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DISPATCH | What being a camp counselor taught me about life after loss

<h5>&nbsp;The morning view of Morehead, Kentucky from my dormitory window.</h5>
<h6>AG McGee / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
 The morning view of Morehead, Kentucky from my dormitory window.
AG McGee / The Daily Princetonian

I spent the past several weeks as a residential advisor for a government-sponsored summer program in my home state, Kentucky. When I attended the program as a high-school student, it changed me. At the close of this year’s program, I thought about how much I’ve changed since then.

That summer before my senior year of high school was the first I spent without my twin brother constantly by my side. He was at another camp. This summer, before my senior year of college, is my second after his passing. Two days after the program’s end was the anniversary of his death.

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I’ve written on loss here before. The pain of it both defined the middle years of my college experience and changed me. What my job this summer gave me was peace. That peace has changed me, too.

Maybe, if the years following my brother’s death were different, I would have dealt with it better, sooner. But life was tempestuous. Each time I thought the world around me was calming down, another event would strike: the COVID-19 pandemic, the pain in Kentucky after the murder of Breonna Taylor and the ever-present hate seen here since, a terrifying election cycle, personal disappointments in my achievements, the absolute devastation at Princeton with the death of Kevin Chang that reminded me so much of my brother

I knew I was running from the pain, but I didn’t know there would never be time to stop. I drove myself sick for a perfect GPA, canceled therapy appointments in favor of extraneous time commitments, raged at my minor mistakes, and cried in my dorm room closet for hours.

It’s not that there weren’t better parts. I went on dates, fell in love with my work, and screamed for joy at my first A+. Beyond everything, I was incredibly blessed to lean on the support of dozens of loving friends, professors, family members, and a counseling team that refused to let me disappear on them.

But I felt captive to a wild series of highs and lows. And I ended many nights shaking from exhaustion.

My job this summer, more often than not, was a 8:30 a.m. to midnight shindig. Unexpectedly, the long work served as the break I urgently needed. My routine was disrupted by force: there was no time for me to worry about my theses, or graduate school, or The Daily Princetonian. There was only the present.

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And the present was a job I couldn’t help but love. The camp I was at is known as a place for coming-of-age moments. It’s just long enough to allow teenagers to grow into whoever it is they want to be. My job was to help them figure out who that person was.

In the socio-emotional learning seminar I led, the students and I did a lot of self-reflection together. The depth of the activities creates commensurate bonds amongst the students. Tears are shed when saying goodbye.

On our last day together, I thought about how lucky all of the program’s alumni are to have people they will miss so much. And I thought about my brother, which I think I have done every day of my whole life.

I realized we are not forced to be defined by grief's pain. Instead, we can define ourselves by its love.

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That act requires doing exactly what I had been telling my students they needed to do. It’s the contrapositive of the golden rule: loving ourselves the way we want others to love themselves.

Or, in my case, loving myself in the way I would have wanted my brother to love himself.

In practice, loving myself has meant letting my heart break a little. Because it’s meant doing something I’ve been afraid of doing since 2019: letting myself sit with the memories I have of my brother, and the happiness that always comes with them, no matter how much it hurts.

I thought doing this, rather than fixating on the pain of how he died or the shame of what I could have done differently, meant moving on. But I think now it’s really just moving with. Focusing on the pain, at the end of the day, was a defense mechanism that trapped part of me in 2019.

I want to go forward with peace, moving with the part of my brother that can never leave my side: the part I hold within my heart.

As I write this, I realize this is my last dispatch for the ‘Prince.’ I have one more semester working here, and two semesters left at the University I love the most. Though it is hard, it is time to stop running and start walking. Walking while holding the hands of all of those with a place in my heart — my brother’s included.

AG McGee hails from Grand Rivers, Kentucky, and is both a senior in the philosophy department and a managing editor for the ‘Prince.’  Emails are always welcomed — reach out at amcgee@princeton.edu.

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