Stressful Situations

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)

Helping campers deal with grief.

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.


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