Grief and Growing workshop is a blessing to those in pain

This past weekend at the "Grief and Growing" bereavement program at Camp Tawonga, I met a woman whose hair had completely fallen out. It happened when she reached the age her mother was when she died of breast cancer.

Losing someone you love has to be one of life's most painful experiences. It is an end of innocence and proof that the worst can happen. Intense loss places a physical and emotional strain on your mind and body like nothing you could ever imagine. Yet, society demands that you quickly put it behind you and move on. In fact, most employers only offer three days bereavement time, five if you're lucky.

Grieving is a very lonely process. Although time does help to ease the pain, it never really goes away. Instead it becomes a dull ache that you learn to live with. And then, when you least expect it, there it is again.

The bereaved live in an altered state that only other grievers can fully understand. Your memories begin to play a much more significant role in your life. Anger, sadness, fear, loneliness and regret are all feelings you must contend with. And yet, there are very few people willing or able to help you sort through all these confusing emotions.

The fifth annual "Grief and Growing" weekend provided people like me, who have experienced loss, a safe and supportive environment to process and express our grief. The idea was the brainchild of Rabbi Eric Weiss of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, Ann Gonski of Camp Tawonga and Lee Pollak, formerly of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services. Each of them saw a need to create a bereavement program within the context of Jewish tradition and values beyond the synagogue setting. The collaboration of their personal and professional experiences with loss, along with the experience of Vicki Kelman of the Bureau of Jewish Education, is what makes this weekend so remarkable. In fact, the event received last year's S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Program of the Year award.

I first attended the camp four years ago, just five months after my only sibling's untimely death. I have returned every year since. It has given me the strength to make it through another 12 months. With my father's death almost 13 years ago, I had lost two-thirds of my immediate family by the age of 39.

Growing up, my happiest childhood memories were of my summers at Camp Hess Kramer and Camp Swig. I felt bathed in the beauty of Judaism and safe in its arms. For me, half of the magic of "Grief and Growing" is being at Camp Tawonga. In addition to a thoughtful program of workshops, group discussions and innovative healing services, the weekend includes all my favorite summer camp elements: Shabbat under the stars, nature, arts and crafts, rustic cabins, camp food, sing-alongs and a talent show. In the midst of all my tears, I am having a really good time. In fact, I'm having a ball reliving my childhood. It's healing and it works.

The best part, however, is simply being able to talk openly about my brother and father. It is truly liberating to express how much I miss them with other people who really understand. No one gets uncomfortable or tries to change the subject. They need to talk as much as I do.

A real testament to the huge void this program fills is the amazingly diverse group of participants it attracts. We come from all over California and even other states and range in age from senior citizens to small children. We have lost loved ones to disease, freak accidents, violence and suicide. We attend to mourn spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends. No matter where one turns, there is a sympathetic ear.

There are massage therapists to ease our tired muscles, psychologists and social workers to help us make sense of our losses, song leaders and crafts people to help us find our joy and Weiss, a very special rabbi who adds the spiritual dimension and pulls it all together.

It is a strange experience, this grief thing. Although I'm not a very religious person, with both of my losses I turned to my Judaism for comfort. It was like returning to the womb. For more than a year after my father died, I felt compelled to go to Shabbat services every Friday night. After my brother's death, I sought spiritual counseling through the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. This ultimately led me to the "Grief and Growing" program, which created a sense of all-encompassing safety and acceptance.

I often asked myself during the past few years of my participation, "How will I know when I'm done?" On Saturday, I realized that I was. "Grief and Growing" played a major role in helping me progress through the stages of grief to a peaceful conclusion.

Grief makes the world confusing. This special program, which has been such a blessing in my life, helped to make sense of it again.