Tawonga bereavement camp: helping restore a balance

Stephanie Stern was 6 when her oldest brother, Gary, died of leukemia in 1978. For years afterward, when people who didn't know Gary had died asked about him, Stern said he was fine. Lying was easier than talking about his death.

Ann Gonski was 12 when her father died. Not long after, her sister died. It was 18 years later that she started grieving.

"Grief is an extraordinarily isolating experience," says Gonski, administrative director of Camp Tawonga. "You feel as if nobody has ever felt this way before. No one understands it and no one wants to hear about it." So for years, Gonski just didn't talk about it.

But denial doesn't make grief go away, nor is grieving a short-term process.

"It's important to give people the opportunity to integrate a loss over the long term," says Rabbi Eric Weiss of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. "At each important stage of our life when we would want to have loved ones and family around us, the loss becomes part of the transitions we make."

It's a journey people don't have to make alone. From May 2 to 4, Jewish Family and Children's Services of San Francisco, Ruach Ami and Camp Tawonga will sponsor "Grief and Growing: A Healing Weekend for Bereaved Families." It's an opportunity for the bereaved to help, understand and support one another.

"If you see a beautiful flower and burst into tears, people will understand," says Gonski, who will help staff the camp. "Grief is beautifully ordinary."

Gonski got the idea for a bereavement camp at a national hospice meeting, and immediately contacted Weiss and Lee Pollack, coordinator of the bereavement program at the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services. Together, they put together an advisory board and have been developing the project for the past two years.

"The beauty of this is that three community agencies have come together to provide their expertise," says Pollack. Tawonga, located near Yosemite National Park, offers a beautiful, inspirational setting. Weiss provides the spiritual support and Pollack, the clinical experience.

The camp is open to anyone, including children.

The weekend will start with Shabbat dinner on Friday evening. Saturday's activities include arts and crafts, storytelling, nature hikes, discussion groups, a campfire and a talent show.

Another activity will be making a comforting mourner's shawl from pieces of fabric that either belonged to or remind the campers of those who have died. Gonski says sewing and handcrafting are meditative, freeing the mind while allowing people to express themselves.

A high ratio of staff to campers will afford a lot of individual attention, organizers say.

"We will be able to provide people with a lot of support for their specific needs," says Pollack. But she emphasizes that this is not a therapy weekend.

A major benefit of bereavement camp, according to Pollack, is that it removes campers from the distractions of everyday life, giving them an opportunity to focus on loss and the feelings of guilt, distrust and isolation that death evokes.

Even though a death may have occurred years before, grief resurfaces at different developmental stages in different ways, Pollack says.

Although her son died 19 years ago, Susan Stern still has a hard time with certain anniversary dates.

"You hang in there for the things you anticipate," says Stern, who will also be on staff. "The hardest things are [those] that catch you off balance." Gary's death changed Stern's career plans; she stopped teaching, returned to school and specialized in child development. She has designed and run support programs for hospitalized youngsters and their parents.

Death in a family also presents the problem of restructuring relationships. Pollack compares this to reassembling a puzzle with one of the pieces missing: It has to be put together in a transformed way.

"There's a missing place at the table in the family constellation," says Susan Stern. "[Gary] was the dominant one, the leader. It adds to the challenges of reconfiguring the siblings. I recognize more than ever the special nature of sibling loss."

Daughter Stephanie agrees, saying that Gary's death really affected her relationship with her remaining brother, Joel.

"It was always the three of us," says Stephanie, who will be a bereavement camp counselor. "We had to figure out how we were going to interact. We can lend a hand to people for whom this is a little newer."

Grieving children have their own set of issues. The bereaved child often lacks the language to verbalize what they're going through and, says Pollack, adults tend to protect them from grief.

Grieving "doesn't fit into our expectations" for children, Gonski adds. "Personally I think we're a little afraid of grieving children."

"What I've learned is that some issues, like death, have a stigma attached and don't get attention after the immediate time," says Pollack. "People don't have a language and get more isolated with their feelings. [Bereavement camp] is a place where families can come together to help each other with their experiences and feelings."

Although the camp is open to people of all faiths, the spiritual assumptions are Jewish, says Weiss, adding that through ritual and prayer, the community can come together to form a web to support the grief process.

For Stephanie Stern and her mother, Susan, the approaching bereavement camp has spurred discussions about Gary. It has also inspired Stephanie to join Team in Training, a fund-raising marathon sponsored by the Leukemia Society.