• Rebecca Feinglos

What I learned at Grief Camp


The Official Experience Camps Portrait of Bunk C

The year was 2002, and I was heading into the first day of 8th grade fresh off the pages of the Delia’s catalog: my artfully arranged red bandana showcased two curly strands of hair hanging down my forehead, my stretchy choker pressed into my neck like clay, and black leather platform sandals helped me tower even more over the boys I was already a head above. My braces were coming off in a few weeks. I felt unstoppable.


But before I could even walk in the building, a teacher I’d never spoken to came up to me on the sidewalk. “Becki, I’m so sorry for your loss,” he whispered during the unprompted hug. “If you ever want to talk, I’m here.” My arms went limp at my sides as I held my breath during the support I didn’t ask for. I was mortified.


I didn’t want to be the kid whose mom had died over the summer—I wanted to be just like everyone else. I remember hoping no one saw us as I politely thanked him through the gritted teeth I’d rehearsed at the funeral, and walked into class.


Sure, teachers and my friends at school knew my mom died. She’d been sick with brain cancer for eight years, so this was a long time coming. But I didn’t want to talk about it. I made certain that teacher’s hug was just a blip in my plan to keep up appearances as the resilient kid who flourished at school. I was not going to let my mom’s death get me down, so I bottled it all up.


For the next two decades, I rarely grieved for my mom, and when I did it was in palatable ways: showing up to Synagogue annually for the anniversary of her death, writing about her illness for college admissions essays about a challenge I overcame, and even starting a nonprofit in her honor…the things that looked and sounded good. But I didn’t touch the painful grief that was deep down.


It turns out that bottling up pain for two decades is really unsustainable, no matter how resilient you think you are.


Me in 8th grade - braces freshly off just in time for picture day

After my father’s sudden death in 2020 and my separation from my ex-husband in 2021, I’ve chosen to spend 2022 on what I’m calling a Grieve Leave: a yearlong sabbatical focused on grief and grieving. I’m working this year to un-bottle everything I’ve been shoving down since I was just a kid with a dead mom. Now as a divorced woman in my 30s with a dead mom and a dead dad, I’ve finally realized that I want a healthier sense of purpose and balance in my life. I’m getting there by spending my year learning how to grieve, from support groups to international travel.


For years, my friend Scott, who also lost a parent young, has been telling me I should volunteer as a counselor for Experience Camps, a free summer program for children who are grieving the loss of a parent or caregiver. And every year I told Scott: boy, I sure wish I could, my schedule just won’t allow for it, thanks so much for thinking of me, hope you’re doing great, how’s work, how’s your wife, have a great day! The truth? I was not at all interested in doing something that emotionally challenging; to volunteer with grieving kids meant I would need to actually acknowledge the profound grief I felt inside. I was just fine with performative grieving, only. It felt safer for me.


A week after I launched my Grieve Leave blog, publicly committing to grieving authentically, Scott messaged me again: “Soooo are you headed to camp this year?” Crap. This time, I had no choice—not if I really meant what I was telling everyone. I asked him to send me more information.


Six months later, I was carrying my pillow on a charter bus with dozens of strangers on my way to volunteer for a week in the woods of Pennsylvania.


To be honest, I was really nervous: 50% nervous about how emotionally challenging I thought grief camp would be, and 50% nervous because I’d never been to a sleepaway camp before. Growing up, my dad didn’t send my brother or me to overnight camps—Mom was really sick, and he wanted to keep his babies close to home if something went urgently wrong for her...and also probably to make sure the house didn’t feel too quiet.


So, I came into this whole camp thing not knowing what to expect.


If I imagine what a really nice prison might be like, the camp facilities felt a little like that. The bunks and buildings were pretty barebones, but the woods and lake around us were gorgeous and lush. There was no wifi even where there was supposed to be, with perhaps a bar of cell reception every now and then. I was off the grid, diving headfirst into an unknown, tiny makeshift grief town.


I was assigned to a bunk of rising 6th graders, 11 year olds, alongside three other counselors. My girls reminded me so much of myself at their age, down to the stretchy chokers that are somehow in style again. Every bunk also had a grief specialist, a licensed therapist who provided ongoing support to campers (and to staff, when we needed it) throughout the week.


The week of camp followed this general schedule, with special activities sprinkled in (e.g. Campchella, which was LIT!):

7:45AM: Wake-up

8:15AM: Breakfast

9:00AM: Grief circle (group therapy by bunk)

10:15AM: Instructional activities (writing, art, sports, etc., by bunk)

12:00PM: Lunch

1:00PM: Camp-wide team activities

4:00PM: Free swim

6:00PM: Dinner

8:00PM: Campfire

9:45PM: Bedtime


I averaged about 25,000 steps every day, and approximately the same number of tears.


Counselors participated in activities alongside campers, including grief circle in the morning. The daily transition between therapy and instructionals hit me hard every single time: campers would share devastating stories about how they walked in on their father dead on the floor—they thought he was just joking around—and then seamlessly the campers moved on to dodgeball after. It’s easy to underestimate the big feelings kids carry with them every day.


At grief camp, those feelings were all out in the open, because every single child, and the vast majority of staff, had lost a parent or caregiver. Loss was the norm. There, you’re not the girl with a dead mom, because everyone at camp is just like you.


We talked openly about “our people”: the loved ones we’ve lost. It was normal to ask someone, camper or staff, about their person— their name, when they died, how they died, their favorite foods. They’d love to see a picture, and they would tell you how much you look like them. In real life, I’ve historically avoided bringing up the fact that my parents are dead because it’s so shocking, and people don’t know how to respond. (For example: I’ve lied to Uber drivers who ask about my family, because it’s easier to pretend for 15 minutes that my parents are alive than stunning them and entertaining whatever uncomfortable questions come next.) But at camp, no one was shocked: everyone was interested and empathetic.


Even for grief camp, though, I was extra griefy: I was one of just two staff members I’m aware of who had lost both parents. And out of over a hundred campers, tragically a couple of them had already lost both of their parents, too. One of those campers was in my bunk. I’ll call her Anna, but I’ve changed her name for privacy.


I want to share a moment I had with Anna that stands out to me as emblematic of my entire camp experience.


One of the last activities we did in morning grief circle was writing letters to our people. The letter could be about anything we wanted to tell our people about: how we were doing, what we’d enjoyed about camp…you name it. We would then wrap each letter around a small rock, secured with a rubber band, and later we’d throw them all in the lake. (We had a whole discussion about the water cycle, and how eventually through evaporation, our people would get our messages delivered straight to them.)


A few minutes into the activity, I looked around the circle of campers sitting on the floor, my co-counselors, and our grief specialist, with tears in my eyes. “I don’t think I’ve ever written a letter to my mom,” I said, choked up, “and I’ve really missed writing notes to my dad.” The girls nodded, affirming my feelings. One of my campers held out her hand to give me a squeeze. Again, they’re just 11 years old. We all continued writing.


Later that evening, we gathered together lakeside with our notes and rocks, counted to three, and threw our messages in the lake. Our grief specialist led us in a mindfulness breathing exercise, and then the group started walking back up to the cabins.

Except Anna wasn’t ready to go. And, honestly, neither was I.


I looked over at her, staring into the water, and I waved off the other counselors saying we’d catch up with them in a minute. I put my arm around Anna’s shoulders, and she put her arm around my waist. The two of us stood there, letting silent tears fall. I wanted to give Anna the space to feel whatever she was feeling, so I let the silence be.


After a few minutes, Anna turned and buried her face in my stomach. “I really miss my mom and dad,” she said through sobs.


“I do too, sweet girl,” I told her through my own tears, hugging her back.


“It’s just not fair,” she cried.


“It’s absolutely not fair,” I croaked out. But there was really nothing I could say to make it better for her. All I could do was be there. And that was enough.


In this one moment with Anna and so often throughout that week, I felt like a student as my campers showed me what grief and grieving can look like. It was a privilege to learn from them. These 11 year olds led by example, demonstrating bravery and strength every single day by sharing out loud the deep and heavy feelings I simply wasn’t confronting at their age. I’m just learning how to confront those feelings now at 33. I saw so much of myself in them—who I could’ve been—if I had learned to talk about my grief two decades ago instead of trying my best to power through it. I don’t say this lightly: I think I would be a different person today if I had attended a camp like this after losing my mom.

When I started my Grieve Leave journey in January, I did not have “camp counselor” on my bingo card. I didn’t expect that I would be making friendship bracelets with tweens as we chatted about our dead parents’ favorite colors, but that’s exactly what happened. And I certainly didn’t expect to experience such a profound feeling of belonging. At grief camp, for the very first time in my life, I found a place where my loss felt completely normal. I felt completely normal.

Twenty years after that first day of 8th grade, I finally fit in. I just had to let my grief out to get there.


Grieve on.


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Just before we tossed our notes in the lake


Did I get to teach a writing instructional to campers while dressed as Blue from Blue's Clues? Yes, yes I did.

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