Camp Good Grief moves to Southold, where it hopes to stay

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Campers at Camp Good Grief in Southold.

Camp Good Grief, the free five-day youth bereavement program now in its 16th season, came to the North Fork for the first time this summer and hopes it’s found a permanent home at Peconic Dunes Camp in Southold.

“I think we’re very much looking forward to making this our base of operations if possible,” said Michael Pitcher, chairman of the board for the camp’s sponsor, East End Hospice.

“It’s a fantastic facility and I think our staff would love not having to reinvent the wheel every year because they’re at a different spot,” Mr. Pitcher added.

Camp Good Grief is designed to ease the pain suffered by young people who have lost family members. Previously located on Shelter Island the camp, and the bereavement care it offers, are free.

“That’s why we have to raise so much money for the camp,” Mr. Pitcher said. “In this crazy medical world, no insurance provides money for bereavement care, but it’s an essential part of what we do and I think offering it for free is a key part of doing it right.”

Campers Thomas Shannon and Brenna O’Reilly, both 11, said the camp has helped them work and play through their grief.

“Basically you come here to try to get over the grief,” Thomas said. “You go to small group and you talk about what happened and how it happened and when it happened and that’s basically it. It’s helped me a lot. My dad had a heart attack while he was sleeping and died in April. I miss him a lot and talk to him all the time. Whenever nobody’s looking or I think he’s sending me a sign, I’m always like, ‘Come on, Dad, really? Really?’ ”

In addition to attending small group and art therapy sessions, this year’s campers also swam, kayaked, played sports and did arts and crafts.

Brenna said her favorite part of the experience was the new friends she made after her grandfather died in March. “It’s awesome,” she said. “It’s helped a lot.”
Mr. Pitcher said the camp deliberately places the youths in small groups.

“Small groups give kids an opportunity to open up because they’re surrounded by kids that have gone through the exact same thing instead of feeling like an outsider,” he said.

Camp director Sarah Zimmerman said small group and art therapy sessions are broken up by recreational activities to tailor a bit-by-bit grieving process and that being a day camp instead of overnight is an important part of that.

“We believe an overnight camp wouldn’t work because the kids do a lot of work during the day and even though we make sure that it’s balanced with fun and entertainment, they really need to go home to their safe places and their pillows at the end of the day,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “We had a kid staying with friends on Shelter Island and he had to drop out because he just didn’t feel comfortable enough. There are some overnight bereavement camps out there, but I can’t imagine it works.”

She added that although changes have been made at Camp Good Grief over the years, such as the color-coding of 13 different groups of kids between the ages of 4 and 17, the program has remained the same.

Ms. Zimmerman said day four, when campers are asked to bring in a memento or photograph of their lost loved ones for the “memory” theme, is the most emotional.

Mr. Pitcher agreed and said while volunteering on Shelter Island more than 10 years ago, he noticed a boy about 9 or 10 years old who wasn’t paying much attention to the group session.

“Someone said to take him over to the ball field, so I threw him over my shoulder and took him out there and when we got there he asked if I wanted to see his dad,” Mr. Pitcher recalled. “I said, ‘Sure,’ and he pulled out a picture of a young man in a Greenport High School football jersey. It was just heart-breaking.”

The staff consists of one person for every two campers, including 90 volunteers and art therapy interns from NYU.

“We also have youth volunteers. A lot of our campers go on to become youth volunteers,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “We couldn’t do this without them.”

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