Sensitive Subject

Death is extremely difficult to deal with at any time in your life, but it's especially tough and complex at a young age. Because parents and their children are separated during the camp season, the emotional distress that can be experienced by a camper or staff member when they learn about the death of a relative or friend is compounded.

When confronted with this situation, parents often ask the camp director, "Should I tell him/her over the telephone or in person about the death? Should I take my child out of camp for the funeral? Should I wait and tell him/her after camp? Should you tell him/her while at camp? What should I do? What is the right thing to do?"

I was involved in a situation when this happened at camp. In this case the camp director and staff answered the questions and handled it with sincerity and professionalism.

All cases are different and should not be handled in the same manner. The key is to gauge the situation and understand where the kids are coming from. Putting yourself in their shoes, and those of their parents, is most of the battle.

A Quick Case Study

A devastated mother called a camp director with the traumatic information that her husband had died that morning. She asked the director who should tell her children (ages 9 and 12) of their father's untimely death, and what should be done.

She was very concerned that others inside and outside the camp might relate this to her children, or that the hometown newspaper, which was forwarded to them daily, would publish the news. In response, the camp director made several suggestions:

• A close relative or friend who the camper knew and trusted should arrive at camp as soon as possible, meet with the campers in an area that would afford complete privacy and tell them that their mother needed them at home to discuss an urgent family matter without revealing the reason for their departure. Of course this close friend/relative was ready to break the news if necessary, but the point was to get them home.

These situations are far more comfortable at home than they are at camp. When they returned home, their mother told them about their father's death. They attended the funeral and remained at home for a week before being returned to camp. Consultations between the director, the mother and the children revealed that they wanted to return after they had a few days to sort things out. In this type of situation, some children will want to return while others won't. Either way, the camp director should let them know that they made the right decision.

• Before they returned the director met with the head counselors and staff of their respective cabins to inform them of their cabin mate's tragic loss without discussing the cause of their father's death. It was suggested that a sympathy card be sent from each camper's cabin signed by all the friends and staff, concluding with a statement that they were looking forward to their friends' return to camp.

• In addition, a senior staff member from each cabin and the camp director attended the funeral and extended their condolences to them from the entire camp family. The mother of the campers was assured that every consideration and emotional support for her children would be made upon their return. Their adjustment and behavior would be followed up on for the balance of the camp season.

• After completion of the season, the campers' mother called and wrote to the director to thank him and the entire camp for their understanding and support, especially when they returned to camp.

Understanding The Process

Death is part of life. Family members over the age of seven should be given the opportunity to participate in the bereavement process that follows the death of a loved one.

Family members need each other to make sense of the loss and to feel the normal emotional distress in order for a death to be better understood and integrated on both an intellectual and emotional level.

Parents must tell the child in person about the death of a friend or relative, if possible. Having the camper or staff member go home for the funeral and having them stay at home for awhile is an important part of the process. Closure must be achieved.

If someone is not told about the death by their parents immediately after it happens, they will most likely resent not being included in the bereavement process, especially given the implication that they're too young to understand and appreciate the consequences of the death of a loved one. A camper's participation in the mourning process with other members of the family is necessary for all concerned.

It is very important for the camp director and other staff members to demonstrate the camp's sincere concern and interest in the family's loss by gestures such as attending the funeral, sending a sympathy note, a donation or flowers, or other contribution, depending on the circumstances surrounding the death of the loved one.

Notes of condolence from a camper's cabin mates, friends and counselors should be encouraged and will be most appreciated. The staff and fellow campers are the mourner's very real family during the summer with the camp being their home.

Upon returning to camp, if they return to camp, acknowledgement from cabin mates, counselors and the director is necessary so that the camper can feel a true sense of concern, sympathy and compassion from those they've grown so close to during camp.

However, public acknowledgement by the entire camp is not usually necessary and could possibly make the camper feel uncomfortable and even embarrassed.

Emotional and social support are needed by the camper and should not be taken for granted, even when the camper appears to return to the everyday routine of the camp as though nothing has happened.

The staff must be sensitive to symptoms of depression, such as anguish, crying, changes in eating and sleeping, and other signs of emotional or social distress reflected by the mourner.

If these symptoms of grief and bereavement are noted, and with the permission of the parents, counseling by a professional at camp can be of significant importance to the camper so that they can to begin to work through a most difficult human experience.

Like the joy of birth, the death of a family member or friend is a major life-cycle event which must be understood, given the appropriate prominence it deserves and shared with important people both at home and at camp.

Charles B. Rotman is Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., is the author of "Camp is Business, Customer Satisfaction" and "Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) in Camp Management" (1998. Babson College Press), and is president of CBR Associates Inc., a mental health consulting service for camps. For questions, Rotman can be reached at (508) 651-1132 or

Bryan BuchkoComment