Posted by: Ed Deiss | February 9, 2020

How a Child’s Grief Became a Purpose for Children Grieving

Lynne’s Mom, Marilynn Barribeau and her three brothers

They all hang in my closet together, as we are forever connected.  I will read them from time to time, wanting to go back in time to see them again and know how they are doing today.  Names of big buddies and little buddies that have been carved on so many kids and adults hearts, and signed on Comfort Zone Camp shirts. They serve as a reminder of camps that transformed all of us.  Kids from all walks of life who lost a parent (or both) or a sibling in heartbreaking ways, and yearning for someone to understand, listen, and relate, and be reassured that scars do heal and they can grow from it all.

Almost ten years ago I was asked by a former work colleague if I ever heard of Comfort Zone Camp.  I had not, however being a single parent at the time and having been raised by one, my colleague felt I would be well suited as a Big Buddy. I’m forever grateful for that conversation.

I am also grateful to have recently spent some time with Lynne Hughes, the founder and CEO who shared her own story of childhood grief that has transformed our understanding of it and her mission to make other kids grief journeys easier than her own.  She recently, and deservedly so, was recognized as one of the 2019 People of the Year by the Richmond Times Dispatch.

“Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” -Victor Hugo

A Family’s Heart Breaks and Breaks Apart

The town of Rochester, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. It was spring 1974, and for Marc (age 14), Matt (age 10), Lynne (age 9), and Danny (age 6) Barribeau, their lives were what one would expect for a family of six.  Then it all upended in matter of three days.  It all started on a Sunday afternoon with their parents, Marilynn and Skip Barribeau playing tennis.  During the match, Marilynn pulled a muscle and could not continue.  Skip got her home and took what seemed to be the prudent doctor’s advice to rest, ice, compress, and elevate.  He wanted to take her to the hospital to make sure nothing was wrong, however Marilynn did not see the need.  On Wednesday morning that week, she did not wake up and died in her sleep from a blood clot.

Lynne with her Mom having adventures together

Just seeing the pictures of her family that Lynne shared with me for this blog brings me to tears.  I can’t imagine, saying ‘good night, I love you’ on Tuesday night and the next morning not being able to say ‘good morning’. Lynne knew something was wrong that morning when she saw her parents door open, and her Mom not awake. Skip felt extreme guilt for not insisting she go to the hospital, coupled with the sound of sirens and hearts breaking.  Lynne remembers the day clearly, just as she was when she was 9 years old the day it happened.

Lynne’s Dad, Skip Barribeau and her brothers

Skip had to move on, as kids always take cues from their parents.  The love of his life and mother of their kids gone.  He did not adjust well, and was broken by it all.  He had his parents travel in to take care of the kids, who in turn outsourced it to others who did not know what to do or how to deal with grieving children.  Skip also did not allow himself to heal and work through the grief, attempting to find solace through alcohol.  He remarried quickly in April 1975 and the struggles with alcohol surfaced in his new marriage, moving out then back in, and attempting to get treatment.  Lynne and her siblings went into ‘survival mode’ with their step-mom with whom they were not close, and then the day before she started Junior High School on September 7, 1976, her Dad passed away of a massive heart attack.

Lynne and her Dad, hugs and snuggles included

The two people who wanted you all are now gone. Is this a bad dream? Sadly it is not.

Together yet Alone

The ensuing years were hard, with their step mom not feeling the need to raise or care for her step children and not even pretending to do so.  They lived under the same roof, and Lynne and her brothers would just go to their separate rooms.  There were disputes over life insurance with her step mom threatening to sell the house unless she got more. The kids reached their tipping point; Lynne called Skip’s sister, her Aunt Lorraine, and asked if she could live with them.  In the meantime her brothers had gone their separate ways living with friends.

Imagine being told when moving in with family, and expecting some relief, ‘I’ll never love you as a father, or an uncle, and you should not expect me to.’ That is what Lynne was told upon moving in with her Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Frank. Though her Aunt and Uncle saw to it she had a roof over her head and went to school, she was never a priority and has shared about her grieving childhood:

“I looked like everybody else on the outside, but on the inside, there was a huge hole that I dealt with everyday. Grief separated me. It was lonely and isolating and enduring.”

Adversity and the sense of it all

We all go through adversity, and our natural tendency is to make sense of it.  And yet it doesn’t for many such as Lynne. It was as if she was a forgotten mourner, overlooked as she did well in school and was involved in extracurricular activities.  She did not wear a sign or wear a shirt as a kid that said “I lost my Mom and Dad, please be kind.”

Then along came her Junior High Principal one day in Junior High, Mr. Treais. Lynne was in the cafeteria and he came over and asked her what she wanted to do with her life (before Comfort Zone Camp was even a thought). She told him that she wanted to be famous and leave her mark on the world in a big way.

Mr. Treais then conveyed to Lynne (as a blogger, one of my favorite quotes and lessons as it applies to all of us): “you leave your mark every day, in each person you meet; each person you touch. You leave your mark every day here at this school with each of your classmates and each of your teachers and in everyone you come into contact with. You don’t have to be famous to leave your mark.”

What an “AHA” moment as it took the pressure off Lynne to do something grandiose, and focused her instead on touching those in her life every day.  A powerful life lesson, she never forgot and was reassured her life could be used to make a difference, no celebrity status required.

Thank you Mr. Treais.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – Maya Angelou

I want to go back to Summer Camp, Letter to an Author, and a Purpose Realized

Lynne knew she had a purpose that was yet to surface.  As a grieving child, she was crying for help yet wondered who was listening.  What helped during her childhood years to escape this reality of her life were people that did care.  She found them at summer camp; the counselors, they were cool.  Those two weeks each summer were a bubble that protected her and allowed her to be a kid.  Since her parents died, she felt at times that walls would close in on her and that the change of scenery and routine that summer camp offers keeps them at bay.  As she left each year she wondered when she would be back next and yearned for it.  She also made up her mind that when she grew up she wanted to be a camp counselor, coolness included.

After graduating from Michigan State, even through her college years was not swayed from her desire to becoming a camp counselor.

Everyone has someone who ‘gets’ you.  For Lynne, she immediately felt that way about author Hope Edelman after she read her book “Motherless Daughters.” She was so moved by it, that she wrote Hope Edelman and a month later she gets a phone call.  Her and Lynne could relate to one another.  She asked Lynne if she would be interested in setting up a national non-profit for Motherless Daughters.

Off she went, her purpose gaining traction and coming more into focus as chapters were set up in numerous states across the country.

However, there was always that knock at the door of her heart ‘When can I go back to camp?’

“The man (or woman) who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” – Confucious

From Camp Weequahic to Building Foreverness   

And she did go back to camp, as a counselor at Camp Weequahic in the Poconos of Pennsylvania.  It is there that she met Kelly Hughes, her husband and now Director of Operations of Comfort Zone Camp.  Her and Kelly would ask each other what are we going to be when we grow up and can we go back to camp?  Is this as good as it gets?

Lynne and her former camp co-counselor and husband, Kelly Hughes

Upon reflection, Lynne soon came to realize that a child’s grief needs to be addressed at the beginning of the journey.  She learned through experience that children grieve differently than adults, fully recognizing the need to support childhood grief is always there; she was determined to build a place of foreverness where kids come first with people who ‘get you.’ There also needs to be a change of scenery (whether it be exercise, a walk, a movie, hiking, or camp) and there needs to be intention behind it.  She started doing research on setting up a non profit; she created a task force to vet ideas including getting those from other camps, such as those that are hospice based. She also reached out to therapists for input.

If you are wondering about how impactful this issue is that they are addressing, research shows that:

With over 5% of children experiencing the death of a parent or sibling before the age of 18, this issue affects more than 4,000,000 children in the United States; for youth up to the age of 25, these numbers more than double.  And as Lynn learned, while these statistics show the high prevalence of childhood bereavement, most grieving youth do not know other peers their age who have had a parent or sibling die, so they feel very alone in their grief.

Research has also shown that unaddressed childhood grief and trauma can lead to immediate and long-term social, emotional and behavioral difficulties. Failure to support grieving children and teens can contribute to  significant problems in a community, including issues associated with:

  • Academic performance
  • Truancy
  • Increased dropout rates
  • Illegal behaviors
  • Treatment for mental health issues

(Source: https://www.judishouse.org/why-childhood-grief-is-a-serious-issue)

“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me” – Fred Rogers

Every Grieving Child needs a place like Comfort Zone Camp

Experiencing Comfort Zone Camps over the years have been some of the best experiences of my life.

What I have learned by being there for all the little buddies over the years, and being surrounded by other big buddies is that important things in life are not things; rather time, relationships, presence, and active engagement with others.  And the beauty of it is that I can serve just as I am; wounds, limitations, scars, and experiences included.

Lynne shared with me she leads with her heart and common sense, and knows a lot of good will happen.  It sure has, lives transformed because she saw the need to make childhood grief a better journey than what she experienced.

The mission: “…empower children experiencing grief to fully realize their capacity to heal, grow, and lead more fulfilling lives.”

For anyone interested in learning more and becoming involved, Comfort Zone’s programs are offered to children ages 7-17, and their families for the family programs, plus adult programs for 18-25 year olds. They are held year-round across the country, with primary locations being California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia (HQ). They also partner with organizations to serve their local or specific communities through our Partnership and Community by Design Programs.

Comfort Zone Camp has hosted campers from nearly all 50 States, Canada and the United Kingdom and all services are free of charge due to generous donations from individuals, corporations, civic organizations and foundation grants.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities, you can find out more on the Comfort Zone Camp website. Also, feel free to reach out to me for insights and about becoming a big buddy.

Dear Dad, I miss you but I am strong

One of the highlights of camp is the end of the weekend.  There is a Memorial Service where kids can express what they have wanted to say for their loved ones lost. It is incredibly heartwarming and after my first one I realized why we have tear ducts.

Usually the campers will relate something that reminds them of their loved one, be it a song, something they did together, or just read a note to them.

If I may, I wanted to remember all the little buddies and big buddy buddies I’ve been grateful to share camp with over the years, and the ones to come.

It’s OK to remember and this is for you.

I know country singer Cole Swindell would in many ways relate to those at Comfort Zone Camp.  He lost his Dad, William, when a truck he was working on fell on him over the 2013 Labor Day weekend.  He wrote it because it was personal to him; and knew other people could relate as he realizes he is not the only one who has ever lost somebody, nor the only one who was missing somebody.

Also for you Lynne, Kelly, and the wonderful staff and organization that came out of pain for purpose that has reminded all of us that:

“Loss can remind us that life itself is a gift” – David Kessler

 

 

Thank you Lynne for sharing your story, your life is saving others and encouraging them as they move on with their grief.

You’re right, happiness is truly a choice for all of us.

Until next time,

Ed


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: