In honour of Children’s Grief Awareness day, I offer the following remembrance from my first participation in a grief camp for children. Children are all too often “overlooked grievers”. When they are remembered at all, their grief is often misunderstood and poorly addressed. Grief camps provide children with a valuable opportunity to share with and learn from those who most truly understand how they feel — other children.
Reading this now, more than eight years later, I find myself wondering about “my boys”, imagining the young men they are now, hoping they remember this longest night of that year. I hope that somehow they know the difference they made in my life and the difference their story continues to make in the lives of others.
The Longest Day of the Year*
“It’s not dark enough yet.” I could just make out the silhouette of her kind face as her whisper rode the night breeze beside me. “We have to wait until it’s completely DARK.”
Jean was tired. I had seen it as we readied for The Water Ceremony. The lines in her face were deeper and she had trouble walking. My own knees were feeling the stress of the miles of hills we had climbed since our arrival at Sun Camp the day before and even the children were showing signs of strain.
Sun Camp is a three-day Grief Camp for children ages seven to seventeen who have experienced the loss of a loved one, usually within the last twelve to eighteen months. Jean and her co-workers started the camp fifteen years ago with a few dollars, some tents, and the genuine desire to help those who are most often the “overlooked grievers”: children. Sun Camp is now an annual tradition, open to children in the twenty-six counties of the Texas Panhandle (an area larger than most U.S. states) and this year hosted ninety-six children, their adult “buddies”, counselors and staff.
The camp itself is no longer exactly “roughing it”. The cabins are large, dormitory-style rooms, bright and (most importantly in June) air-conditioned, with almost-comfortable bunkbeds and relatively clean showers. It is, however, still housed at the bottom of a canyon, which makes even walking to meals a work-out and provides the perfect terrain for children who need physical challenges to match the jumble of emotions left in their hearts and minds by the deaths of loved ones.
This night, as Jean and I sat waiting for the dark, was the end of Sun Camp’s busiest day. A day that began at 7:30 and was filled with hikes and swimming and obstacle courses and, of course, group counseling sessions which are usually far more taxing than anything physical. My own group had faced a particularly tough couple of sessions that day and I hoped that tonight’s Water Ceremony might not prove too much for them.
“My boys”, as I called them, were five ten-year-olds and their two twenty-year-old “buddies”. The younger boys were attending Sun Camp due to the death of a grandfather, two fathers, a mother, and a brother who, at seventeen, had hung himself in his closet and was found by the youngest child in the family, my boy. Their buddies, Nolan and Steve, were Sun Camp alumni, Nolan having attended the first camp fifteen years earlier following the death of his younger brother and Steve only three years prior after losing his beloved grandfather. Without these two, I would have been a far less effective counselor; the buddies provide amazing support and usually create deep bonds with their charges. Both Nolan and Steve had expressed some concern about our group’s ability to cope with the deep emotions that often arise as a result of The Water Ceremony.
The Water Ceremony is one of the highlights of Sun Camp. And the most beautiful. At sunset, the children and their buddies gather at the campfire where they sing and eat S’mores while the counselors and staff prepare the pool area for the ceremony. All lights are turned off and the counselors line the pathway from campfire to pool, holding tapers to light the way for the children as their buddies lead them to the water. The effect is sacred — just as ritual should be. But, it does require the complete darkness of night.
“When is the longest day of the year?” asked a voice from the other side of Jean.
“I don’t know,” answered another.
“I always miss it,” I whispered, thinking of the line from Gatsby. Which is true — I do always miss it, even though each summer I promise myself that I will not. Each summer on my birthday, I make sure that I know which day later in the month will be the longest day of the year, so that I can savour each moment and still, I miss it.
“Well,” said Jean. “It looks like it’s tonight.”
Looking up, I had to agree with her. Only the North Star was visible and it was faint. Even from the bottom of the canyon, the sky was purple with light, though it was already 9:45.
“Let’s wait,” she said. “I want it to be perfect for them.”
So did I. “My boys deserve it,” I thought.
LaMont, “Big L”, full of wit and charm, already aware of both and yet fighting the anger that raged inside him following the death of his mother. At thirty-one, she died of a congenital heart disease that LaMont feared might kill him as well. Bound by my oath of truth, I could not tell him that he was wrong to fear, I could only try to introduce him to the tools to deal with whatever might arise.
Anthony — whose response to finding his revered older brother hanging in a closet was to laugh and eat. And laugh and eat. And laugh and eat. When asked what his brother meant to him, Anthony responded, “He was my everything.”
Harry — a Norman Rockwell painting come to life — all freckles and red hair and bright blue eyes. Never knowing a father, Harry’s grandfather had been his only man. Without him, Harry was quiet and withdrawn, his drawings full of swords and knives and barbed wire.
William and Colton — both now fatherless. Will whose dark eyes crossed without his glasses. Will whose response to sadness was to sleep, just sleep. Will who spent all afternoon in the pool showing me one underwater trick after another. I felt the sun searing my already raw shoulders but nothing could have moved me from his side. And Colton. Colton whose pain had already chisled his boy’s face into the features of a man that had every little girl in camp swooning over him. Colton who clung to Nolan because “he reminds me of my Dad”.
And Nolan and Steve. Little more than boys themselves. Nolan with his bushy hair and bushy beard, able to drag five laughing boys across the pool on his strong back. Tender Steve who gave me a cut out red heart on which he wrote “Love” after our second, most difficult session.
“This is as dark as I think it’s going to get.” Jean stood slowly, holding to my shoulder for support. “Let’s go.”
In silence, we lit our candles and took our places on the path. Squeals of laughter and song from the campfire died out, replaced by the soft rustle of cottonwood leaves and the crunch on dirt and stone of children making their uncertain way to the pool. The darkness was so complete that the buddies had to watch the children closely and the counselors worked hard to make sure our candles lit as much of the pathway as possible.
Even in the dark, I was able to make out my boys. Nolan led the way with Steve behind the five, his arms extended as though to keep them safe. All of them were too focused on not stumbling to notice anything but the bit of light provided by the candles.
Once every child was inside the gates and gathered around the pool, we counselors joined them, making our way to our groups. My boys were wide-eyed, each clasping the floating candle they’d been given and looking at me with doubt. As I lit each candle, I smiled at them with a nod or wink to say, “It’s ok” and they smiled back bravely, despite their fear.
When all the children’s candles were lit, we counselors extinguished ours and Jean gave a short reading explaining the purpose of the ceremony – how the counselors were there to help light the way for the children as the buddies walked beside them in the dark and how the candles that were to be lowered into the water represented the light of their lost loved ones that would remain with the children forever.
When she finished, lovely music began and the buddies helped the children lower their candles into the water of the pool. Soon, the edges were lit by floating rose shaped lights and the children knelt or squatted or lay flat on their bellies to watch which path their particular candle would take.
By the second song, soft sobs could be heard, mostly from the youngest girls, then slowly from each group around the pool. Buddies who had been standing at attention moved closer, not quite sure if they should join the children on the ground, but wanting them to feel their closeness all the same. After three songs, the music went to instrumental guitar and sobs turned to wails as some of the youngest children began to cry out for their dead Mommy or Daddy. Quietly, counselors stepped in to scoop up these children and hold them close, wordless, just rocking, letting heartbeats offer solace.
I watched my boys.
Nolan and Steve stood silent guard at the edge of our five, Nolan’s face was stoic, his arms crossed over his chest, looking calmly from one boy to the next, while Steve, clearly struggling with his own pain, fought hard to keep back tears. Softly, I touched each of them on the shoulder, nudging them towards the ground where they moved to sit cross-legged behind the boys as I stepped up to stand between them.
LaMont stared into the pool, chewing his bottom lip, clenching his fists inside the weight lifting gloves he insisted upon wearing at all times. Beside him, Colton sat rock-still, his eyes glowing wet with the reflection of the candles. Directly in front of me, Anthony hunched forward, head in hands, silently sobbing, while next to him, Will reached under his glasses over and over to wipe his eyes. At the end lay Harry, on his belly, his tears dropping into the pool as he watched his candle make its way toward the centre of the water.
The music ended and still most of the children stayed where they were. As counselors, we were prepared to stay as long – or as short — a time as the children wanted, though Jean had said it was unusual for them to stay beyond the end of the music. And yet, there we were – the music was over and the children showed no sign of wanting to leave. I glanced at Jean, whose face was beautifully candlelit as she sat watching and I could tell that she was surprised by this as well.
After the music, the only sound was quiet crying and the soft lap of water against the sides of the pool. Each candle began to give off a halo, bouncing colours across the water in ever-widening, ever-shrinking, refractions of light.
I looked down. Anthony was looking up at me, his shoulders shaking, his chubby cheeks wet. The first day of camp, the boys had decided it was easier to call me Cat than Stephanie (except for Colton, who insisted upon calling me “Stephie” once he learned I hated it) and so they could be heard throughout the canyon calling me like a lost pet.
I bent down. “Yes, Anthony?”
He said nothing – just looked at me and I felt a shudder to his right as Colton broke softly against my leg. Silently, I lowered myself to the ground behind them, reaching out to pull the five as close as possible. Rarely have I felt as helpless as I did at that moment, my arms too short to wrap up all five of them, using my legs and feet to touch each of them as best I could. They were sobbing as a unit now, Steve, too, pressed against my back and even my impassive Nolan moved in as close as possible.
Together we huddled, my boys and I, in the watery light of a hundred candles, under the night of a million Texas stars, as the longest day of the year came to a close.
I doubt I will ever miss another one.
*originally published in the 2008 anthology, Root Exposure