by Jana Heck
Our children were four, five and eight years old when my husband died by suicide. Being widowed at age 35 was shocking; being a single mother of three young children was overwhelming. Trying to answer my kids’ questions honestly yet age appropriately was challenging, especially since I was searching for my own answers.
The kids were sad and angry in one moment and in the next, playing as if they had no clue our world had been turned upside down. It upset them to see me cry; it worried them if I was late picking them up after school. It was quite the emotional ride and while I was surrounded with family and friends who showed their support in the best ways they knew how, I felt very alone and very scared and I had the weight of my children’s emotional and physical health and growth baring down on my soul.
At that time, my boys were too young to fully grasp the understanding of suicide but my daughter, the eight year old who was wise beyond her years, understood completely. She was angry at her daddy for choosing to die but she refused to show anger towards him; he suffered from mental illness and he was not here to defend himself. Her feelings of anger led to ones of guilt. Her solution was to keep it buried inside herself; she would beg us to stop talking about him at the mention of his name.
I had gotten all of us into counseling a couple of months after his death. Not long afterwards, the counselor suggested my daughter attend a children’s grief group facilitated by Martha Furman. After just a meeting or two, Martha shared the idea she had for Camp Braveheart. Alex showed excitement about it but I became very nervous. It was five hours away in a different state. She was eight years old and had only spent the night at her best friend’s house which bordered our backyard. I was terrified if I let her go, something terrible was going to happen to her and I would have to live with yet another tragedy. I was not ready to give up that safety and comforting reassurance of having her home with me.
Alex remained excited and she dearly loved Martha. I trusted Martha. I knew Alex needed something to help her break through in her grieving but did it have to be so far away? And for so long? I prayed over what decision to make. With reluctance, I agreed to let her go. It was so vey difficult leaving her at Camp Braveheart. For me, it was a long, uncomfortable week with her away. But the day I picked her up, when she came running into my arms, I knew there was a change. She came home understanding her feelings and knowing they were ok. She was shown how God was still with her and shining through all of her brokenness and He loved her and her daddy loved her and she was not responsible for any of it. She was able to recognize that the anger and guilt were all a part of grieving and not a result of anything she had done wrong.
It was the week that brought her closer to and more reliant upon God for peace, strength and comfort. She was around kids who understood her pain and who weren’t afraid to talk about it, about the loved one they lost, and how different life was after the death. After returning, she was more willing to talk about her daddy and what happened the day he died. She was able to yell at him when she was angry with him for leaving and cry for him when she was sad.
As soon as my boys were old enough, they, too, started going to Camp Braveheart. The friendships they all have made from camp are like no others they have had…ones based on faith and love, compassion and empathy.
My kids are now teenagers and still, their favorite week of the summer is Camp Braveheart. Only over time, they have learned to use their experiences to help others in their grief. They still share stories and tears but they witness to others who are newer to grieving and share the love, hope, and peace that will come with God’s healing and grace.
God knew, better than I did, what my children were going to need when He nudged me to say yes that first year of camp. I am grateful for all of the time, energy and love poured into Camp Braveheart. The knowledge about grief, the tools to help cope with loss, and the strong emphasis