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Grief Gone Wild Helps Bereaved Teens


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The following article appeared in the September / October 2006 issue of In Touch: Hospice of the Valley Bereavement Newsletter.

Where Dandelion Seeds Fall

This column will present stories of inspiration. Each life is filled with meaning, values, ideas and dreams. When a life ends, perhaps these qualities are set free and scatter, like dandelion seeds in a breeze. They might take root somewhere else and grow into new plants. Sometimes, we don’t even know where a beautiful new idea comes from, but we are inspired to make it grow and thrive. If you have a personal story that shows the power of inspiration in those who survive, please let us know.

“Grief Gone Wild” Helps Bereaved Teens

On a weekend rafting trip down the Salt River a year ago, Bereavement Department Administrative Assistant Cory Olson tightened her grip on her paddle as the raft pitched into a rapid. The raft bucked and threatened to capsize. “Dig! Dig!” shouted the guide. Cory felt a rush of fear, energy, resolve and focus. Paddles struggled with the river currents and won, as the boat cleared the boulders and holes all around.

A flash of inspiration took root in Cory, and she wondered if grief and despair could be turned into hope and triumph through confronting survival in a wilderness experience. She brought the seed of inspiration to Stacia Ortega, head of Hospice of the Valley’s Circle of Life outreach to bereaved teenagers. With the excitement and support of many others, this seed grew into an innovative program called “Grief Gone Wild.”

For five days in July 2006, 15 bereaved teens -- plus staff and volunteers from Hospice of the Valley and the City of Phoenix -- journeyed together running the San Juan River in southeastern Utah. They used ceremonies, rituals, play and adventure to help the teens understand and work through their grief. The teens' losses included two fathers killed by gunfire, both parents succumbing to AIDS, a close friend who committed suicide, a friend struck and killed by a car, and siblings and parents lost to disease.

Each day began and ended with "Circle Time and Talking Stick," a time to honor departed loved ones. HOV volunteer Walt Carr played the flute every morning to open the circle, as the teens took turns saying their names and the names of those they had lost.

The floating memorial was a pivotal moment midway through the journey. Teens and artist/volunteer Manny Wheeler constructed the wood raft, with each teen pouring sand onto it in remembrance of their loved one. A prayer of remembrance was spoken. The raft was released to the flow of the river, carrying memories downstream.

The only girl on the trip wrote this about her experience:

“This is truly a life changing event. My mother would be so excited, stoked and proud of me all at the same time. I’m doing this trip for her because she was never given such an amazing opportunity. I’m so proud of myself for conquering the fear I had for the untamed outdoors. Just looking around at the canyon and bright beautiful stars brings tears to my eyes.

“I think that everyone should take a few days off from their crazy lives and find out what life means to them...go rafting or mountain climbing something that brings you to a place that civilization has not yet destroyed. What a blessing it is to be here, not only to find peace with the loss of my mother and to have a blast, but also to find myself.”

Hospice of the Valley provided the funding and grief expertise through staff members Stacia Ortega and Cory Olson and volunteers Walt Carr and Xevi Cargol. The City of Phoenix's Adaptive Recreation Services division, which has coordinated rafting expeditions for the last 15 years, provided the expertise of Ann Wheat and T.J. Penkoff.

The trip was made possible through donations from CIGNA HealthCare and the Southwest Section of the PGA of America, which sponsored a Pro-Am benefit golf tournament in April; and the Employees Community Fund of Boeing Mesa.

The teens will continue to meet with their counselors throughout the coming year to help strengthen and cultivate the fruits of this exceptional experience. A “Grief Gone Wild” trip is being planned as a yearly event.

[Note: See Grief Gone Wild for details about next summer's trip.]

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