Who died in your family?” the boy chirped, still breathless from running across the field to the airless tent where I sat under the sign “Talent Show.” I was caught off guard by the nonchalance with which it was asked by the freckle-faced eight-year-old. “My grandmother,” I replied, feeling guilty that I didn’t have a better answer. The loss of my grandmother at 105 seemed insignificant in this setting.
“Oh” the boy said, and scampered away. I felt like a fraud.
And so went my first experience a few years ago as a volunteer at Camp Good Grief, a bereavement camp for kids aged 4 to 14 at St. Gabriel’s Retreat on Shelter Island. Despite taking the intensive bereavement training, loss—like algebra—was more a concept.
I volunteered at Camp Good Grief for purely selfish reasons: I needed to be needed. My kids had suddenly grown up. I know it must have happened gradually, but to me, it felt like the movie, Big, in which Tom Hanks plays a boy who wakes up to find himself in a man’s body. At 16, my son was in a perpetual state of “I’m good”—his response to anything I offered to do for him. My daughter was in college and met any need I had to be helpful with annoyance. So when the opportunity arose to volunteer at a children’s bereavement camp, this mom headed for a new landing pad.
“Why not pick kids with asthma or something?” my girlfriend asked, chomping on her Caesar salad, dressingonthesidenoanchovies. I assured her that a bereavement camp may not have the “sex appeal” of some other charities, but kids who had experienced a loss could surely use nurturing. Hadn’t I comforted my son with a hug and a juice box when he fell off his bike? Hadn’t I spent many late nights at the kitchen table reassuring my wounded daughter that the ubiquitous “mean girls” were just “insecure and jealous?” It was gratifying to make my own children feel better. But things were different now. My son cringed when I kissed him and my daughter no longer wanted my advice.
At first glance, Camp Good Grief looks like any other camp. Drive up on any given day and you will hear five-year-olds giggling with delight as they are chased around by one of the young volunteers. Watch a group of teen girls strut arm-in-arm and defiantly flick their long hair in unison. But take a closer look and far off in the distance, you will see a small group of therapists, volunteers, and children in a circle under a tree. It is in this “small group” where much of the healing takes place.
“Murder,” “suicide,” and “cancer” float in the air like pollen, uttered by children as young as four years old. My offer of a sympathetic smile, a hug and a juice box were no match for their sadness. I was a fake, and they knew it. But the kids took comfort from those most equipped to offer it: each other. Time and again I witnessed an embrace, a kind word or a laugh offered from one grieving child to another. I felt privileged to bear witness to such kindness and confident that my campers would eventually be “OK.”
A few months ago my father died and I learned that “OK” is a relative term. Is it “OK” for my campers to envy kids with two parents when they have one? Is it “OK” to watch someone they love die when you haven’t even graduated middle school, had a first kiss or bought a training bra? Is it “OK” to lose a sibling when they are only six years old? I know that most of my campers will grow up, fall in love, and have families of their own: but it will never be “OK.”
I went to camp to be “of use” to a group of grieving children and found I was unable to offer what they needed. I haven’t been back to camp since my father died. I am still struggling with my own questions. But I have learned a few things: When I return to Camp Good Grief and a freckled face little boy asks, “Who died in your family?” I will look him in those innocent eyes and say “my dad.” Perhaps I have earned my place at camp by experiencing the deep sadness that Priscilla Ruffin, director of Camp Good Grief, so movingly calls “the price of love.” I have learned like my young friends, that it is never “OK” to lose someone you love, but that is the way it should be.
Lesley Green Leben is a writer and flutist currently enrolled in the MFA program at Stony Brook University. Her articles have appeared in Dan’s Papers, More.com and GrandPianoPassion.com. She lives in Sag Harbor and New York City with her husband and two adult children.
“The Kids Are Not ‘OK” is one of the many nonfiction essays entered in the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize competition. Our editors liked this entry and present it here, hoping you’ll like it. For more essays or to submit your own, visit LiteraryPrize.DansPapers.com.