’s worth of activities into one day and building in social distancing — so that grieving kids and family members could again come together for an in-person camp. Five families — four from Minnesota and one from Florida — attended. And yes, they hurled eggs at the “anger” wall just like Sabe did more than a decade ago.
The event was the first in-person programming that Children’s Grief Connection has held since March, when they began hosting Zoom support groups and building a video library of activities and supportive practices, Treitler said.
“What we’re hearing both from the volunteers who are involved in setting up the camp and from the families, is that grief is being layered upon grief” because of the pandemic, he said. “The kind of isolation that grieving families normally feel — that’s exacerbated. And so that’s why we really, really wanted to hold a camp.”
Even with an abbreviated time frame and without many familiar activities, which had to be cut because they brought campers too close to one another, it was a success, Treitler said.
“I think one of the most important things for camp is for people to make connections with each other and to have a sense of community by the end,” he said. “And I did feel like we got to that point.”
Children’s Grief Connection board member Carly Gaytan-Kiser, a Bertha, Minn., funeral director whose father died when she was a teen, said volunteering at camp has helped her with her own grief. It was especially transformative when she first served as a camp counselor three years ago, she said.
“It was really an eye-opener for me, and I dealt with a lot of things,” she said. “It was super great. It really was.”
Gaytan-Kiser also loves watching campers change and grow in such a short time, she said.
“They come in, not knowing what to expect and super hesitant to do everything,” she said. “And then you see them come out of their shell, and then they leave a completely different person. It’s a sense of pride for them, too, that even through all of this hardship they can be there for their fellow campers and really shine through it.”