Coping With Loss At Camp

The recent tragedy in Norway, in which a gunman opened fire on young campers, resonates with those of us who work with kids and camps here in the United States.

Campers, too, may be feeling uneasy and sad if they have heard about the shootings.

To help them deal with their feelings -- and to help any camp community grieving the loss of a camper or staffer -- Dr. Christopher Thurber offers the following information for coping with loss:

Grief is natural and individual

Camp is a very close community. Naturally, when a member of the community dies, it affects us all in different ways.

Perhaps the most important things to remember are that:

(1) Grief is a natural response to a loss

(2) There is no “right” way to grieve

(3) There is no fixed timetable for grieving a loss

Grief is a natural expression of love for a person who has died. It is a reflection of the feelings we have for that person.

A loss can also evoke painful memories of past losses and create new anxieties about possible future losses.

Caring for yourself and others

Some people at camp might find it comforting to be alone, while others will want to be among friends.

As the adults in this community, we must take care of our own needs as well as the needs of the campers. This can seem like a daunting task, but taking care of yourself puts you in a better position to help your campers. They will undoubtedly have questions and need to talk. Just being a good listener promotes children’s healing.

Take time for yourself. Allow yourself time to experience fully what you are feeling. All feelings are normal and acceptable, including shock, denial, sadness, anger, guilt, frustration, anxiety, and numbness.

Connect with friends. Talk about your feelings with your peers. Remember that a loss often heightens our awareness of the relationships that we cherish.

Avoid coping in ways that disconnect you, such as using alcohol or other drugs.

Some suggestions for helping campers

Most young people have very little experience dealing with death. Let them know that all feelings are normal and that talking about feelings is a way to heal.

If a camper seeks you out to talk, your willingness to listen is the most helpful thing that you can do. Don’t worry about the “right” thing to say. Listen without judgment.

Sharing your own feelings is OK. Joining in expressions of grief, including crying, can be healing for everyone.

But always remember that campers need you to be the adult, especially when their world is feeling so unpredictable.

Also seek out other adults for your own support.

Don’t be afraid to discuss death. It lets campers know you are not afraid to talk about it. Avoid euphemisms such as “we lost a camper,” which younger children may take literally. Instead, use the words “death” and “died.”

Keep your eyes open for campers who withdraw. Quiet campers may be very distressed and waiting for someone to inquire how they are doing. Ask direct, gentle questions.

Suggest that campers write. Unstructured journal writing and other artistic expression have proven therapeutic benefit for many. More letters home is also appropriate. Some campers may also want to write a letter to the deceased camper or to the deceased camper’s family. Such narratives help with grieving.

Help campers keep up with routines, including regular sleep and mealtimes. The predictability of routines is reassuring. The underlying message is, “Life goes on.”

A loss may arouse memories and feelings of a prior loss. It may also heighten worries and concerns about loved ones at home.

Some of your campers may have a parent, grandparent, or sibling who is ill. Encourage them to talk about their worries and concerns about loved ones.

Also encourage them to maintain contact with home through letters and, if it’s allowed, phone calls home.

Expect some regressed behavior. Remind campers they don’t have to “be strong.” Crying, for example, is not a sign of weakness.

During stressful times, be sure to drink enough fluids and eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and foods with protein.

Remind campers that people heal and recover from grief. They, too, will make it through this painful time.

Remember that grief takes time. It is not an instant process, but a process of healing. There is no “right” or “healthy” timetable for grieving. Campers have a right to grieve, even if itseems others have “gotten over it.” Some may want to jump back into camp activities; others not yet.

Have fun. Laugh. Laughter is healing. During a time of loss, people sometimes feel guilty about laughing, but laughter can help with grieving.

Camp is particularly well suited to help people cope and connect in healthy ways. Be spiritual, in whatever ways fit your system of beliefs.

Knowing when more help is needed

Campers who are vulnerable in other ways may find the death of a fellow camper particularly disturbing. Here are some warning signs that may indicate the emergence of a more complicated problem, for which you may wish to seek additional support for a camper:

•Radical change in personality, especially becoming irritable, anxious, or apathetic

•Radical change in behavior, especially inability to concentrate or perform routine tasks

•Chronic (more than a few days) indifference to camp friends and activities

•Risk-taking behaviors, such as alcohol or other drug use, fighting or sexual experimentation

•Denying pain while at the same time acting overly strong or mature

•Chronic (more than a few days) change in eating habits, either loss of appetite or significant overeating

•Feelings of hopelessness, e.g., “It will never get better. I will always feel this way.”

•Change in sleep pattern, either hypersomnia (over-sleeping), insomnia, or early-morning wakening

•Chronic (more than a few nights) nightmares

•Agitation, hyperactivity or chronic restlessness

•Deterioration of relationships with family and/or friends

•Expressions of worthlessness, e.g., “I don’t matter. There’s nothing important or worthwhile about me.”

•Suicidal impulses, ideation, statements, gestures or plans

•Expressions of overwhelming guilt, shame or self-hatred