THE BLOG
09/16/2013 06:17 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2013

Mixing Containers

My wife used to tell me not to "mix containers." While this might have been a problem with her usually flawless (but occasionally funny) Spanish to English translation, it worked for me. What she meant was to differentiate thoughts from feelings but also feelings from feelings, that it's useful to enumerate the reasons for a reaction. To lump everything together as some bastard amalgam of "fear" or "anxiety" is to be sloppy about your self-analysis.

So as a youth counselor with an interest in grief, trauma and loss, why would I feel reticence at spending a weekend working a gathering for youth who have recently lost someone? Driving the gray, cloud-scudded route from Seattle early Friday morning, I had a chance to break it down: a) it was one of the last weekends of summer, b), I miss my son after five minutes apart, c), grief, trauma and loss pull my own triggers, d), I would be in a cabin with four twelve-year-old boys for three days (without a beer in shouting distance).

***

I sat down with dozens of yellow-shirted counselors. The sun broke while we shoveled down lunch and listened to protocol run-downs. I was partnered with a young, empathic, goofy ex-military and ex-cop co-counselor. This was especially important when we met the boys of Cabin 5:

Sugar was poorly groomed, moderately autistic and had lost his older sister to a drowning last year. Another, Hungry, was a six foot tall hyperactive African immigrant with boundary issues who had watched his 29-year-old mother die of an aneurysm. Third was a sly, sweet olive-skinned kid, Slam, whose loving, active 40-something father dropped from a heart attack at the top of a rock climb. Fourth, Scout, was a tow-headed, blue eyed, reedy athlete with a perfect smile and manners and ready kindness. His father's blood had become infected--so far as I could gather. All four had younger brothers or sisters at camp.

Over the weekend we dealt with the quotidian deluge of fart jokes (and deluge of real farts), raging hormones, furtive boob-poking of female counselors by Sugar, virtually no sleep, large spiders, and an unceasing stream of verbal and physical inappropriateness from Hungry, who had Slam and Scout hopelessly stuck in his wild orbit. But we also planned skits, climbed foothills, completed treasure hunts, navigated Lake Langlois in individual kayaks with terrifying incertitude and ate ungodly amounts of terrible, sweet carbs.

The last night, in a lakeside amphitheater, the cabins rolled out hilarious skits with an impressive lack of princess-related material by the girls and fecal-related material by the boys. Then a soulful guitarist changed the energy with help from a swelling campfire. By full dark we gathered on the shore to dispatch "luminary rafts" that the youth made as farewells to their loved one. The fire and soft guitar licked the air. Our boys were rendered silent. The first child launched her raft into the reflecting pool and sobs broke out somewhere down the beach. I watched Scout's bony shoulders start to shake in front of me. He allowed me to place my hand on one of them.

It would be easy to say that I connected especially deeply with Scout because he was empathic and polite, or because he lost his father as I lost mine. But when you add the fact that his brother is four years younger, as is mine, the heft of his grief on my chest adds up. I had felt the pressure of tears many times but I reminded myself that I was there to hold the space for them. But by the time we launched Scout's raft and walked a slow round of the reflecting pool, there was no more hope of stopping my tears. I shared with Scout something that has fortified me at moments when I felt like grief would crush my lungs: that all the pain is just ours; that it's the price we pay for our loved ones' journey out of this world; they don't feel one iota of it anymore. Scout nodded and nodded and wept and wept. It was then that we came across his little brother, lost as any eight year old would be in the ceremony of release. He shyly let his gaze glance of his big brother's face. I put fire to theoretical concerns about boundaries induced by a year's internship in a community mental health agency -- I took little brother's arm and instructed him to go embrace Scout. He did it, and Scout returned it -- an awkward, unpracticed, stiff hug.

***

I planned to come home purely grateful, purely loving. I failed -- I bickered with my wife and hustled clumsily through logistics of unpacking and dinner (though I did hold onto my little boy for as long as he would let me squeeze him to my chest). Later, I started talking about the lake light ceremony. I told her how when I saw the little brother wander near, lost, squinting at the impossible size of hurt, when I watched two boys, four years separated, that resembled my brother and I more than a little and I imagined what would have become of us had dad died when were that young, I had no chance of not mixing containers -- and I gave up, for a couple of moments on Lake Langlois.

I'm tempted to wrap up by making an attempt at clinical metaphor, about how mixing containers is only responsible when you've figured out the ratios and know what kind of concoction you're trying to craft. Instead I'll just say that throughout the hours that remained, Scout laughed louder. His eyes were brighter. He watched me sometimes when he thought I wasn't looking, as if trying to figure something out.

He will.