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July 12, 2006

Camp Good Grief Helping Grieving Children To Heal


On Monday, Jackie Fields marked the two-year anniversary of a day no mother should ever have to endure – the day her 21-year-old son, Travis, was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident at the intersection of Youngs Avenue and Country Road 48 in Southold.

It has been two years, and the days and nights have been long, filled with aching grief and at times, seemingly endless agony and despair. But despite the sorrow, Jackie has soldiered on, finding the strength to donate Travis's corneas and soft tissue organs after his death and caring for her other children – Jarred, 25, Andy, 19, and Rachel, now six, who was only four when she lost her big brother.

Travis was more than just an older sibling to Rachel, said their mom. Because Jackie worked long nights as a nurse, Travis and his girlfriend, Jessica, cared for Rachel from the time she was only six months old.

Travis was Rachel's hero, bringing frogs to surprise her and making her giggle with his jokes. And so, on that dark day when Travis – who was killed when another driver accidentally hit his motorcycle – was swept from the lives of his family forever, it was little Rachel who perhaps had the most difficult time trying to accept reality.

Then she attended Camp Good Grief, a bereavement camp based on Shelter Island sponsored by Westhampton's East End Hospice that helps children deal with loss.

The camp, now in its tenth year, seeks to provide support for kids who have had to face the loss of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and grandparents.

Jackie said Camp Good Grief, which is based on scholarship at no cost to families, was a godsend. At first, Rachel was reluctant to go. "She had not left me since Travis passed away," said Jackie. "She had not slept at my parents' house; she had not stayed anywhere."

But, after receiving a copy of the newly published Jeremy Goes To Camp Good Grief, an illustrated book to help children prepare for the experience that was published last year, Rachel was set to board the camp bus with other kids her age at the Greenport ferry terminal.

Once at camp, Rachel had difficulty expressing her loss. "Thursday was the day when the kids are supposed to bring a picture in of someone they've lost," said Jackie. "They sit in a circle and share. A lot of the kids last year had lost parents, and Rachel mimicked the boy next to her and said, 'I lost my dad. I really miss him.' She just couldn't say, 'I lost my brother.' She couldn't do it."

The counselor, who knew the truth, asked Rachel what her brother's name had been. And then, said Jackie, the floodgates opened: "She said, 'It's Travis," and she talked with the kids for 15 minutes about Travis for the first time. It was a safe place for her."

That was the beginning, said Jackie, of her daughter's healing. Together, mother and daughter made a memorial stone for their garden. And together, Rachel's older brother, Andy, came for family day and shared his own grief over losing Travis, and about losing his father before he was even born.

Jackie, who lost the boys' father when they were young children after he died during surgery, said there was no such support network for a young widow or for children, bewildered by their loss. "People think, because children smile, that they're young and resilient. But they've got really deep minds."

Sarah Zimmerman, EEH bereavement coordinator, said one goal of the camp is "to teach children the language of grief," so they can express their feelings.

But, even after camp last year, Rachel has still suffered difficult moments. "I picked her after school recently and she said she'd been really sad at school that day. I asked her why, and she said, 'We were outside and I saw a motorcycle go past the school. I think it was Travis. I think he's going to come home on his anniversary.'"

Despite honesty and counseling and Travis's photos, displayed everywhere in their home, Rachel is still not able to completely grasp the full impact of her brother's death.

"They really need such support systems to let them understand," said Jackie.

And so, on Monday, Rachel will board the camp bus for this year's session of Camp Good Grief, to be held from July 17-21. "She can't wait," said Jackie. "It feels as though she's going to get to another level of her healing."

For more information on Camp Good Grief, call East End Hospice at 288-8400.

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