Glen Cove resident Paul Becht, looking back decades later, believes a bereavement camp for children would have helped him after his older sister Debbie died when she was 7.
It took Becht, 50, until recent years to talk about losing his sister, who was three years older than him, to leukemia — a story he told to the roughly 30 participants of Camp Good Mourning!, during the three-day youth grief-support gathering that began Friday at Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches.
“When I was a young kid, I didn't understand what death meant,” recalled Becht, a volunteer and a board member of Camp Good Mourning.
“I didn't know what forever meant.”
The first camp took place virtually in 2020 before going in-person when pandemic restrictions eased. The weekend overnight camp is for children ages 7 to 17 who are mourning a parent, a sibling, or in some cases, an extended family member who lived with them. The camp is free.
One frequent question Becht, who grew up in Rockville Centre, got from the campers was how to continue remembering their loved ones.
Becht told them one particular story about his sister who used to go with him and their mother to water the flowers in the garden and inevitably turned the hose on them.
“I thought that was the funniest thing as a 4-year-old, so I'd start spraying everyone, too,” Becht said with a smile. “I always think I got my sense of humor from her because she was always playful.”
The campers Sunday presented answers, too.
Some told their favorite memories of their loved ones. Others showed their wooden “memory box” that they drew with rainbows, flowers and stars. A few carefully held a small brown pot in their hands.
One girl explained to the audience they had broken the pot into pieces — like the way their hearts broke after losing someone they love — and glued them back together. But there is a hole that they can never fill. So they put soil and seeds in it.
“We plant the seeds to represent our love,” she told the crowd of parents and family members.
Madison Rainey, 10, and her brother, Harrison, 9, of Seaford, lost their father, Joe, who died in 2018.
“I was confused and upset,” Madison said Sunday. “I wouldn't want to go to school and wouldn't want to do a lot of things.”
The family heard of the camp through a therapist and started participating in 2020, said their mother, Laura-Jean Rainey. The camp experience has helped her children articulate their feelings and the family navigate some difficult conversations, she said.
“You're not prepared for tragedy,” Rainey said. “It helps both them and me through the grieving process.”
For Madison, she’s met friends — peers who understood her on a personal level. Before she came to the camp, she said, none of her friends had experienced the loss of a parent or sibling.
“Now I understand that a lot of people are going through what I have, [or] worse,” Madison said. “Knowing in your heart that other people are going through the same thing that you are, it just feels way better because you're not alone.”
The families stood in a big circle to watch the campers lay down a rock they had decorated in memory of their loved ones. Some wrote down their names. Many drew colorful hearts. They had a moment of silence.
“You're never alone,” executive director Paul Rubin told the families before they left.