Monday, July 22, 2013

Hurting, Healing, and Hundred Character Blessings

In 1996, I ended my summer in a very special place, Camp El Tesoro de la Vida -- The Treasure of Life.

(I know what you're thinking -- "Good grief! ANOTHER camp post?" -- but hear me out.)

De la Vida (DLV) is a one-week camp for children who have experienced a significant death, usually of a parent or sibling or caregiver.  The whole experience is designed to provide a safe place for children to grieve, no matter where in the process they may be.  They are sometimes meeting other children in their situation for the first time.  They are sometimes receiving actual therapy for the first time.  Sometimes they are just acknowledging the death and speaking freely about it for the first time.  And for many of them, it's the first chance they've had to "just be a kid" for a long time.  More than anything, that's what they do at camp -- just be kids and have fun.

I volunteered for DLV for 9 summers, but I can still remember in those opening moments as kids started to gather in my cabin group that I panicked and thought, "I don't know anything about grief. How can I possibly help?"  I had two parents.  I had two brothers, including one who had literally escaped death just 10 years prior.  I'd suffered the loss of a couple of friends, but I didn't feel close enough to them personally to have "the right" to grieve them deeply.  I felt incapable and afraid.

With most things in life, however, I don't believe it was a coincidence that I was there; I was meant to be.  In my time at El Tesoro de la Vida, I've learned a great deal about grief, mostly from the children in the throes of it.  And since then I've had to grieve on far too many occasions -- the deaths of students, friends, extended family, even a former DLV camper. 

What I learned most in my time there, though, was that sometimes grief has nothing to do with death at all or at least not literal death.  I've grieved for broken friendships and relationships and family.  Broken trust.  I've grieved for my school and my students.  I've found myself grieving things that happened to me 3 decades ago, and I've grieved for the time they cost me.  I've been grieving for the last 5 years the ravages of my dad's Parkinson's disorder, and I felt guilty grieving for a parent I still have.  It took a long time to understand that I was grieving for the father I knew -- the hero I knew -- and learning to accept this new man, this changed man, in front of me.  I grieved when he went into a nursing home; I grieve each time I have to take him back after a holiday or a short visit away from it.

Grief is presented in stages, but that seems such an inaccurate way to arrange it.  Grief is fluid, and it swirls around us in so many different patterns that it's sometimes difficult to recognize.  Sometimes it buoys you. Sometimes it tries to drown you.  And it never really goes away.  That's the hard part.  It never really goes away.  Just when I think it's gone for good, it sneaks up on me.  A song, a smell, a photo, a memory.  A plug is pulled, and down I go, circling the drain.

I'm not very good at taking care of myself, and I'm downright terrible at asking for help (although I am a caretaker and do-gooder at my very core).  So sometimes help has to find me, and sometimes it finds me in the unlikeliest of places.

A few months ago, one of my 140 character peeps, Hayes, tweeted an article about his brother-in-law.  I happened to click on the link, and I was moved by his family's story.  After a couple of message exchanges, he sent me to this blog, "The Real Full House", which chronicles his family's life without their mother and wife and sister.  I can remember reading several posts and promising myself that I'd go back to it and read their story from the start.  Of course, like so many promises to myself, I didn't.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, this post came across my Twitter feed at just the moment I found myself in the beginnings of a big spiral.  I did go back that time, for three straight nights, and I read about their family from the beginning.  I was inspired by their strength and their honesty and their laughter and their tears.  That post and blog didn't save me, but it certainly picked me up, reminded me of what I still have, and forced me to make a plan.  Part of that plan was to say thank you and let others know about this wonderful family.  Of course, like so many plans for myself, I wasn't very quick about it.

Then last week, he posted this song.  And I thought "Dang.  I need to write that post."  But I didn't.

And then this morning, I woke up to hear his brother-in-law, Bruce, being interviewed on one of my favorite podcasts.  And I thought, "Dang.  I need to write that post."  And so I am.  The third time's a charm, I suppose.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that there are no coincidences, and we are led to moments or people that we need just when we most need them -- even if they don't know us.  Sometimes the blessings are plentiful, and sometimes they're no more than a hundred and forty spaces.

So thank you, Ham family and Hayes.  Keep on keepin' on.  You never know who's watching.

If you'd like to check out the blog for yourself, please do at .
You can also follow them on Twitter (@realfullhouse).  Bruce is also currently publishing a book about his experiences.  It's titled, "Laughter, Tears, and Braids", and it should be available soon on Amazon.

If you'd like to hear more about the podcast I mentioned, please visit them at or follow them on Twitter (@TwoDadsOneMic).  Especially if you're a dad.  They're really pretty funny dads.

If you'd like more information on Camp El Tesoro de la Vida, please see the video below.  There are beautiful friends connected to this place (some within the video, but most are not) who are still some of my biggest cheerleaders today.  I know, for a fact, that they are no coincidence.  I love you, guys.

If you'd like to find out about how to register a child or make a donation to DLV, please contact them here.

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