Two years ago this September I was stretched unbelievably thin. My husband Steve had died that spring and I was still fresh to widowhood. I was trying to juggle managing my own grief and helping my 3-year-old daughter Zoe manage hers, as well as run a household, be a single parent, and attend nursing school. I was exhausted and frayed at the edges and to top it off, Zoe was spending every single naptime at daycare screaming her little head off.
When the tantrums during naptime started, Zoe’s teachers and I talked. We hoped it was a phase and they handled the disruptions with patience and grace. After a couple months with all attempted interventions failing, it looked like there was no end in sight, so I started exploring options.
I had tried (and failed) to get Zoe into various kids’ grief groups after Steve died. There were two in our general geographic area, but both were right in the middle of sessions when he died, and neither had any other children Zoe’s age so they suggested against joining mid-session. At age three, she was just barely old enough to participate as it was, and I was both frustrated and grateful that there were no other children her age. Both groups took breaks in the summer and then a session planned for the fall was canceled due to lack of numbers. I knew from another fellow widow that there was a great program in southern Maine, the Center for Grieving Children, but I also knew that there was no way I could add a weekly trip to Portland to my already insane schedule.
Eventually, I brought Zoe to a local counselor who worked with children. Given the timeline and Zoe’s developmental age and abilities, the counselor assured me that Zoe was going to be just fine. She was working through her grief in her own way and everything she was doing was situationally and developmentally appropriate. I sighed with relief, relayed the information to her teachers, and we all waited for the tantrums to abate.
A couple months before, I had participated in a 6-week bereavement group at Hospice Volunteers of the Waterville Area. It was a general bereavement group but ended up being filled with all widows, and I was the youngest participant by nearly 30 years. After the group finished up, one of the staff reached out and strongly encouraged me to bring Zoe to Camp Ray of Hope so, at the last minute, we signed up.
I got out of my nursing lab late in the afternoon and rushed to daycare to grab Zoe, changed out of my scrubs, made sure we had what we needed in the car and that everything was set for my neighbor to keep an eye on the pets, and then headed to camp, which was about 20 minutes from our house.
The first night was a disaster. Zoe cried and screamed for hours. She cried for Daddy, she screamed that she was cold but refused to have any blankets on her as the temperatures plummeted to just above 40 degrees, and if I set her down for mere seconds she wailed at the top of her lungs. I think we finally fell asleep around 2 am. I was grateful that we had our own cabin, but I also knew that with the thin walls and lack of insulation she had probably kept half of the camp up.
The next day, we broke off into our respective groups: Zoe wandered off with the other children her age and I went with my group of adults.
It is an interesting phenomenon, having so many people at different stages of grief in the same place together. Some had been coming for years, while others, like myself, were attending camp for the first time and were still very much in the raw and bewildering throes of the early days of grief. We laughed, we cried, and we remembered our loved ones. We made friends and told stories and consumed too much coffee and dessert.
Our children bonded, made crafts, and played in the nearby lake. They talked about their loss in the company of their peers. Zoe was able to talk to other children who had lost their dads.
We spent the second night of camp at home and both got some long and much-needed hours of uninterrupted sleep (I suspect our fellow camp attendees were grateful as well) and returned to camp in the morning for breakfast.
On that last day, we wrote messages on balloons and released them into the air.
I don’t know what I expected of camp going into it for the first time, but coming out of it I can say that it changed our lives.
Over the coming weeks, as Zoe more fully processed her grief, her naptime tantrums dwindled and stopped. I made amazing friends and we continue to support each other to this day. We promised to return to camp the following year, and we did: it was almost like a little reunion. I’m also happy to report that during our second time at camp Zoe slept like a dream.
Though Zoe and I won’t be able to attend Camp Ray of Hope this fall (dear friends are getting married the same weekend), our hearts will be there when mid-September rolls around.
Camp Ray of Hope is for anyone at any stage of the grieving process, individuals or families. People who attend have lost children, spouses/partners, friends, siblings, grandparents, and other people close to them. Some have lost their loved ones over a decade ago and for some, it’s been mere weeks. Camp is a safe place to be with your grief, to explore it and face it, and to connect with others facing similar challenges.
To learn more about attending Camp Ray of Hope, please visit www.hvwa.org or call 207-873-3615. Previously held in China, Camp Ray of Hope is moving to Pine Tree Camp (and heated cabins!) this year and the 2016 Camp Ray of Hope session will take place September 23-25, 2016.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer and brain injury advocate. She lives in Vassalboro with her daughter. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.