Campers release white dove balloons at the closing ceremony.
The families who gathered in late March for a weekend at Camp VITAS did all of the usual outdoor activities: They slept in tents and cabins, fished, swam, paddled canoes, navigated a ropes course, splashed at the beach, sang songs and ate s’mores round the evening campfire.
After settling into their cabins, the children completed a unique camp activity: Each wrote a letter to their loved one who had died within the past year.
That evening, they read their letters around the campfire.
For the rest of the weekend, the VITAS-sponsored bereavement camp at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale helped children and their parents/guardians have fun while exploring creative ways of channeling, expressing and resolving their grief.
“The great thing about this camp is that we combine music, art and dance therapy with the traditional camp-type experiences,” says Thomas Dalton, a VITAS music therapist in Broward County and camp organizer since 2012.
A Place for Families to Grieve Together
Originally a camp for children only, Camp VITAS became a family event in 2017. Members of 23 South Florida families attended this year.
“I think it was our best camp ever, just in terms of what we accomplished and the experiences shared by the families,” Tom says. “And to have the parents or guardians present with the children makes a big difference.”
Before camp, Tom had written an original song and chorus entitled “Inside Out.” Families were invited to create their own verses during the camp, an activity Tom says was “particularly poignant.” It helped reinforce that family members each grieve in different ways, and that each person’s grief is valid.
“That’s always been a problem for a lot of families, where maybe one person keeps everything inside and doesn’t share much, and another person cries or talks about their feelings a lot,” Tom explains. “It’s good for families to hear that all of these ways of grieving differently are OK.”
Research Looks into Campers’ Experiences
Some of the most touching moments came at the camp’s closing ceremony, marked by a performance of the final camp song—with all campers’ contributions included—and a release of white dove balloons.
“All in all, it was a wonderful, healing weekend for all families,” says Tom, who’s already looking forward to Broward Camp VITAS for 2020.
Next year’s camp also will have the benefit of research that was conducted at the 2019 camp by Dalton’s team and psychology graduate students from Nova Southeastern University. The study will examine campers’ pre- and post-camp experiences.
“I’ve always known that the camp was very effective in terms of helping people deal with their grief,” he says. “This is a way of collecting data and validating what we know to be true.”
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This article was originally published on the VITAS Blog and is republished with permission.