Melissa Mitchell wasn’t sure what to expect when she attended her first Camp Widow, but she knew she needed to hold some space for her grief. It was an experience that not only changed her life, but has also had a flow-on effect to many other young widowed people.
It was love at second sight for Melissa and her husband Phil, who got together again after a job offer brought their burgeoning relationship to an end the first time they’d met.
But a few years following the birth of their son Asher, Phil was diagnosed with aggressive liver cancer. After defying the odds and walking out of palliative care multiple times, he died in 2020. But before he did, Phil uttered some words that Melissa will never forget.
“Literally minutes before he went into the coma his last words were ‘I love you’ and that was the biggest gift I could’ve received in my whole life,” she says.
It was in the year following, that Melissa discovered First Light through a Facebook group for widowed people. Reading about the organisation on its website, she came across the details for the first Camp Widow.
“I decided that I needed to do something for myself,” Melissa says.
“It was an opportunity to have a weekend away and have some space for my grief. It was a hard decision to make because I didn’t know anyone, but I’m so glad I made the choice to go.”
Melissa says she got so much out of her first Camp Widow experience.
“I have a space for my grief, I processed what I had been through more, I got to speak my person’s name in every conversation, and I had deep and meaningful conversations with other people who had been through similar experiences,” she says.
“I was validated, my grief was validated and I was well held and supported.
“I also was given permission to let go of the guilt that I was carrying. I know that sounds crazy, but when you lose a spouse you tend to carry a lot of guilt, even guilt for being the surviving one.
“I was able to leave a lot of that behind, which felt liberating.”
Melissa returned again in 2022, where she had a different but just as fulfilling experience.
“What I needed the second time was different to what I needed the first time I went,” she says.
“I attended different workshops and had different goals the second year. I still got just as much out of it as the first time I went and made even more amazing connections.”
Melissa, who is booked to return in 2023 has also found an avenue to give back and provide support to her First Light community.
Her mother-in-law started making hand-stitched pocket hearts through the 1000 Hearts project when Phil became sick.
“She said to my husband she would make 1000 hearts for every year he was alive, which comes to 36,000,” Melissa says.
“I asked if I could give a heart to everyone at Camp Widow and First Light has since asked if they can include one in their Newly Widowed Packs.
“I feel like my husband has continued to be honoured and that’s really nice.”
Melissa says First Light has played a pivotal role in helping her in her grief these past three years.
“I acknowledge that grief will always be there, as my love for my husband will always be there, but I refuse to be miserable for my whole life,” she says.
“There’s no end to grief but I think there can be happiness alongside it as well.”
For anyone unsure about buying a ticket to Camp Widow, Melissa encourages them to take the plunge.
“It might feel a little scary and overwhelming to take the leap, but you will feel so relieved and pleased you made the decision to go,” she says.
“The weekend is for any widowed person, no matter how far along in your journey you are.”
Tickets to Camp Widow 2023 are still available. Visit https://www.firstlight.org.au/support-for-widowed-people/first-light-resources-and-programs/camp-widow/ to learn more or contact us at [email protected].