My name is Reginald Simmons. I’m a graduate of Science Leadership Academy, a great high school in Center City. I’ve had to learn to grow up fast because of some unfortunate events in my life. My mother, Crystal Simmons, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was only nineteen years old, long before my two sisters or I were born.
Although she was cancer free for many years, in 2005, my mother’s cancer returned, marking the beginning of her health’s downward spiral. Frequently in and out of the hospital for the better part of a year, my mother finally began to show signs of improvement in 2006, which gave our entire family a tentative sense of ease.
The relief did not last long. Later that same year, I was with my mother and two sisters - Courtney, and Christina (Tina for short) at my grandmother’s house, when Tina began to complain of an especially painful headache. Afraid of what that might mean, my mother took Tina to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia while Courtney and I, nine and eleven at the time, stayed behind with our grandmother. We found out that night that our fears had been confirmed. My sister Tina had been diagnosed with brain cancer. After one brain surgery, doctors told us that nothing else could be done for Tina, and she passed away in June of 2007.
A couple of years later, my mother’s physical condition began to deteriorate. Home care nurses paid our family frequent visits to help care for my mother, and Courtney and I began regularly seeing a therapist to help us cope with our sister’s loss and our mother’s condition. For a few more years, our mother experienced dramatic highs and lows in her health, until she died of breast cancer in hospice care on Christmas of 2011.
I have never been a very open person. Even when I was very young, it took some coaxing to get more than a few words out of me. As I grew older and began to experience more serious emotions, like sadness and grief, I became even more reserved, always reluctant to share my feelings with anyone, even therapists.
In 2012, when I first attended Camp Erin, a child bereavement camp, I didn’t really take the opportunity to share my thoughts with my fellow campers and cabin buddies. Though I gladly participated in the fun camp activities during the day, I was mostly a quiet listener during our cabin discussions at night. I just wasn’t ready to come to terms with my emotions at that time, even though my cabin buddies could not have been more open and supportive.
I attended Camp Erin for the second time, in 2014, and my experience was drastically different. I had been apprehensive about cabin discussions during my first visit, but they were one of my favorite parts of camp the second time around. Hearing the stories of my fellow campers and cabin buddies really showed me that I was not alone in the things I was feeling. I felt comfortable – and the outpouring of support and compassion in our cabin encouraged me even further.
During our nightly discussions, I learned that many of us shared similar stories: loved ones lost to sickness or other tragedies. I felt compelled to voice something I’d been feeling since my mother’s death. The guilt I sometimes felt over her death. One of our wonderful cabin buddies told me about the idea of self-forgiveness, something I never would have thought of on my own.
Support programs like Camp Erin can make a world of difference in the lives of children dealing with loss and should be available to all those who need them. No child should grieve alone. And even adults who are grieving should know that it can help to share your feelings – and to forgive yourself.