Good Grief Camp: Tragedy brings kids together to share, bond
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — On the surface it looks like any summer camp: kids whooping it up as they hurtle down waterslides, building sandcastles with the counselors and cooking s’mores at a beachside bonfire.
But beneath the carefree atmosphere, the children at the Good Grief Camp have one thing in common — a close relative who served in the military and committed suicide.
The camp is part of the annual National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar, a program that brings together loved ones of servicemembers who committed suicide. Like the adult portion of the seminar, one of the main goals is to lift the veil of shame and secrecy that often surrounds suicide, especially for military families who often move back to the civilian world after their loved one’s death.
For many at the camp, whose participants range from 4 to 21, it’s the first time they’ve met other children who’ve been through the same thing.
“It’s nice to have someone who really understands and isn’t just faking it,” said Laura Dupont, a 17-year-old who lost her father, John.
At this year’s camp, put on by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors earlier this month, about 150 children and young adults took to the beach for three days. All were paired with a volunteer military mentor, many of whom become pen pals for years after.
It is, of course, just a start. Three days cannot erase the pain of losing a parent, as a large percentage of the campers have. But just realizing that other kids are going through the same ordeal can lay a foundation for healing, said Kyle Harper, who oversaw this year’s camp. Her fiance died in combat.
“Certain kids who won’t speak their dad’s name, won’t talk about the loss – in two days they’re talking about it,” she said.
While the mentors offer the children a military member to look up to, it’s often the returning kids who take new camp-goers under their wing. Dupont, who attends every year, said she has gone from timid newbie to confident veteran who helps new arrivals feel comfortable.
“I used to be really shy, a really inside myself person and TAPS has made me realize I can be outgoing,” she said.
For Amy Whistler, an Army veteran whose husband, Blake, committed suicide while serving with Special Forces, the camp provides a break for her kids, who struggle to explain to classmates what they are going through. She hopes it will also offer her 4-year-old daughter — too young to remember the man she calls her “angel daddy” — a safe place to begin understanding what happened.
“When you live in your civilian life, you have a mask on,” Whistler said. “I didn’t want my kids to feel they had a stigma on them.”
Part of each day is devoted to grief sessions, where children are offered a safe, private environment to talk about their struggles, but much of the focus is on play, letting the kids get back to being kids.
“Why would you want to come to camp if you’re just going to cry all day?” Harper said.
And that gets to maybe the most crucial message, according to camp coordinator Stephanie Swisher:
“A big part of this program is letting kids know that it’s OK to smile.”