One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp chronicles a three day summer camp for children learning to cope with the death of a loved one. With the guidance of trained professionals, grieving children as young as seven years old learn that their feelings are normal, and that by talking about them they can begin to heal. A testament to the healing power of shared sorrow, One Last Hug shows the often-unseen and particular experience of children's grief.Written by
I remember watching news coverage of the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which claimed the lives of twenty kindergarten-age children, and just couldn't get my mind off two things. One, most of the victims who died that day probably didn't even understand what death was or that life was even limited, and two, all the children's parents who had to face the inconceivably brutal task of opening their children's Christmas gifts just twelve days later. And for a third thought, all the parents who woke up with one or two children alive and well that morning that went to bed that night missing one or not having any.
Watching One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp made me revisit those thoughts because what after seeing what the Camp Erin organization has done for kids all across the United States, I felt humbled and reassured at how children, both young and old, are getting a mental grasp on life, death, and legacy. These are complex ideas that bring about difficult emotions and what Jamie and Karen Metcalf have decided to do, upon watching their young son Erin fall victim to cancer in 1998, was create a camp that would allow for school-age children to grieve the deaths of their family members, predominately mother and father, in a large group and talk about their difficult emotions in the process. One Last Hug focuses on the Our House Grief Camp, located in Los Angeles, California.
One thing American citizens have done in recent years is make ignorance and unawareness an invalid excuse in terms of creating social groups, informing and keeping international affairs relevant (at least through the help of documentaries), emphasizing the significance of minority cultures, and more. Closeting kids from access to practical and insightful sexual education programs, grief counseling, adequate counseling in general, has gone on to be something of the past. Shielding them access has done nothing but further confuse, ostracize, and alienate, and it's about time that people have stepped up, created an organization, and allowed children commendable access to tackling their grieving issues head on.
The Our House Grief Camp is dedicated to giving children a personal experience over the course of three days, playing games, singing songs, but also, getting to the heart of grieving the loss of a loved one. Brave counselors take the task of guiding kids through personal lectures, and walking them through playground areas where colored rocks with words are hidden throughout the park, so once they are found, kids can discuss the words the rocks bear, such as "angry," "sad," and "confused" with their counselors and peers. What astonished me is how the Camp Erin organization didn't bear a Christian agenda or any agenda for that matter. The camp is what the kids make of it. If they want to get deep, personal, and intimate, they can. If they want to remain sort of a closed book, that's their choice. The organization and the counselors don't want to pry or create an uncomfortable environment, so they just allow the children to take the lead.
Most of the children are kept anonymous, with occasional identities slipping out through casual conversation or counselor-announcements. One young boy talks about how when his dad would get a phone call early in the morning while he was with his son, and the call was for something that was minor, he would say, "I can't come into work now, I'm with my son." The kid's father went on to die on his birthday. Two boys and their sister discuss how their father was "king athlete dethroned by cancer" after suffering from a golf-ball-sized tumor in his chest. They watched their incredibly fit father turn into a chubbier, more dissatisfied man with a greatly deteriorating figure.
I've been nothing but blessed and fortunate that I've never had a death impact me like these kids. I've had great grandmas and grandpas die, but I was so distant and disconnected with them it was hard to have any other emotion aside from passing sadness. I dread the day I lose one of my parent or one of my grandparents, who I have made an effort to keep in contact with. My one grandmother I call every night and talk with her for a half hour about my day, her day, our political views, what films I've watched, social politics, and whatever we decide we want to discuss. These talks won't last forever and won't continue throughout my whole life and that's something that deeply pains me to even think about; I may need to put in an early, indefinite application to one of Camp Erin's forty-seven camps in the United States.
Camp Erin emphasizes the idea we hate to hear when we're kids but embrace and preach when we get older, which is that we need to talk about our feelings and get them out in the open. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky beautifully concocts a cohesive and effective narrative for One Last Hug because she devotes long stretches probably about eighty-five percent of the film to small-circle conversations and popcorn-speaking sessions between the kids, letting them tell their stories and share their personal experiences. This is a wondrous little documentary; one that bears the thought-provoking ideas about grief that would easily be fit for a feature length film and an emotional impact that could withstand an epic.
NOTE: One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp airs throughout the month of April 2014 on HBO.
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