What Youth Can Teach Us About Grief, by Jonathan Steele, AMFT
Grief, a topic that’s a part of everyone’s life and yet such a difficult subject to discuss, feel or experience. I’ve gone through losses and none of them were easy. From the deaths of grandparents to losing a baseball scholarship due to an unexpected arm injury, I suffered and still go through pangs of hurt today. As a therapist, I’ve had the privilege to walk alongside others in their grief and have seen change and healing. But what’s impacted me the most are the incredible way kids and teens have walked through their grief journey, especially its ups and downs. Three key themes youth can teach us about grief are vulnerability, embraced support, and practiced presence.
Camp Erin is a summer grief camp for kids and teens ages 6-17 yrs. who’ve experienced the loss of someone in their life. Their stories range from the deaths of parents, grandparents, siblings, and/or friends by long-term illnesses, heart attacks, murders, accidents, overdoses, or suicides to name a few. This camp was started by The Moyer Foundation and has spread to cities all across the nation. What’s unique is it provides a safe place for campers to engage in purposeful grief activities and ceremonies with the fun camp environment. Camp Erin is where I recognized the three themes of healthy grief, vulnerability, embraced support, and practiced presence.
Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, quoted Theodore Roosevelt in his speech called The Man in the Arena, about vulnerability, “Vulnerability is not about winning or losing. It’s about showing up and being seen when you cannot control the outcome.” The campers were constantly challenged to be vulnerable, from the moment they decided to attend Camp Erin to their participation in each activity or ceremony. Imagine. Each camper was asked to bring a picture of the person they lost. They were given an opportunity to decorate a magnetic frame with special messages to hold that picture. With that picture in hand, the camper had a chance to share about that person in what’s called The Memory Board Ceremony. Our group watched as others started the ceremony by stating their name, how they knew their person, and how they died. My group came up and I could feel the tension. We walked to the front and each camper put their picture up on the board. By the end, the massive board was full of real life loss and the bonding of shared experience flooded the room. These youth choose vulnerability and experienced a depth of healing because they showed up.
If you’re like me, this ceremony sounded terrifying! I thought of many reasons why I would not do it, “No one wants to really hear the story about my person”, “I feel so alone in my grief”. But these campers choose to embrace their grief journey even though there weren’t clear answers on how they could be affected. This type of vulnerability allowed the youth to experience the ups and downs of their loss. From laughing about their person’s favorite joke to moments of tears while describing how they died, their example is courageous. Vulnerability asks for those going through grief to show up, even though the outcome cannot be seen and it feels so out of control.
One of my favorite exercises to help with vulnerability is to express your story in a personal form and share it with trusted individuals. Feel free to use your creative process! I’ve seen it written, drawn, painted, completed as a comic strip and so many others. There are two parts to this exercise. First, express it, all of it or parts of it, its up to you. Secondly, find persons who are trusted in your life and share as much or little that you want. I emphasize "trusted" because this is an intimate part of your story and these people must be able to hold that story with confidentiality. Grief cannot be done alone, we need to lean into the support around us, just like these youth did.
The campers embraced support. They reached out to those around them, sought help and invited others into their lives. From peers to adults, they showed an innate sense of trust and were able to experience the deep rewards of leaning on others during times that seem insurmountable. Take the Luminary ceremony. This was a ceremony that gave the campers an opportunity to say good-bye to their person. First, the campers decorated paper bags with a special message on them. Then we waited for darkness. Picture the night sky, up in themountains, full of stars. Under those stars, an area was separated by low light from torches in front of a small lake. There a raft waiting to take away the bags full of special messages written by the campers. We circled around the raft on a patch of grass next to the lake. Similar to the Memory Board, we waited for our group to be called. Once we were called, each camper got a plastic candle to light up their bag and another opportunity to share about their person. When everyone placed their luminous bag on the raft, it was slowly pushed to the other side of the lake. We watched in silence as the raft represented a powerful goodbye for each youth. I looked away from the floating raft and witnessed the beauty of embraced support. These campers were full of hugs, holds and leaned in to each other as tears flowed. They allowed themselves to receive and give embraced support which deepened their healing in grief.
You might feel you’ve lost your ability to trust others for support, but its critical for your healthy grief process. We are wired for others to support us in times when we are overwhelmed. And this support is not weakness, its healthy! An exercise to determine embraced support is the Building Support Circles worksheet listed below. List family, friends and others who could be those trusted persons we discussed earlier. This could give you the chance to share your grief story. Also, it helps to challenge the thoughts of being alone. You are not alone in your grief and I challenge you to be embraced by others in support. It will give you a chance to breathe when it feels like its not possible and allow give you the safety to experience practiced presence.
“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness,” said Abraham Maslow, a psychologist best known for his development of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Practiced presence is being in the moment, specifically in your grief journey. Those moments can be very difficult, especially when working through pain, sadness, and hurt. But there are other moments as well, which was very evident during one of the last events at Camp Erin.
We left off at the end of the Luminary ceremony. The flashlights turned on and we all started walking away from the lake. The campers had options to finish out the night. They could head back to the cabins for a well deserved sleep. Or attend the Ice Cream Social/Dance Party. You read that right! Before we knew it, our belly’s were satisfied and the dance floor was full of kids/teens letting out their best dance moves, as well as teaching us adults how to floss (if you’re wondering like I used to, it doesn’t involve any string). Sundaes full of all kinds of goodies and dancing to your heart’s content, were the perfect examples of practiced presence.
The gift of practiced presence, living in the moment, can enrich our lives, especially in grief. Youth are incredible at embracing the roller coasters of emotion, from pain and hurt, to happiness and joy. You might have witnessed this from a kid or teen and wondered if this is healthy. I mean shouldn’t they be sad for longer? They seem to move from crying to playing games in a heartbeat and that must mean they’re not dealing with their sadness. I disagree, and in fact would challenge you to step into the lives of youths who show practiced presence for a healthier approach to grief. But how do you live in the moment in grief? It might seem impossible and I say start small.
Let’s take the example of the Ice Cream Social/Dance Party. When you experience a moment of pain and hurt, which you could feel from telling your story to a trusted person, try a grounding technique using your five senses. Start with your sight, look around your environment and state 5 objects/colors/etc. Next, move to hearing. Close your eyes and recognize 5 sounds in your environment. Transition from hearing to smell. Use the same technique and identify 5 different smells. Next, use your tongue and reflect on what you currently taste or can taste in the air around you. Lastly, use your fingertips to feel different textures in your surroundings. Once you complete the grounding technique, allow yourself to sing/dance/walk/run/etc. to a favorite song. In other words, have your own Ice Cream Social/ Dance Party! The movement can help release energy that's pent up from the feelings of hurt and pain. This will allow you to transition and be more present in other important life situations, such as family or work. These are the ups and downs of grief, and kids and teens really know how to embrace it.
When you think about grief, or are actively grieving, remember these three themes. Vulnerability, to show up not knowing the outcome. Embraced support, leaning on trusted persons. Lastly, practiced presence, facing the pain or hurt while experiencing the happiness and joy in your life. Camp Erin was a whirlwind emotions and fun for these kids/teens and myself. What they chose to do was courageous and incredibly healing in their grief journey. I hope to take away the same courage when I experience loss. Because lets face it, kids and teens can teach us so many things about grief (not just flossing), you just need to be willing to ride the roller coaster.