Television personality Stephen Colbert and journalist Anderson Cooper were children, boys 10 years old, when they lost their fathers: Colbert’s father died in a 1974 plane crash, Cooper’s during open-heart surgery in 1978.
During an intimate conversation about grief the two men had last August on CNN’s AC360, Cooper told Colbert how he used to wish, after his father’s death, that he had a scar down one side of his face as a sign “that I am not the person I started out being.”
Montrealer Jon Reider can relate. He was three years old when his mother, Myra Kolber Reider, died of complications during childbirth. His baby brother came home; she did not. He didn’t go to her funeral. Photos of her were hidden. She was never spoken of. When he was 11 he figured out, on his own, that his brother’s birth and his mother’s death were connected. Still, he never discussed it with anyone.
“The reason I didn’t speak to my father about it was that I didn’t want him to hurt,” Reider, now 63, recalled in a recent interview. “I think that, as kids, you do a lot of protecting to make sure your parents are OK.”
Hs father remarried four years later and Reider had a wonderful relationship with his stepmother. Still, “the thing nobody understood was that, even though everything moved forward, my mother never left me. I needed the memory, the understanding, the healing process.”
He never got it.
He needed acknowledgment that, like Anderson Cooper, he was not the person he’d started out being. He never got that, either.
Then a few years ago, Reider learned of a network of bereavement camps, weekend summer camps for children and teens who have experienced the loss of someone close. Established by Jamie Moyer, a former Major League Baseball pitcher, and his wife, Karen, the camps were named for a young woman who died of cancer at 17 in 2000: Erin Metcalf had met the Moyers at the Seattle Mariners spring training camp in 1998 and they’d stayed in touch.
With Camp Erin, the Moyers were honouring a wish Metcalf had to help children cope with grief and loss. The first camp opened in 2002 in the state of Washington and dozens more followed.
In 2017, Reider brought Camp Erin to Montreal, “to support kids who have suffered the same trauma I did,” he said. It was a dream of his to help them. Fulfilling it has also helped him.
“There is no question that this has been a very big part of the healing for me,” he said.
The mission of the camp, which is free, is to provide a safe space for young people to process their grief and to honour a loved one who has died. Most campers are aged 6 to 17 and the program, led by grief professionals and trained volunteers, has a high staff-to-camper ratio. Except for the director and program director, the staff, including counsellors, nurses and social workers, is entirely volunteer. And they clamour for spots at the camp.
Campers say that they recognize themselves in one another, that they understand each other.
“If you are around people who have also lost someone close, you don’t feel alone,” said 11-year-old Montrealer Ethan Jabbour. His father, Raphael Jabbour, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2015. Ethan was six. His mother, Tiffany Minorgan, learned of the camp from her sister-in-law and Ethan attended Camp Erin in Ottawa in 2016, before Camp Erin Montreal had opened. He attended Camp Erin Montreal in 2017 and again in 2018 following the death of his maternal grandfather, with whom he was close.
“I feel like at school, people can’t understand you as well — but, at camp, you can describe how you are feeling if you have lost someone really close,” Ethan said. “It’s something you can express. I feel closer to my dad at camp; I talk about him more.”
Late last year the camp was renamed to honour the memory of Montrealer Jackie Lea Fisher, who died of cancer in 2015 at 25. A transformative gift from the Jaclyn Fisher Foundation, an endowment fund started by her family to underwrite activities related to health, education and well-being, will help support Camp Jackie for the next five years.
Jackie Fisher had “an incredible moral compass, incredible empathy for people and incredible maturity,” said her mother, Rina Fisher, “and she would have great empathy for these grieving children.”
The camp’s mission remains unchanged. Campers will know Jackie’s story, Fisher said, but continue to hear Erin’s.
Often children want to talk about their grief with their parents but, as Reider was, are afraid it will upset them. “So there is a conspiracy of silence. Kids think they have to protect their parents,” said social worker and psychotherapist Corrie Sirota, a grief, loss and bereavement specialist and Camp Jackie’s clinical director and director.
“Camp Jackie provides a safe space for children to talk about their grief, but also to just be kids — without that guilt,” she said.
Children grieve differently than adults do. “Their grief is like a roller coaster, with peaks and valleys. Some times are more difficult; others more manageable,” Sirota said. “At camp we give them a space to grieve any way they like.”
One of the most magical things about camp is how quickly connections are made, she said.
Eleven-year-old Hugh Edwards made friends immediately — even before boarding the bus for camp for the first time in 2018. His mother, Barbara Whiston, learned of Camp Erin after Hugh lost his stepmother, Jo-Anne Lavigne, to cancer. The two were extremely close and “I felt at that point ill-equipped to help him with everything he was going to be dealing with,” Whiston said.
For 13-year-old Grace Stock, “meeting new people who have had the same experience as you in loss, they understand.” Siblings Grace, Luke and Sophie Stock lost their father, Dean Stock, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2016. All have attended the camp; the girls still do.
When Luke, now 14, got into the car after a weekend at camp in 2017, he told his mother, Paula Ciampini: “For the first time since Dad died, I felt normal because everyone around me was like me,” she recalled.
“There is this instant understanding,” she said. “It became, ‘Hey, I’m going to talk about my dad.’ It was so therapeutic for them — and they didn’t even know it. They thought they were just having a camping experience. They are getting support. They are getting their feelings out.
“And they are dong it in an environment where, 20 minutes after a grief activity, they are putting on their bathing suits and going to jump in the lake,” Ciampini said. “I know how beneficial it has been for the kids.”
Grief activities are interspersed with traditional camp activities like swimming, hikes and bonfires.
For many, a highlight of camp is a waterfront luminary ceremony. Every camper decorates a Mason jar or lantern for their special person; some place a letter addressed to the person or a photograph inside it with a small, battery-powered tea light. Then on Saturday night, campers walk a lighted path to the edge of the water with the jar, say the name of their special person, perhaps share a message, and set the lantern down on a dock tied to the main dock.
Reider, who leads the ceremony, reads a poem he wrote, You Know I’m Here. And once all the lanterns have been set on the dock, the dock is floated away from the shore, the lights twinkling as everyone looks on, lost in thought. Later, it is pulled in and the lanterns are returned to the children.
“It was really cool,” said Luke Stock. “I put a picture of me and my dad and some of his old hockey cards into my little Mason jar lantern on the dock and it was pushed off.”
To Reider, “It’s mesmerizing. And then we go to a bonfire, with hot dogs and marshmallows. That is the whole thing about the weekend of camp: You have this gripping grief activity and, because they are kids, the next thing is everybody having fun around a bonfire.”
Another grief activity is the memory board: Each camper arrives with a photograph of his or her special person. On the first day of camp, they bring the photo over to a large board, say who the person was and, if they wish, how they died. Once the photos have all been posted, “we do something fun and uplifting, like a carnival or fashion show,” Sirota said.
The board is set up in the dining room, so that everyone sees it at every mealtime.
Eleven-year-old Sophie Stock’s favourite grief activity is throwing water balloons at an emoji wall on which such emotions as happiness, sadness, anger and surprise are depicted. Campers are asked questions like, “How did you feel at the funeral of your loved one?” or “How do you feel now?” and they toss the balloon at the emoji that best represents their emotions.
With the transition to Camp Jackie, a charitable foundation has been established to fund the camp’s operations and to oversee other grief-related support services to be made available. Reider is CEO and the foundation is named for his mother: Myra’s Kids Foundation.
“Sixty years later,” he said, “a name that was never spoken is spoken.”
AT A GLANCE
Registration is now on for Camp Jackie, which will run Aug. 7 to 9, 2020 at the Y Country Camp in Huberdeau.
Camp Jackie offers free monthly support groups in Montreal and on the West Island. Learn more about Camp Jackie at campjackie.ca. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information about it. Go to jackie.org to learn more about Jaclyn Fisher.