ROLLINS – They gathered in a circle near the shores of Flathead Lake, all energy, buzzing with that clear-eyed, gangly-limbed potential kids all seem to share, regardless of where they come from.
It was time for activities at A Camp to Remember, and that meant a couple hours of fun in the sun and creativity in crafts or even at the self-styled salon, where glitter was added to cheeks and purple streaks temporarily flared in the hairstyles of camp staff and campers alike.
Essentially, that bluebird day was a perfect microcosm of summer camp, where kids are given space away from their families to be themselves outside the context of their everyday lives. Camp can be considered a much-anticipated escape for most kids, but at A Camp to Remember, the days they spend here are considered not only a fun imperative, but an emotional one as well.
A Camp to Remember is a bereavement camp run by Tamarack Grief Resource Center for kids ages 8 to 14 who are grieving the death of a loved one. And for the last 20 years, it has been a safe harbor for generations of children dealing with one of life’s biggest burdens.
Grief is an inescapable part of life, one that most adults hope to keep from children as long as possible. But since life is the only arbiter of fairness, these heavy emotions and situations do fall upon some of humanity’s smallest shoulders – children who are asked to continue maneuvering through the world after a death.
It’s hard enough for adults, said Tina Barrett, the executive director at Tamarack and at the camp, but for kids it can be especially difficult given their constant growth and change, not to mention the lack of true understanding from most of their peers.
“Camp is non-stigmatizing,” Barrett said. “It normalizes, because the campers know that other kids have gone through it. It raises hope.”
Here, the kids can play their way through the natural world while connecting to others who really get it, who know what it’s like when mom or dad is never coming back, who don’t need the primer conversations on what happened and why.
Molly Pickett, now the assistant director for Tamarack Grief Resources, first came to A Camp To Remember 17 years ago as a camper after a loss. The community she built there stayed with her, even outside of the camp’s boundary line.
“It’s all about connections,” Pickett said. “People coming together, looking me in the eye and saying, ‘I get it, I see you.’ Words can’t really explain this. There’s just something about connections with other people who get it.”
A Camp to Remember serves people of all ages; last week’s camp was specifically for youth, but there are also camps for men, women, families, and teens. The youth camp works with kids up to age 14, but some older teenagers like Jakob Beich come back to volunteer for Peers As Leaders, or PALs, to help out the kids who are new to camp.
At 15, Beich is headed into his sophomore year after having just moved to Columbia Falls from Missoula. He’s been coming to camp for 11 years, starting especially young at age 4 (age exceptions can be made based on circumstance, Barrett said).
“They really helped me out,” Beich said. “You don’t even have to think about talking to someone about what’s going on – you just do it.”
Camp helped him with his social skills and how to relate to others who might not know about life’s harder truths like he did. He plans on becoming part of the camp staff – called the Care Team – in the future.
On the grounds, 28 members of the Care Team work with the 60 campers, providing a neat, nearly two-to-one ratio. There’s no pressure for kids to open up about their experience with death and grieving, and special ceremonies help them use metaphor and symbolism to heal.
But overall, the feeling that keeps the children coming back year after year – which Barrett supports, since childhood development can change the paradigm through which a child views or understands loss – is community and connection, the support and organic bonds that grow among people who share common stories.
“We can’t fix it – it’s not something that needs to be fixed,” Pickett said. “Our lives are how they are. We wouldn’t choose it ever, but we’re going to come together. We will do this journey together.”
For more information on Tamarack Grief Resource Center and A Camp to Remember, visit www.tamarackgriefresourcecenter.org or call 406-541-8472.