It’s so difficult to lose a member of your camp community or to console a member who has lost someone close to them.
I’m going to give a quick disclaimer that I’m not an expert, I’m not a psychologist or counsellor but I’ve been through a few scenarios and I hope that sharing them will help prepare others who may encounter similar moments. I’ll also share some quick tips about things to consider.
Not only are there different groups of people who may be dealing with loss at camp, but there are different types of loss that may affect the impact the loss has on an individual or your camp community.
I’ll try to take those things into account while sharing with you.
Losing a Staff During the Off Season
Back when I was a seasonal director, we lost a beloved staff member during the off season.
It was a tight knit camp community and everyone rallied around his family (brother had worked at camp previously), his best friend, and girlfriend – who both worked at camp. We showed up for the wake and funeral, grieved together and consoled each other.
Six months later, almost the entire team decided to return for the following summer.
We bought a little plaque with some of the lyrics from “Linger” on it, because that was his favourite camp song, and the lyrics were pretty appropriate, and told everyone at the top of training that it was ok to be sad – AND it was ok to have happy moments (more on that later), that if they needed to step away from a workshop or activity for a moment it was ok, and that we were there to talk if anyone needed to.
There was even a moment where I had to excuse myself.
We were doing the Unpacking the Invisible Backpack diversity training activity – which is meant to highlight differences because of privilege, I was running the activity and when I read something along the lines of “Take a step forward if you are able to marry the person you love.” I needed to hand the paper over to someone and step away for a moment, because I happened to look up and his girlfriend was in front of me, and it was just a sad moment.
During the final campfire of staff training, we let them know that we would be singing linger and that if anyone was upset they were welcome to excuse themselves.
TIPS FOR DEALING WITH LOSS OF A STAFF MEMBER (during the off season)
- Let your staff come together and be sad during staff development week.
This is a good time to address some of the things like singing a song that will trigger memories and sadness in everyone, because once they’re over that hurdle it will be a little easier when you do it with campers.
- Let them know that once the campers arrive, their focus and attention needs to be on the kids. Honestly, once the campers arrived, they kept the staff so busy that it was actually great for those who were grieving, they had somewhere else to focus their energy other than their thoughts. There were a few challenging moments throughout the summer – but that’s the nature of grief.
- We prepared them for questions from campers. Again it was a close community, most of the returning campers knew what happened (and found out from the obituary that the two counsellors had been dating). We instructed them not to get into details, or religious “after life” discussions with any campers, just to simply say something along the lines of “we lost a good friend and we miss him a lot”.
If campers seemed like they were struggling with it, or it was bringing up feelings of loved ones they lost, we would give their parents a heads up and let them know that we were available to listen if they needed to talk.
Honestly, most of the campers were sad, but more preoccupied with the fact that two of the counsellors had been dating and they had no idea.
- We also reminded staff that there would be campers (and a few counsellors) who didn’t know this person, and it would be unfair to them if everyone was talking about this loss the whole time – and unhealthy. So we asked that they only address it if campers asked, and not to dwell on it. Everyone understood and was really great about it.
- Then thing the staff did in celebration and remembrance of him was create a new overnight site, and name it after a hilarious character he had created for a play the previous summer. They involved the teen campers and it was cathartic for everyone.
Losing a Camper During the Off Season
At my previous camp we unfortunately lost a number of campers over the years to their illness or disability, but it was rare that we would lose someone suddenly or tragically.
With our older campers (40+) we would often remember our friends in stories during the week, and maybe add their photo to the end of the week slideshow. It’s not that it was easier for these campers, it’s just that they were a little more used to it, especially since many of them lived in nursing homes.
Unfortunately we encountered one year when a young lady who attended our youth camp died suddenly and tragically, and a young man from the same session succumbed to his illness around the same time. We lost them during the off season, and some of their friends were pretty devastated.
Many of the staff went to their funerals and offered our condolences.
We contacted all of the camp parents from their session to let them know, so they could decide how, or if, they tell their children (it was camp for youth with physical/ intellectual disabilities, so there were some campers who had a difficult time understanding the concept of death).
We also told the parents that we would be having a small remembrance service at the end of camp.
Pick up for campers is usually 11am, so we scheduled the small service for 10:30am, and invited all of our campers and parents. We chose this time specifically so that if a camper was new, and didn’t know either of them, or if a service like this would be too difficult for them, or they wouldn’t understand, their parents could pick them up at 10:30 instead of 11.
We also invited the parents of the deceased campers, but they declined because it would have been too (understandably) difficult.
We asked campers if they wanted to write a message to to either of them on a piece of paper.
We had a nice photo of each of them and a quote about friendship and remembrance, then we gathered in a circle around the fireplace in the gazebo and shared our favourite memories, we had some great laughs and a few cries, then everyone who wrote a message threw it in the flame and we talked about the symbolism of the smoke rising.
The whole thing lasted juts under 30 minutes and everyone left hugging, smiling, and grateful that they had a chance to say goodbye their way.
I lost another camper tragically about a decade ago, her mom asked me to speak at her funeral, it was one of the biggest, most difficult honours I’ve ever received.
TIPS FOR DEALING WITH THE LOSS OF A CAMPER (during the off season)
- You may want to consider giving parents a heads up, so campers don’t find out when they arrive at camp through gossip, this will also help you work with parents to create plans to help their campers cope.
- Be prepared for questions from campers, it’s ok to say that you may not have answers, and let their parents know that they’re curious.
- Try not to dwell too much on it during your session. Don’t bring it up unless campers do, and if they do, acknowledge their feelings and let them know that they’ll have more time to share and celebrate their friend’s life at the end of the week.
- Anticipate feelings and memories about other loved ones to come up.
- It’s nice to do something special to remember them as a group, even if it’s just lantern time on the last night of camp, acknowledging that they were a member of your community and that they are missed is a nice touch.
- Give campers and staff support and space to be sad and experience the feelings that come up.
- Discretely check in to see how everyone is doing.
- Try to keep your regular camp routine as normal as possible.
Telling a camper bad news
In my first year as a seasonal director, I received a phone call from a camper’s sister (the camper was a 40 year old man with Down Syndrome) telling me that their mom had passed away.
And they wanted ME to tell him!!!
I told them how sorry I was for their loss and said “uhh… do you think maybe it should come from you?” and they explained that there was no way they could get to camp at that time, and that they wanted him to know but didn’t want him to hear it over the phone, so they thought a friend should tell him in person. I couldn’t argue with that logic.
I asked what their beliefs were, what sort of language I should use and then told them we’d call them back once he knew.
I asked him to come have a chat with me in my office, and when he arrived I said hello, then, “I just spoke with your sister, I have some bad news buddy, your mom died, she’s gone to Heaven now.”
She had been sick for a while, and he paused, said, “yeah…”, then hung his head.
I asked if he’d like a hug, he nodded and we hugged for a little while, then he gave the ACD a hug and I asked if he’d like to call his sister.
He spoke with her, handed the phone to me, then went back outside to be with his friends. While I was speaking to his sister I could see his friends giving him a group hug through the office window.
His sister picked him up two days later for the funeral, and he insisted on returning to camp that night, because all of his friends were at camp and it was the place that made him feel happiest, so he didn’t want to miss the last day.
TIPS FOR DELIVERING BAD NEWS
I doubt many people will find themselves in the exact same situation (I hope not at least!) but you may have to let a camper know there’s been an accident, or that someone was taken to hospital, or even that there’s been a death, here are my suggestions on how to deal with it.
- Show the family compassion and try to support them in whatever way you can. That includes condolences.
- Ask them for help in the messaging to the camper. Telling someone that their mom is ‘gone to Heaven’ is only helpful if that’s something they believe, it’s not only unhelpful but might be downright offensive if they hold a different belief system.
- Put your own beliefs aside, you might be an atheist and scoff at the idea of an afterlife, but this moment isn’t about you, say and do the things that will comfort your camper.
- Be clear in your messaging, don’t leave room for confusion “we lost her”, “she’s not with us anymore”, etc. can leave room for confusion – if Greys Anatomy has taught us anything, it’s that you have to be very clear and not use any euphemisms.
- Be prepared to offer the camper a quiet place, in our case he wanted to be with his friends, but we were prepared to let him stay in the office with us, go to his cabin, or take a walk – whatever he needed to process the information.
- Be prepared for other campers to react, again, this can bring up a lot of feelings and memories for other campers too. In my experience, when someone is missing a loved one, the best thing to do is ask them what their favourite memory is, that way they feel validated in their feelings, and sharing happy memories can be bittersweet, but usually ends on a happy note.
- Be prepared to work out a plan with the family to get the camper right away if that’s what they need.
Honestly, in this situation, I would have driven that camper home myself if that’s where he had wanted to be, but he felt supported at camp so it wasn’t a concern.
- Ask if there’s anything you can do.
- Keep a discrete eye on the camper for the next little while to make sure they’re actually ok (as is to be expected) and check in on them a few times – although not too often, and make sure that only one or two people are checking in, because if the whole staff team is checking in on them they’ll be inundated with checkins and that’s uncomfortable.
- Let your staff know so they’re not surprised if it’s brought up, but also let them know that it’s being handled and there’s nothing they need to (or should) do, and that even though the camper may be telling people, that’s their choice, staff are to treat it as confidential information.
- If you have ice cream, offer them some.
Counsellor receives bad news
I’ve had a few staff lose loved ones while at camp, over the years. I’ve had loved ones sick while I was at camp. I found camp helped distract me, and so have a lot of counsellors, but I always let them know it’s ok if they need to leave. And if they decline, but are distracted or preoccupied, I have a conversation with them and let them know that I think it would be best if they went home to be with their family.
I make it very clear that it is both out of kindness and concern for their situation, and out of concern for the camp. I tell them how much I would love for them to be there with us, but that I understand that their priorities have shifted.
And if they’re feeling guilty about leaving, or feeling like they’re going to let people down, I let them know that it’s actually better if they step away for a while. Because their head’s not in the game, and if they step away I will find someone to fill the gap, but if they stay as a “warm body” it’s not actually helping anyone, them or me and especially not the campers.
Again, this conversation comes from a place of caring and respect (it would be a very different tone and somewhat inappropriate if it wasn’t.) That usually helps them feel better about going, and while most counsellors take time off to deal with their crisis, others have decided to resign for the summer.
I respect both decisions.
While they’re at camp, I give them space to have their feelings, give them a mental health day if they need it, and in one specific instance, a staff received a really upsetting phone call, asked if they could have some time to themselves, I said of course, then found their closest friend on staff and asked if they’d like to check on them while I covered the cabin.
TIPS FOR SUPPORTING STAFF WHO RECEIVE BAD NEWS
- If you have a no phone policy, and they have to take a call on the camp phone, give them privacy during their call.
- Try to make arrangements to give them some space to have their feelings.
- Ask them what they need from you. Try your best to accommodate their requests.
- Let them know that they have options, make sure they know it’s ok to put family first.
- Be honest about what you need from them.
- Check in on them.
- If a loved one is critically ill, they may need to use the phone more often, accommodate that.
- Keep their information private, it’s their right to tell others or not.
- Let their co-staff know that they may need to step away from time to time and that you’re aware and ok with it ask if there’s anything you can do to support them in those moments. You don’t need to provide any other information, if another staff questions or complains, simply say you’re both aware and ok with the situation and ask if it’s affecting them and how you can help.
- If they decide to leave for a short time or permanently, check in with them after a week or so. It will show you care.
Camper comes to camp after losing parent
I remember one camper in particular who came to camp after just losing her father. Her mum told us that she was dealing well with it, but any mention of father, dad, death, dying, Heaven, etc. would likely set her off.
We reviewed our program, removed games like Bang, Bang, Bang (secret society game where you say “you’re dead” a lot) and let the staff know that there was a camper attending who was sensitive to that language so to be cautious of what they said. We didn’t tell them which camper, because they didn’t need to know, only her direct cabin counsellors who saw her file with the special instructions knew.
Everything went pretty well and she had a really good week, then for the final campfire we were getting to the end of the songs and starting in on the slow ones when one of the counsellors stood up and sang the first lines, “Child arrived just the other day…” when the ACD and I both stood up and said “ACTUALLY…”, I jumped in first, “sorry dude, I meant to tell you, I’m taking this one – I really wanted to sing 500 miles tonight” and just started leading the song.
The bewildered counsellor sat back down while the ACD walked around the outside of the ring to find the person who had the list. I saw her scribbling furiously and whispering to the counsellor.
The song the first counsellor was about to sing was Cats in the Cradle – all about a dad not making enough time for his son, then his son growing up and not making enough time for him. And the song the ACD scribbled off the page was One Tin Solider – singin’ bout Heaven and trumpets blowing – I don’t think so!
Even with all our preparation, we still made mistakes, because you can’t think of everything, and those songs were just sung so regularly that no one thought twice about including them.
TIPS FOR SUPPORTING CAMPERS WHO HAVE LOST SOMEONE RECENTLY
- Talk to the family, get as much information as you can.
- Do your best to accommodate their needs, and be sensitive to things that could trigger them.
- Discreetly check in on them.
- Try to keep your schedule as normal as possible, they’re at camp to get away from their everyday life.
- Let them know at the beginning of the session that you’re there if they need you, don’t follow up unless they’re telling you or sending signals that they need to talk.
Losing a camper/ staff during or at camp
Fortunately for me and the camp communities I’ve worked with, I’ve never encountered this. I cross my fingers and pray that I never will.
I suspect that a lot of the techniques would be similar to the things listed above, with added trauma and potentially location based obstacles. BUT I really can’t speak to it, because it’s not something I’ve experienced.
So if any of you have been through this, I’m truly sorry you experienced this, and if you’d like to share your learnings here I’d be honoured to share your story in the hope that it would help someone else someday.
- Bedtime can be the most difficult time for people who are grieving. They’re alone with their thoughts for the first time all day.
- Just because someone ‘seems’ ok, doesn’t mean they are. Everyone grieves in different ways, it’s worth it to keep an eye on them and discreetly check in.
- Always ask for permission before comforting someone, it’s just good practice in general to get permission before touching someone, but some people don’t like being hugged if they’re sad, because they’re doing everything they can to keep it together, and a hug or an arm squeeze might make them fall apart.
- If someone is upset and asks to be alone, respect their privacy, some people hate having others see them cry. If you don’t want to leave them totally alone, you can say, “ok, I’ll just be right over here” so they know you’re close, but not invading their space. In fact, I’ll often ask, do you want to be alone for a few minutes?
- Let them know it’s ok to laugh, or feel happy sometimes. Often people who are grieving will feel guilty if they have a moment of joy because they’re supposed to be sad, or that moment of joy will remind them of what their loved one is missing out on, so it can often be followed by a moment of deep sadness. That’s ok too.
It’s important to let them know those feelings are ok. Something as simple as “hey, I bet ___ would have thought that was hilarious”, can help them sort out those feelings, because realizing their loved one would have laughed almost gives them permission to feel that emotion on their behalf (at least in my experience – again, totally not a professional).
- Some people will feel really angry. Maybe they’re mad that their loved one left them, maybe they’re mad AT the loved one for something that happened while they were alive, maybe they’re just raging at the world at how unfair it all is, maybe anger is their default emotion because being sad is too scary and anger is “easier”, or maybe they have no idea why they’re so mad. All of these reasons are valid, (according to me, again not a professional) give them space, let them feel their feelings, let them know you’re a friend they can talk to if they want, or you can sit in silence and be angry together.
- If you can, depending on the scenario have a grief counsellor on staff, or on call to help deal with the situation and feelings.
- Be ok with silence. Sometimes someone just wants to sit on the floor and stare at the wall. Maybe they’re all “feeled” out. That’s ok, you don’t need to fill the silence, if they want you there, just being near is sometimes enough.
- When someone (in my experience) is in the early stages of grieving, anything can trigger a memory or feeling, a word, a smell, a song – anything.
When my uncle passed away, I was going shopping to find something to wear to read at his service, I got in the car and the song “Just Breathe” was playing on the radio. He died of pulmonary fibrosis (a lung disease)… I started jabbing at the buttons to try to turn the song off, and when it was finally quiet in the car I burst out crying. I can laugh about it now – cause really, what are the chances! But at the time, it sucked.
The point is, you don’t have to understand what caused someone to be upset, it could mean nothing to you, but it’s important to validate those feelings.
Ok, I think that’s it. I’m sure there’s a million things I left out. Like I said, I can only draw from my experiences at camp and in my personal life, but I thought it was a good place to start a conversation.
If you’ve had experiences you’d like to share to help educate others, please let me know. And if you’re a certified psychologist and everything I’ve said here is wrong, please let me know, I’m always trying to learn.
I wish you a safe and happy summer, and I hope you don’t have to use any of this information, ever.