When I was 16 my mother died after a five-year battle with cancer.
Before she died, I had lost other family members and a few friends I was close to, but my mother’s death had the largest impact on my life; it hit so close to home. My mother was in hospice and I was there when she took her last breath in the comfort of our home. I helped take care of her in her last days which had a lasting impression on me.
Grieving as a teenager is just so hard. It is a major developmental period and social pressures are high. Teens are often dealing with bullies and cliques when all they want to do is fit in.
After my mom died, I just wanted my old routine back as a distraction. Many of my teachers treated me differently from the other students; calling me up to the front of the class to offer condolences and special treatment on assignments. This was upsetting to other students and I started getting bullied. I was called “the girl with the dead mother” and they would say things such as, “What are you going to do? Go run to your mom? Oh, right she’s dead.” Someone even broke into my gym locker and broke open a necklace that had my mother’s ashes in it.
The teens are a time of firsts. My mom was with me for my first prom, my first steps into womanhood, and my first starring role in the school play. She saw me go on my first real date, have a first boyfriend, and celebrate my sweet 16. At the same time of her death, I had my first break-up, which was a time when I really needed her. After she died I realized there would be a lot of important events that I would need her during, such as getting married and having kids. It taught me to enjoy the moments you have with the people that you love. That’s why I always tell people to appreciate the family and friends they are surrounded by because you never know what can happen.
Camp Erin was a light at the end of the tunnel that helped me know that I was not alone. Many of my friends at school did not understand what it was like to deal with the loss of someone so close. I gained friends who understood what it was like to be grieving and tools for dealing with my loss.
Outside of camp, I did things in memory of my mother. I did things that made me happy and brought a sense of normalcy to my life. I was fortunate, as an only child, that my father and I had each other to lean on. I also had access to bereavement counselors and family therapy both before and after her death.
Many kids don’t have as much support as I did, and I see the long-term impact.
I wanted to help make sure other kids have that same support, which is why I went back to volunteer at camp. My first volunteer experience was as a photographer at the Camp Erin location I attended after my mom died. Being a volunteer gave me a new perspective on camp. When I was a camper I was scared to be away from my father, but when I got to camp all the worry went away because I was having so much fun. I see now how Camp Erin staff, volunteers, and hosts welcome campers into a safe space where they are surrounded by others just like them. I am proud to say that I have been part of helping campers have this experience.
As camp photographer, capturing precious camp moments through the lens of a camera was indescribable. I witnessed the campers’ resilience as they shared their stories. I saw how campers are taught to grieve in a safe way at camp. As a camper, I was having so much fun with the other kids in my cabin that I did not realize the tools that I was given to process grief and memorialize my loved one. As I got older and experienced additional losses, these tools were there to help me through hard moments. I feel so blessed to be a part of the Camp Erin family, and I want all volunteers to know that they make a huge impact.
I’m looking forward to my future—I have so many big plans. I am proud to say that I am graduating with my bachelor’s degree in psychology in December from Grand Canyon University in Arizona. I plan to continue to my master’s degree in general psychology along with a certification in thanatology, the study of death, dying, and bereavement. I hope with the combination of these two programs I can work with grieving kids and families. I get asked all the time what I want to do with my degree and what inspired me to be on the path that I am on today.
I can’t talk about what I want to do with my future without speaking about Camp Erin, as it played a huge part in making me who I am today. I see myself as an advocate for grieving kids and families.
Helping kids going through what I went through is something that I wish to dedicate my life to in memory of my mother. I did not realize it until I was a year into my schooling that my mother also had a degree in psychology and worked on giving back to the community with it. I guess you could say I am following in my mothers’ footsteps.
Most of all I want people to know that the best way you can help is by giving youth permission to grieve, answer their questions to the best of your ability, and if you don’t have answers seek help. You are not alone.
*Anna Pancoast first attended Camp Erin Albany after the death of her mother and has returned as a volunteer both at Camp Erin Albany and Camp Erin Tucson/Phoenix.