Children respond to father’s suicide by creating camp for other young survivors.

Morgan Mosher was 16 when her father killed himself.

The last time she saw him, she had driven to his house in Wells, giddy over her new driver’s license. Now that she had her own car and could drive, she told him excitedly, she could visit him anytime. All the time. 

It was a promise she intended to keep immediately, but she got caught up in summer, in freedom from school. Days passed, a week. Morgan spent the day before the Fourth of July talking to a boy she liked rather than going to see her dad.

That was the day her father died. 

“That night I drove to my best friend’s house and cried into her dad’s arms,” she said. “He was the first and only person I actually said, ‘My dad hung himself,’ to for many years.”

Wrapped in guilt, shame, embarrassment and anger, Morgan, her younger sister, Sydney, then 14, and older brother, Isaiah, then 19, wouldn’t talk much about what happened for years. They didn’t know how to deal with their father’s suicide. And no one else knew how to help them deal. 

“They give you the normal sort of death stuff: ‘It’s going to hurt for a while. It’ll get better.’ No one knew really how to tell us to cope with it,” said Isaiah, now 32 and living in Wells. “So we just sort of gritted our teeth and went on. “

Today, more than a decade after their father’s death, Morgan and her brother and sister are trying to make sure no other child feels that way. 

The siblings founded Camp Kita, a weeklong, nonprofit summer camp in Poland for kids who have lost a loved one to suicide. Last summer marked their first year. They had five campers.

This year they already have 15 kids signed up, and they expect many more.

It’s free. It’s therapeutic. It’s fun.

And it’s already helping the next generation.

“I hadn’t been through my first Thanksgiving yet, my first Christmas. I hadn’t had my first holidays without him,” said Rebecca Stouges, 18, a camper last year and a Camp Kita mentor this year. “For me, my question was, ‘What can I expect? What’s it going to be like?’ They have those answers.”

It’s helped Morgan and her siblings, too.

“This camp helped us heal,” Morgan said.

‘More common than we think’

Morgan, Sydney and Isaiah each handled their father’s 2002 suicide in her or his own way, but they had one thing in common: They didn’t discuss it. Particularly not with each other.

At times, outside the family, Morgan refused to even acknowledge it had happened.

“I would lie and pretend he was alive if someone asked about him,” she said.

For years, Morgan struggled with the aftermath of her father’s death. She turned away from friends, isolating herself. She “went boy crazy,” looking for a male relationship in ways or with people that landed her in dangerous situations.

“I was embarrassed about what my dad’s death meant about me,” she said. “It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really started healing, talking about it, and understanding that his death was a result of mental illness and nothing to do with me.”

By 2013, in her mid-20s, living and working in Boston, Morgan wondered how much easier it would have been if she, Sydney and Isaiah had gotten some guidance earlier, when they were teenagers

“I feel like my brother, sister and I really never talked about it and I was like, I wish we did. Because I feel like it would have made us closer and we would have all healed a little bit better and maybe together,” Morgan said.

She started thinking about a summer camp to help children affected by suicide. She would have really enjoyed that, she thought. It would have benefited her at 16.

Maybe it would benefit someone else.

Although a number of summer camps help children who are grieving, very few are tailored to kids dealing with suicide. And the need is there. According to the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, 7,000 to 12,000 kids in the United States lose a parent to suicide each year.

In Maine, suicide rates tend to run higher than the rest of the country. In 2013, according to federal statistics, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among Mainers 20 to 34 years old and was the third-leading cause of death for those 35 to 44 years old. It was the fourth-leading cause of death for Maine people 45 to 54 years old.

Those are prime parenting years. 

At the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, suicide is one of the most common causes of loss for children.

“I’d say it’s more common than we think,” said Susan Giambalvo, program director for the center.

Experts say losing a loved one to suicide is not like losing someone to cancer or a car accident. There’s a stigma to suicide that makes it difficult to talk about and is isolating. Suicide often leaves grief-stricken family members — including children — feeling shocked and guilty that they couldn’t stop it.

“It’s something that you never let go of,” said Greg Marley, clinical director for NAMI Maine, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “If it’s your father and he dies when you’re a young age, life is much less certain and safe.”

Children who lose a parent to suicide are more likely to be hospitalized for depression and are more prone to suicide themselves, according to a Johns Hopkins Children’s Center study. Researchers believe there may be a “critical window for intervention in the aftermath of a parent’s suicide.”

But while thousands of children are affected by suicide in the U.S. and their needs are unique, few summer bereavement programs are geared to them.

Giambalvo has heard of only one other camp — in Massachusetts — that offers a program for children who have lost a parent to suicide. She and Marley both like the idea of a camp dedicated to those kids.  

“I think it is such a wonderful opportunity, a week away with the purpose of being able to have that (opportunity) of grieving with other survivors and staff that understand it. And also being outdoors in nature, in beauty, what a wonderful setting,” Marley said. “And the friendships that kids can make during that weeklong program, particularly in this age of instant messaging and texting, they can be really long-lasting support.”

Morgan’s sister saw the potential. She quickly embraced the camp idea, and they jumped into fundraising. Because they hadn’t talked much about their father’s death, Morgan figured her big brother wouldn’t want to be involved. She figured wrong.

“She made a promotional video. That’s all it was, a promotional video at that point. It was like a YouTube montage type of a thing. And she showed me because she was proud of it. And she literally took photos that all three of us were in and didn’t mention me at all,” Isaiah said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Hey, come on. I was also there.’ Basically, I just kind of forced my way in.”

Although he was a few years older than Morgan when their father died, the impact was just as great. He spent years struggling to grow as a young adult without his father’s influence and battling the sense of rejection that came from his father’s suicide.

“That rejection sticks for a long time,” Isaiah said.

The final IndieGoGo fundraising video featured all three siblings. They decided on the name Kita, the Abenaki word for listen. 

They spent a year raising money and establishing a nonprofit. Because they didn’t have the money to buy land, they rented Agassiz Village Summer Camp, a 400-acre camp on Thompson Lake in Poland. Camp Kita’s kids — boys and girls ages 8 to 17 — would attend for a week at the end of August, after Agassiz, a camp for inner-city children, ended for the season.    

With just a year to create a camp out of nothing, the siblings didn’t have much time to either raise money for campers’ tuition (they were determined that the camp would be free for families) or to get the word out that Camp Kita existed. Only five campers signed up for the inaugural session.

Rebecca Stouges and her younger brother were among them.

Stargazing, talking

Stouges was 17, just six days past her birthday, when her father killed himself.

“My dad was my best friend. He was at every game, every event. He was just there all the time,” said Stouges, who lives with her family in New York. “Losing him like that was a shock. Nobody saw it coming.”

Stouges developed nightmares, dreaming she was with her father when he died and couldn’t stop it. Those nightmares turned into an aversion to loud noises.

“When I was at school, if I heard something loud I would just break down,” she said. “I just couldn’t handle it.”  

Although her closest friends supported her, other classmates didn’t. One told her she should stop talking about her father’s death. Stouges, who had always been outgoing, suddenly felt awkward, left out. 

Then a friend, looking into a rowing camp for herself, happened upon a summer camp with a grief program and mentioned it to Stouges. The camp’s schedule didn’t work for Stouges and her family, but Stouges was intrigued enough that her mother went searching for one that would.

She found Camp Kita.

Stouges’ older sister, then 19, was too old for camp, but Stouges and her 14-year-old brother signed up. One day last August, seven months after their father died, brother and sister arrived in Poland.

“I had no idea what to expect,” Stouges said. “I kind of went into it with (the attitude of), ‘What do I have to lose,’ you know?”

Stouges was years older than the other campers, all of whom were 14 or younger. But they bonded over something more significant than age.

All five had lost fathers to suicide.

“People will tell you they understand, but they don’t. Only the people who have actually been through this can actually say they know what you’re going through,” Stouges said.

Over several days, five campers, the Mosher siblings and a team of volunteers — including a clinical director, therapist and mentors — created a community.

“It was just fun,” Stouges said. “You’d think it’s going to be depressing, the entire thing. It’s really not.”

In addition to art therapy, music therapy and therapeutic exercises designed to help them with their grief, campers spent their days canoeing, hiking and singing camp songs. If they became overwhelmed in therapy or by grief, campers could choose a “something different” card, switching up the activity for a break.

“The card would say, ‘Go roll down the hill,’ and we stopped everything we were doing and everybody went and rolled down hills for five minutes,” Morgan said. “It’s a really low-pressure, safe way of opening up.”

Stouges never felt uncomfortable at camp like she had at school. For the first time, she was able to talk about her dad with people who had been exactly where she was. 

“We all went stargazing, that was one of my favorite parts, actually,” Stouges said. “I would sit there and at one point I remember just Morgan and I, we were holding hands, sitting on one of the mattresses from inside, and just watching the stars and talking. There were just a lot of moments like that.”

The campers weren’t the only ones who benefited.

“I was sort of starving for some kind of therapeutic help with it, and that started me down the right road there,” Isaiah said. “It went from something I kept bottled up to something that I slowly let out a little bit.”

For the first time, the Mosher siblings really talked to each other about their father’s death. Thanks to their own camp.

“It had come up in, literally, one- or two-word sentences before that. But it was the first time it had been really addressed with us all together, which is crazy, but that’s just how we dealt with it, I guess,” Isaiah said.

By the end of the week, no one wanted camp to end.

“We had one kid who wouldn’t say a word and on the last day of camp started opening up in the group sessions,” Morgan said. “He really opened up. When his mom picked him up, she had never seen him talk about his dad. So she just picked him up and started bawling. She saw that in such a short amount of time he had made such a transformation. And he’s still continuing. Apparently, he talks about camp every day and is so excited to come back.”

Morgan, Sydney and Isaiah didn’t hesitate to plan season two.

“Our first week was just magical,” Morgan said.

New year

Even though the campfires and stargazing ended last summer, Camp Kita’s support didn’t.

“When I went home, I knew I would have her there,” Stouges said of Morgan. “Into the holidays, I was able to text her or she was just a FaceTime away. To just talk.” 

Stouges valued her time at Camp Kita so much that she’s spent her winter fundraising for the camp, earning $500 selling bracelets that she made and asking her Catholic school to make Camp Kita its charity recipient during Mission Week.

“I had to give a speech in front of my entire school,” she said. “It was tough, but it was awesome because I have been inspired by Morgan, Sydney and Isaiah and how much they’ve helped me to do as much as I can to help other people.”

Her school raised more than $5,000 for the camp.

Camp Kita is supported by grants, donations and a variety of fundraisers, making the camp free for all campers.

“Paying for camp shouldn’t be another thing these families need to worry about,” Morgan said.

This year, Camp Kita will run from Aug. 16 to 22. Fifteen children have signed up so far, including children from Maine, Vermont and Utah. Even though the camp can afford to host 50, Morgan expects about 25 by the time the new season starts. The deadline to sign up is the end of June, though the camp will try to accommodate late enrollment. 

Camper recruitment can be difficult.

“It’s a very difficult thing to advertise because we don’t want to call up people who have just lost a parent and say, ‘Hey, come to our camp,’ because that seems too forward,” Isaiah said. “We find that we’re relying constantly on other people to relay our message for us, like school counselors. We need them to kind of sell the idea, because it requires some effort. It’s an emotional thing.”

All of last year’s campers will return, including Stouges. At 18, she’s too old to be a camper this time. She’ll attend as a mentor.

“I don’t think it was even a decision. It was so automatic.” she said. “Even talking about it now, I am so excited. It’s going to be so much fun.”

The Mosher siblings will all return, too. Once unable to talk to each other about their father’s suicide, they now regularly work together on the camp dedicated to helping others in their grief.

“This has brought us back together,” Isaiah said. 

Some things will be different. There will be more campers, and not just those who lost a father. They know from the current sign-ups that more of them will be older teens. And the camp will start a drop-in zone where campers can go to talk anytime.

But overall, Camp Kita plans to do just what it did last year: help.

“You don’t want people to ever have to go to this camp,” Stouges said. “But if somebody does (need such support), you want them to go to this camp.”

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“We had one kid that wouldn’t say a word, and on the last day of camp started opening in the group sessions. He really opened up. When his mom picked him up, she had never seen him talk about his dad. So she just picked him up and started bawling. She saw that in such a short amount of time he had made such a transformation. And he’s still continuing. Apparently, he talks about camp every day and is so excited to come back.”

— Camp Kita co-founder Morgan Mosher

Concerned a loved one is considering suicide? There’s help:

* Maine Suicide Prevention Program crisis hotline, 1-888-568-1112
 
* National suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
 
 
 

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