Good Grief – It’s Camp Heart Songs

| By Jonna Rae Bartges |

The tiny girl stood on the edge of the platform by the side of the lake, clutching a rope as the Camp Heart Songs counselor adjusted her zip line harness. “Think about your grief, Tina,” the counselor said gently, placing a reassuring hand on the 5-year-old’s back. “Think about facing the things you’re most afraid of and flying right over them, like you’re going to fly right over this lake.”

The child clenched her teeth in grim determination.

“This rope is your support system,” the counselor continued. “Think about the support system you have helping you deal with your dad’s death. You can do this, Tina! You are safe, and you are strong!”

The youngster took a deep breath, then stepped off the platform and started flying across the lake, holding on to the rope for dear life.

The counselor broke into a huge smile when she heard the girl screaming triumphantly, “I’m doing it! I’M DOING IT!”

What is a relatively short zip line span across a mountain lake is a huge leap in healing and confidence for the kids, ages 5 through 15. They have come together to spend a powerful 28 hours at a camp created specifically for them to explore and heal their grief. Each of the girls and boys, many of them siblings, has endured the death of a loved one. Whether they’ve lost a family member, friend, classmate, or other important person, all the kids soon discover this is the one place they don’t have to put on a happy face or stay quiet about their feelings.

This August marks the 14th summer for Camp Heart Songs, which was created by Four Seasons Compassion for Life hospice in Hendersonville, NC. The Camp serves 11 counties in western North Carolina, but also welcomes children from Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina – really, anywhere a little heart is hurting.

“Some people might wonder why kids would even want to come to a camp to talk about their grief,” said Blair Simmons, coordinator for Camp Heart Songs. “Actually, this is the one time grieving kids can come together in a place where they all belong. Kids and teens can struggle with feeling all alone in the world, and thinking no one can understand what they’ve gone through. We provide a completely different experience for them, so they can begin to move through the pain they may have been trying to hide.”

Blair said the camp counselors don’t just ask the kids how they feel. Instead, from the moment the campers arrive at 8 a.m. Saturday morning until their parents come back to get them early Sunday, they’re immersed in a jam-packed schedule of activities – all of them designed to facilitate healing conversations about their deepest, most painful feelings.

The zip line, for instance, is all about empowerment, conquering fear and facing sadness head-on. One of the arts and crafts projects is making a wind chime, and writing a poem for their loved one who died.

“When the wind blows and they hear the music,” Blair explained, “they can feel it’s like their loved one blowing kisses, and hugging them. They can feel happy when they hear the lovely sound.”

Another popular activity is music therapy. Campers will pick a popular song – last year it was “Lean on Me,” and substitute some words so they can tell their own story. For instance, the opening line, “Sometimes in our lives we all have pain” became “Sometimes in our lives we all have death.” The kids practice their new version, then perform it for parents when families arrive Sunday morning to take them home.

Kids also drum out their feelings, while others guess what they’re communicating with the sounds they’re creating.
Furry therapists – lovable service dogs – eagerly accept campers’ hugs and tears, giving unconditional love and support in exchange. To help the kids feel more ‘grounded,’ there’s even a mud pit to jump into when the urge strikes.

One treasured tradition is the Saturday evening bonfire. It begins with singing silly songs, making s’mores and sharing laughter. The night winds down with a Time of Remembrance. Each camper receives a candle, decorates it, and writes messages for their departed loved one. The candles are lit, and the group sits in reverent silence, remembering. Then, the kids say the name of their loved one out loud, and when they feel ready, they blow out the flame.

“No one makes you blow out your candle,” Blair said. “We wait until each one feels ready. One time a little boy who had been happy and bubbly all day sat for the longest time holding his lit candle, tears streaming down his face. I sat next to him and said, ‘Hey, buddy, what’s going on?’

“Through his tears, he told me he was afraid that the moment he blew out the candle, his mom would be gone forever. I said, ‘Then you’re not going to blow it out until you’re ready.’

“While I walked around the lake with him, I told him the wonderful thing about that candle was that every time he lit it, she would be right there. She’s never really leaving. He stopped, took a deep breath, then said, ‘OK,’ and blew the candle out. A moment later, he was smiling and running ahead to catch up with his friends.”

The connections the kids make with each other are powerful, and by the time they leave Sunday at noon, there are lots of hugs, smiles, and last minute stories to share.

With last summer’s enrollment of 38 kids, counselors divided them into smaller groups, separating them by age. The older siblings checked on their younger brothers and sisters frequently, and it’s usually the kids who tell the teens to go away – they want their own space.

The healing that begins in the magical and precious time at Camp Heart Songs continues after they leave. Children and teens who might have been bottling up their emotions to protect parents or siblings are so relieved to be able to authentically discuss what they’re feeling. They open up and keep talking when they get back home, and the grief they held inside begins to release. Parents frequently request grief counseling for their children to help the healing continue.

Camp counselors are usually Four Seasons staff members — bereavement counselors, chaplains, music therapists, even people from other departments like billing and human resources. Everyone loves to volunteer.

Four Seasons’ vision for Camp Heart Song’s future, says Blair, is more – more campers, more nights, or at least more time on Sunday, and more community involvement.

Thanks to generous donations of time, money, food, supplies and even the location – it’s Camp Tekoa the rest of the year – Camp Heart Songs is completely free for the campers and their families. The youngsters want the healing experience to be extended to a week, and parents agree.

“Parents are amazed at the change in their children when they come to get them,” Blair said. “I’ve heard so many say, ‘If you can do this in ONE day, I can’t even imagine how much you could help in several!’”

For Blair, her devotion to Camp Heart Songs’ mission actually began when she was just 15, and her father died. From her own challenging experience, she saw how adults were immersed in their personal grief, and didn’t have the right words to say to the kids. She knew then she wanted to help other grieving young people, and give parents positive, proactive tips to support their children.

As their cherished time at Camp Heart Songs came to a close last year on Sunday at noon, there was one more activity to share – the Butterfly Release. “We talked about how this exercise symbolizes our growth, “ Blair said. “When we opened the box, some butterflies zoomed right out. Some clung to the box. A few fell to the ground, but not because of anything bad.”

The group discussed how after camp, some of them are going to fly. They’re going to soar, and feel great. Some are going to cling. They’re not quite sure where they are with everything, but they’re OK – they’re just not quite ready to fly yet. And some of them are still going to be feeling somewhat low, because they’re processing everything.

“As we watched those butterflies on the ground,” said Blair, “the wind beneath their wings lifted them up, and all the kids gasped. I said, ‘See? Everyone can fly! It’s just going to take some people a little bit longer. And that’s OK too.’”

In this loving, supportive environment, where grieving young people come together, everyone will eventually fly. Grief can be good.

To support the healing work of Camp Heart Songs, and other Four Seasons Compassion For Life programs, call (828) 233-0334, or visit fourseasonscfl.org.


Author, Emmy-winner and psychic medium Jonna Rae Bartges is a frequent WNC Woman contributor. For a consultation or a complete listing of events, visit www.JonnaRae.com.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker