26 things I’ve learned from five years at grief camp


This summer I completed my fifth year volunteering at El Tesoro de la Vida, a grief camp for kids that have experienced the death of a loved one. That short week I spend in Granbury every summer teaches me a lifetime’s worth of lessons, and every summer it alters my life and my perspectives just a little bit more than the summer before. Grief camp can have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and although I’m there to give back to these brave kiddos, they always end up giving me so much more.

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Through the laughter, tears, frustration, joy and love that is camp, I’ve learned a couple of lessons–some serious and others silly–and I figure after five years, it’s time to share a few. But first, if you are looking for some more background on camp, click here!

1. To accurately describe what goes on at grief camp to someone who has never been before is a nearly impossible task.

2. It’s really a joy to go to camp and be a grown kid for a week. It’s the best way to recharge for the next year.

3. Young kids have a strange method they commonly use to wake counselors up–I call it the “stealthy stare tactic,” where they quietly get out of their beds and stand over you until you sense them and finally wake up. It’s just as terrifying every single time.

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4. The first night is always the hardest, especially if you don’t establish what is appropriate to wake you up for… Here’s what my first night looked like this year:

  • 12:30 a.m.: “Ms. Erica, there’s a cricket under my bed… can you get it?”
    • “No, I most certainly cannot.”
  • 1:00 a.m.: “Ms. Erica, I can’t sleep.”
    • “That’s because you’ve gotten out of your bed 12 times to tell me that.”
  • 1:45 a.m.: “Ms. Erica, I have to use the bathroom.”
    • “Ooookay… thanks for letting me know.” (The bathroom is inside the cabin.)
  • 2:00 a.m.:  “Ms. Erica, the cricket is really, really bothering me.”
    • “‘I’m so sorry, but there is literally nothing I can do about that right now.”
  • 2:45 a.m.:  “What time is it?”
    • “You see how it’s still pitch black outside? That means the time doesn’t matter right now.”
  • 3:00 a.m.: Loud crash followed by screaming… Camper has fallen out of the bed.
  • 4:00 a.m.: Woken up by what I assume is a camper going to the bathroom, only to see her pacing in circles around the cabin. Sleepwalking is real, people.
  • 6:00 a.m.: Giggles and chatter. Every single girl has woken up an hour before the alarm is set to go off.

5. Gorilla suits can be reintroduced and accepted back into the wilderness that is camp.

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6. Pranks cause paranoia.

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7.  You can never have too many dates to the dance–although, it’s very unlikely any of them will actually dance with you.

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8. Sometimes responding to whining in Spanish can make a camper forget about her problems.

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9. Kids have no concept of time, but they love to ask about it. I’ve found it to be less annoying when you make up an unreasonable answer that they completely accept. In fact, this year about 20 minutes after lunch one day, my girls kept asking what time it was. I told them it was 6:30 p.m. and they responded with, “Wow! Time is going so fast today!” Next thing I know, they were lined up and ready to leave for dinner that really started in five hours.

10. Some have said reading Finance Magazine aloud puts kids right to sleep.

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11. Toward the end of the week, it doesn’t really matter if showers are taken or teeth are brushed. Sometimes it’s just not worth the battle.

12. It’s never too early for Nurse Barbara’s queso.

13. Kitchen raids can go terribly wrong, or terribly right.

14. You should never believe a child that says she didn’t bring sweets to camp. Ants never lie.

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15. Any counselor of the opposite sex that you interact with is instantly assumed to be your boyfriend or girlfriend.

  • “Ms. Erica! You know Steve from the frog cabin?” one girl asked. “Yes, of course,” I responded. “That’s your boyfriend, right?!” she inquired. “Uhhhh…. no. Definitely not,” I replied. “That’s my dad, sweetheart.”


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16. It’s very, very, very, very okay to cry. In fact, it’s encouraged. You’ll see the burliest of grown men to the tiniest of feeble first graders break down at some point.

17. Parents/guardians are shocking. I don’t think they really understand that we have volunteered to be with their child for 24 hours a day for six days in a row. I don’t think they realize that their child will always keep a piece of my heart. That I embraced their daughter while she cried into my arms and shared her very personal and tragic story. When they pick up their kids, rarely is there ever a “thank you,” or “how did the week go?”

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18. Sand trays and play-doh can have fascinating symbolism.

  • For example, creating a splattered egg that had fallen out of the nest to represent the death of a loved one, or creating a cheetah to represent how fast time moves after a death.
  • Or creating a dark scene in the sand tray with monsters, dragons and aliens with a story about how these aliens came to Earth and took the entire family and turned them into aliens, too, representing the change the death caused at home.

19. Grief can hit kids at the least likely of times. In the swimming pool, at arts and crafts, during song time. There are little triggers scattered all over the place, but luckily there’s always someone waiting to listen and console. Camp therapists and cabin buddies are rockstars.

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20. It’s unbelievably comforting for these kids to be around other kids that are just like them. It’s really common to overhear conversations about the deaths, and they tend to bond based on who they have lost in their life, or how they died. I’ve yet to lose someone in my life, but I still get asked that question quite frequently. I like to say that I go to camp to learn from the kids, to learn about grief–something that’s unfortunately bound to happen to me at some point. It’s comforting to know that this camp and these kids will be what I turn to when the seasons in my life change and the inevitable happens to me.

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21. Only at a grief camp is it totally normal to go from hysterically laughing about the loudest, bubbliest farts you’ve ever heard, to hysterically crying while watching your brave girls try to heal their broken hearts–in a matter of about five minutes.

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22. It’s really hard to process the week once it’s over. You’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories, grown so close to six little girls, and watched them grow and heal so much in just six days. It’s hard to say goodbye and it’s even harder to recount the week to your family and friends at home.

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23. Knowing what they’re going home to, some kids are really, really difficult to let go of at the end of the week.

24. My camp family is truly the best. The way they love, embrace and support me throughout the year is so astounding. You’d never know that most of us see each other for only one week a year.

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25. Life can happen when you least expect it and your whole world could be flipped upside down in an instant. This isn’t how any of these kids imagined their life would turn out and that’s a hard concept for the campers (and counselors) to grasp. Be thankful for what you have because life really is a treasure.

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26. Despite the tragedy they’ve faced, and despite how broken their hearts are, these kids are resilient and courageous. Although they’ve been dealt some pretty shitty cards and their brains are full of unanswered questions, their wisdom is remarkable. They don’t take life for granted and they have taught me so, so much. I’ve learned to be thankful for each and every one of them.

 

6 thoughts on “26 things I’ve learned from five years at grief camp

  1. Deana says:

    I worked at El Tesoro and volunteered at DLV for 9 summers. All of what you say is so true. I loved reading this, and seeing someone else fall into the magic of a place that has given me everything I know and treasure today. Your words brought me a small piece of home today. Thanks.

    • Erica Connolly says:

      Deana, it’s certainly a special place that I will treasure forever! Thank you so much for reading, and thank you for volunteering your time for nine years! Hope to see you back one day 🙂

  2. Barbara and Denis Greer says:

    Very nicely stated, Ericka. Thank you for putting all that we feel about camp into such a beautiful post! You are amazing!!!

  3. FrankieBitz says:

    This seems like such a fantastic camp for those kids & for you! Not gonna lie, I started googling more info on the camp b/c it seems like such a unique & life-changing way to help little ones who have gone through so much 🙂

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