Parker, 6, and Jacob Greer, 10, went to bed with bags packed and visions of catching foul balls in their heads.
Then sometime during the night, their father’s heart stopped beating. When the morning light broke, the family’s life was forever altered.
Instead of dealing with baseball games and family and vacation, Colette Greer Daniel found herself planning a funeral and wondering how she was going to cope as a widow. Most of all, she wondered how she was going to ease the pain of her two broken-hearted sons.
“I wanted them to get some peace,” said Daniel who was working as a pediatric nurse. “I took them to counselors, the teachers at school helped, I was looking for anything to help them.”
Her babysitter was a LaGrange College student who had heard about a children’s grief camp in LaGrange. It was 1998 and there was nothing like that in Columbus, where Daniel lived, so Daniel was able to sign her children up for Camp Dogwood.
The grief camp for children is held every summer in LaGrange, sponsored by West Georgia Hospice. It is run by volunteers.
“I was totally at ease sending them there,” Daniel said.
The boys weren’t so sure.
“I didn’t want to go. I figured it was a waste of time. I thought everyone would sit in a circle and cry, and I didn’t want any part of that,” said Jacob Greer, now 22.
Parker Greer, now 18, was just 6 years old when he attended Camp Dogwood.
They admit they were “hellions” and gave the counselors fits during the weekend camp.
“I had a lot of anger, but I don’t like to fight. Little things would irritate me, though,” Jacob Greer said.
Colette Daniel knew that her sons needed to work through their emotions in order to be healthy in their grief.
“Jacob felt guilty. He had gotten up early that morning and saw us asleep and gone to play video games. He felt that he might have been able to save his dad. Parker was at his aunt’s house and he thought he could have saved his daddy if he’d been at home,” she said. “Camp helped absolve them both of the guilt.”
Camp Dogwood turned out to be a surprise to both the boys.
It’s been 12 years since they attended camp, but they still can sing the songs they learned, remember the lines to one of the clapping games, and recite the list of art projects they made.
“First they served us some food, and they had two guys singing a bunch of songs. They were happy songs,” Jacob Greer recalled. “We played ball after that.”
They built crosses out of dogwood twigs and made memory boxes - decorated boxes where they could “store” memories of their father. Colette Daniel still has one of those boxes.
They also recognize the deep influence the volunteers and staff had in their grieving.
There were times when the children did sit and talk, Jacob Greer said.
“But they let me talk about what I wanted to talk about and when I wanted to talk,” he admitted. “We met other kids who had lost parents or grandparents or a brother or sister. Some kids lost both their parents. I remember one girl whose father was shot by police officers. Her loss was different, but you could connect with each other. It was comforting to know that you’re not the only one going through these things.”
Although Parker Greer was young, the camp experience was still profound.
“When my dad first died, I didn’t recognize that he was dead. It took awhile for it to hit me and when it did, it hurt bad,” he said. “Camp really did teach me methods to get through the pain.”
Sherri Brown can be reached at sbrown@ lagrangenews.com or at (706) 884-7311, Ext. 240.
Camp Dogwood is a grief camp for children ages 6 to 16 who have experienced the death of someone close to them. This year the camp runs from June 25-27 at the Georgia Sheriffs Youth Homes Pineland campus in LaGrange. The camp is open to children from all areas served by West Georgia Hospice, then if spots are still available, children from outside the area are also accepted. For applications to camp, call (706) 845-3905 or e-mail CampDogwood@wghs.org.