By Jillian Ogawa
Children 5-18 years old will travel from Salt Lake City in the Uinta Mountains and spend a day learning about nature and about self.
Darlene Gertsh founded Camp Michael, an organization that helps children who have lost a loved one by teaching coping skills symbolized through nature.
“Nature teaches the importance of all living things,” Gertsch said. “I know from my own experience that nature is a powerful teacher.”
The camp begins with confidence and team building activities to help participants gain trust of their peers.
In the afternoon, the children will take part in contemplative activities to reflect on the loved one that passed away, Gertsch said. The activities will offer avenues for expression through art, music, dance and even anger.
“We tell them first it is OK [to show anger],” she said. “We give them a safe environment to show anger. Otherwise anger is suppressed and it becomes negative. Those who don”t know how to deal with anger will become destructive.”
Gertsh added during the lazy day of camp last year, she gave children a bag of dishes and allowed them to swing it around to crush the dishes. Then they removed the broken pieces to make a mosaic artwork.
A healthy expression of anger is a marker of healing, Gertsh said. “We turned something ugly into something beautiful.”
Camp Michael is named after Gertsh”s son who died of cancer three years ago, leaving two young daughters. Still heart broken about her son”s death, Gertsch left to teach school at a Navajo reservation, but said while she went there to be a teacher, she felt she was more like a student.
“The native people are very connected to mother earth,” she said. Through her experience with the Navajos, she saw the peace in nature”s circle of life. When fall turns to winter, it symbolizes death; when spring comes, it represents, life, she said.
While she was on the reservation, she watched a conference about children who lost a loved one. She saw how the “grief conferences were the most transformative and magical for grieving children,” and thought that was the best way to help her granddaughters cope with the healing process.
“My own healing was so connected with nature, so I want to help children through nature,” she said.
The camp got its kick-start this past summer through private donations and help from her close friends, Sharon Martinez and Linda Bury.
Gertsch hopes to create more awareness in the community about grieving children.
“Children grieve as much as anyone and many people don”t recognize it,” she said. “Children are called the ”forgotten mourners” because adults are consumed with their own grief and forget kids have problems too.”
For those who are helping friends cope with a death of loved one, Gertsch advices the best thing to do is to be a good listener.
“They just need a safe place and a safe person to talk about it,” she said. “If they don”t want to talk, it is OK. Just allow the person to talk about the loved one cause they want to keep them alive in their hearts,” she said.
“We can”t take away the pain. We are not there to fix it, but we are there to offer presence and compassion for that person to go to.”
If children have experienced a loss, Gertsch said the community needs to be aware that as the child develops, there are new losses every day like invitations to ”daddy-daughter” dates or ”father-and-son” camping.
“Children heal and become a new person, but never get over it,” she said. “We never get over a death, we learn to cope with it.”
Martinez, public relations director for Camp Michael, said that part of the volunteer training teaches that kids need to be told the truth.
“Not a lot of people tell kids exactly what happen,” she said. “They say ”daddy went up to heaven,” but you have to tell them the reason. They have to know the reality of things so they don”t have to blame themselves for what happened.”