Yesterday, my wife and I dropped Dov off at the Special Days Camp near Muskegon, MI. Dov has been at the camp several times, but this time he is volunteering as a camp counselor for a week. Special Days does great work in just two weeks: one week is for children who had cancer and the other week is for the siblings of children who had cancer. That second week is important because the siblings of children with cancer, or any life-threatening disease, can feel less important than their siblings. When Oliver was sick for nearly three years, our schedules existed around his treatment. Dov had to give up some events or not have a parent present because of what was occurring. So this focus on siblings is important.
For Dov, nearing the age of 20, the relationships he built at Special Days and also Camp Mak-A-Dream (Montana) are ones he never forgets. In fact, those bonds continue. These children know what the others are experiencing without needing a lot of group counseling sessions. At camp they form teams, play games, go canoeing, swim, hike, and share candy after the lights go out. And, sometimes they talk to one another about why they are there. Dov would return and talk about all the fun they had, but over time you would find he knew which of the children had lost a sibling and what type of cancer they had.
One parent talked to me when Dov was still a camper saying that her son and Dov had kept their Snapchat conversation going for a year without missing a day. During that year, that other boy’s younger sister passed away from neuroblastoma, the same cancer that took Dov’s little brother. They were there for each other and I never knew Dov was walking with a friend through a death.
Many of these children are grieving, but you wouldn’t guess that looking at the pictures posted online. They are laughing and running and striking poses before the camera. But they are finding a way to connect and sometimes that grief comes out in a talk on a hike. Or when they send candles out on a small float in the water in memory of the siblings that died. They just want to be kids and the camps let them be that. But they are also kids who have either watched a sibling suffer or watched one die, and sometimes both. They have a knowledge of grief that children should not know, but they also learn they can use that experience to support others.
Dov does not talk a lot about Oliver, although he has brought up his little brother more in the past year. Last year he spent an entire summer in Montana working with children either with cancer or the siblings of those children. This year he danced for 24 hours to raise money for DeVos Children’s Hospital, where Oliver was treated. And now he gives up work for a week to spend time with children who can learn from him what life after losing a brother or sister can be like. To think that Dov is not grieving misses the fact of how he has spent so much of this time. His grief looks different from ours because it is different. But it still grief.
In some ways, he is now teaching other children how to grieve and modeling for them what life after your sibling dies can look like. He is probably not aware of the impact he is having, but I’m proud that even as he works to make sense of watching his brother die six years ago, he is still helping others.
If you are interested in having your children attend such a camp or if you want to donate and support their important work, we can personally attest to the impact of Special Days Camps (Michigan) and Camp Mak-A-Dream (Montana). There are also many great camps for children suffering from any type of loss.