On Monday at St. Joseph’s Indian School, we held our annual Healing Camp, Opiciye Okizi – A Good Place to Heal – for
students who have lost a relative or someone close to them. Camp started in 2003 when a student lost her mom to cancer—she wanted her siblings and other students to have a place grieve, heal and grow.
Each year, students pair up with a volunteer staff “buddy” to spend a day healing with prayer, Lakota ceremony and art. This has been a powerful tool for building a supportive community where students can safely express their feelings. Some students ask to participate again, year after year.
This year was very special because our community included students’ family members. The camp was extended from one day to two – on-campus accommodations were used for families coming from far away. Building strong family connections is an important goal at St. Joseph’s, and having family join with students and staff was a wonderful blessing.
One of St. Joseph’s strengths is that we can draw on Lakota (Sioux) traditions as well as our Catholic faith to make sense out of life’s journey. In camp, we talked about the assurances of eternal life that our Christian faith teaches us. We used the Lakota ceremony Wiping of the Tears to signal of the end of mourning, and the support of others in moving forward. We said the Our Father. The Chalk Hill Singers Drum Group prayed to the four directions. We asked the Great Spirit for strength and guidance. Family members boosted little ones up onto their shoulders so that they could place prayer ties in a cedar tree.
Volunteers were present for students whose families couldn’t attend. I was paired up with a young man whom I recognized from being a substitute teacher in the school. We did not know each other well, and it was a bit awkward at first. He was very gracious, as only a 10 year old can be, in allowing me to help him.
Maybe my favorite part was releasing prayers into the river. It was like a message in a bottle for the ecological-minded. Instead of messages to loved ones going into a plastic bottle, they were written on water-soluble paper.
My buddy let me help him with this one. He liked coloring the paper in his mom’s favorite color, but didn’t know what to put on it. Finally, he dictated a message, which he let me write.
He misses her.
He is doing ok.
He has stuff going on inside that is kinda big.
We climbed down to the river’s edge, which was cool for the kids since they are NOT allowed to do that Without An Adult Present. The Missouri was ice free and calm—a bit of a miracle for this time of year.
It was clear enough to see the stones under the shallows. He gently floated his message out onto the water. It dissolved, word by word and we watched until there was just one piece – “Mom” in big letters, floating in the center. Then that drifted away too.
My buddy’s favorite exercise was The Laughter. As soon as April said we were going to do a laughter game, he turned to me excitedly and said, “I know this one! It is the best!!”
All of us participants got in a line, about 22 of us in all, and counted off. We had to laugh as many times as our place in line dictated. We were in the middle, so we had to laugh about 14 times. It helped that my buddy poked me in the ribs a few times. And someone tooted. That was really funny.
So many times we forget the healing power of laughter, but it is so essential to grieving. Sometimes you just need to take a break and laugh!!
There are so many different ways to grieve, and no one way fits every one. One of the prevailing themes of Healing Camp was acceptance. Wherever you are in your healing process is okay. Do you feel like crying? That’s fine. Go ahead. Are you having a good day today and want to smile? That’s fine too. Do you have questions? Ask. Do you need a hug? We’re right here for you.
With so many students experiencing so much loss, it is such a gift to be able to offer this healing time to them and their families. Thank you for keeping our students in your prayers, and thank you for your generous support, which makes activities like these possible.