Thousands of school-age children die each year. In addition, thousands more experience the unexpected death of a parent, sibling or grandparent. In fact, one of every seven children loses a parent to death before the age of ten. (1)
When a child comes to camp soon after experiencing the death of a relative or close friend, that child’s counselor must employ exceptional comforting and counseling procedures.
If the death of a camper or staff member occurs during camp, everyone associated with the organization is thrown into an unfamiliar mode and must pursue an alternate course, both in action and interaction.
Tragedy visited more than one camp this past summer. That is why now, more than ever, staff members of camps and conference centers need to learn basic grief theory.
The first principle of grief theory is that, at the time of tragedy, the most pressing need for individuals affected is not counseling, but comfort. Latest brain-based research demonstrates that in order for a quality cognitive (counseling) connection to be made, a quality sensory (comfort) connection must be established.
That is, staff members must learn how to apply comfort along with counseling principles to effectively interact with campers, guests or fellow staff members who are experiencing deep grief.
What is the Camp’s/Conference Center’s Role?
When a camper, guest, staff member or family member of the camp community dies, the camp’s response can have a significant impact. Doing nothing or responding in a poorly planned, “reactive” manner can compound the tragedy.
On the other hand, being “proactive” can lead to a healthier and speedier recovery for those closest to the situation, as well as a growth experience for those indirectly affected.
A recent study of college students at a major university who experienced the death of a friend or fellow student during their K-12 education years found that more than 80 percent felt bitter about the way officials handled the tragedy, for basically two reasons:
1. Nothing was done; officials tried to proceed as “normal.”
2. Unfamiliar outside counselors or ministers were brought in to talk with the students, but they were reluctant to talk with these outside people because they did not know them or had not established relationships with them.
Through the years in leading crisis teams and conducting critical incident debriefings, I have found that students or campers would rather grieve with people they see every day.
Although camps and conference centers need outside resources, it is important to have a crisis team and policy in place within the camp before a crisis ever occurs. This is because the relationships of love and trust that develop in such a setting–even over a short period of time–are often more meaningful than relationships with unknown professionals.
“Grief is best handled outside the psychiatrist’s or psychologist’s office,” says Dr. Joel Robertson, a psychiatrist who specializes in problems of depression and suicide. “It is best handled by common people who care and have compassion for their fellow human beings.”(2)
Many staff personnel may feel inadequate to deal with such crises. However, most people on the camp staff care deeply for the campers, guests and staff with whom they work. Thus, they are better equipped than they think to deal with such crises.
Although no one wants to think about a tragedy occurring, courses in crisis-management and grief-recovery are valuable because institutions need to have a three-phase plan correlated with three critical time periods in place at all times:
This is the planning that is done before a crisis occurs. Crisis-team members are selected, job responsibilities are defined, and media and personal property policies are established.
During this time, the camp/conference center activates its plan according to the type of crisis that has occurred. The three major objectives during this phase are to:
1. Acknowledge the incident honestly in an intimate setting
2. Allow campers and staff to express their feelings
3. Offer options to campers and staff who desire to help.
Specific crisis plans should prepare for death by accident or illness, suicide, catastrophic death, homicide, among others. These times are never easy; however, if a sound plan specifically designed to fit the crisis is in place, chances are the situation will be handled effectively and appropriately by the camping/conference center.
It is now possible to make the tragedy a growth experience for all concerned. Lessons about grief and the staff’s role are presented. Chapel services or small-group discussions can be directed toward the needs of campers and staff, thus fostering growth toward an appreciation for life and loved ones.
A quality, all-inclusive crisis-response program is of great value to camp and conference leaders. Unfortunately, tragedies have happened, and will continue to happen. Administrators need a comprehensive program to help during times of dire need–times when hysteria, confusion and disorientation can rule facilities unless a carefully, well-planned program is instituted, far in advance, to maintain the environment with respect to the grief of the campers, guests and staff members.
The National Center for Health Statistics, (1991), Atlanta, Ga. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Robertson, Joel. Natural Prozac: Learning to Release Your Body’s Own Anti-Depressants. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 1997.
Dave Opalewski is president of Grief Recovery Inc., based in Saginaw, Michigan. His extensive work in this field includes Crisis Response Planning for Camps and Conference Centers. For more information, visit www.griefrecovery.ws.
Tragedy: A Hypothetical Situation
Let’s suppose that a camper has committed suicide at a facility. The executive director or person in charge must first consult the “Crisis-Response Procedure Manual” for “camper death by suicide,” and proceed with the checklist developed for this situation, which may include (but is not limited to):
1. Notifying 911, police, parents, other key staff members, board members, insurance agent, etc.
2. Assembling the crisis-response team–assigning roles and responsibilities (family liaison, media liaison, roamers, counselors)
3. Providing written communication to all staff members
4. Deciding how to inform campers of the tragedy (usually best in a small-group setting).
Once the checklist is covered, a staff meeting needs to be called. Because the staff is prepared for such a crisis, the director already has a meeting agenda. The meeting is a time for staff members to express grief and to support each other. This is of paramount importance before the staff can be of support to the campers.
During the meeting, the media policy is discussed, a list of do’s and don’ts is issued, the location of a crisis room is announced, as are the procedures for sending campers to the crisis room. Suicide-assessment procedures are reviewed.
Before leaving the meeting, staff members need to know:
1. Help is available for them, as well as for the campers.
2. They are the key people for maintaining a safe and calm atmosphere around camp.
3. The information they have about the tragedy is accurate.
4. The “roamers” walking around the campgrounds can provide help in several ways.
Crisis rooms (one for campers and one for staff) should be set up for those who may need additional help outside the small-group setting. A letter may be sent to parents announcing the incident and explaining how the camp is responding to the crisis.
Memorials are very different when a death is by suicide. It is suggested that there be no moment of silence, no flags flown at half-mast, nor camp-sanctioned tributes. State associations of ‘”suicidology’” discourage these activities to avoid glamorizing or romanticizing the act of suicide in any way.
Individuals who were close friends of the deceased who wish to remember the person in a special way should be encouraged to do so quietly in a way that encourages or celebrates life.
Suicide is a tragedy that could be devastating to the camp setting. Administrators should never respond as if the incident never occurred. Denial only communicates to young people that they cannot talk to counselors or other adults. In a time of such hurt and fear, to whom can our young people turn if trusted adult leadership fails them?
(Excerpt from Crises Response Planning for Camps and Conference Centers, by Dave Opalewski)