DENVER (AP) — Jason Stout remembers his mom sobbing on the phone when the sheriff’s department called to tell his family his great-grandmother had been murdered, found shot in the head along a rural county road in Colorado. He was only 7 years old at the time. Three years before the murder, his 5-year-old sister died of complications of a brain disorder, and in a matter of a few more years, his father would be dead of a heart attack at 42.
“I had a ton of nightmares. I was just so frightened of people I love dying,” said Stout, now 41. “We’re vulnerable in this world, and we’re not always supposed to be finding that out at 7 years old.”
After turning to fighting and alcohol to cope with his grief during his teenage years — and suffering through bouts of depression and anxiety attacks into his 20s — it took an Outward Bound trek through northern Mexico’s barren Chihuahuan Desert for him to begin to heal.
Sitting by himself, surrounded by only the sand below and the stars above, Stout said he found peace that he had never experienced before, and from then on, he began “self-medicating” with nature.
That seven-day trip with the adventure and leadership school in 2001, Stout said, planted the seed for a program called Heroic Journey that he developed through Outward Bound to take grief-stricken 14- to 18-year-olds into the Colorado wilderness in hopes that the healing process would begin for them, too.
In 2004, Stout’s efforts to raise money for the idea netted a paltry $74, and he had to cancel the trek planned for the following summer.
“It was a good awakening for me, but what we learn in Outward Bound is to be tenacious,” he said.
Stout, a Denver-based Outward Bound employee, recruited 10 teenagers from a local grief center for the inaugural year of the program in 2006. Since then, more than 400 teens have participated in Heroic Journey, which started its seventh season in June and now offers 200 spots in several weeklong summer treks.
Thanks in part to a $238,000 grant from New York Life insurance company, the program has expanded to include canoeing in Minnesota, trekking in North Carolina and sailing in Maine. It even has an urban center in the Philadelphia area to serve teens that have lost a loved one.
“With grief, when we have someone die, and especially when we’re a teenager and a kid, we feel like we have just lost everything. There’s no connection. It’s a total loss and that is the most painful thing that we can experience,” said Stout, who grew up in the Denver suburb of Arvada. “But on this program, what they find out is, yes, they’ve lost a person but they haven’t lost the relationship.”
He said with Heroic Journey, those relationships are re-established, and grief is dealt with using peer support and a series of metaphors tied to the outdoors.
Climbing a 14,000-foot Colorado mountain symbolizes overcoming a larger challenge in life. Waves lapping against a sailboat represent the waves of emotion associated with grief. A babbling brook becomes a conduit to send a message to a loved one who has passed.
“When they find out they haven’t lost that relationship, it’s a breakthrough because they have something back,” Stout said. “They have some power in their lives back and a connection again.
“We’re also trying to connect grief to nature because nature is big.”
Josh Butts, who was 13 when he witnessed his grandfather die of a heart attack, participated in Heroic Journey in 2008 when he was 16.
“It taught me so much. How to push through pain, how to push through emotion, how to help each other out,” the Denver native said.
Butts said that before the trip, he suppressed his emotions and often was angry, sad and introverted. But the program taught him he didn’t need to be depressed.
“There are better things than sitting in a room and sulking in the corner,” he said. “Outward Bound makes you get up in the morning and face the day. It actually makes you think and learn about yourself.”
And though Outward Bound programs have for the past 50 years aimed to create a space for personal growth and self-discovery, Stout said Heroic Journey differs because it also creates a space for grief — something he wishes he had when he found his father’s body at the age of 14.
Stout — unsure how to cope with his pain and anger at the time — went to school the next day, rejected counseling, put on a brave face and told his friends he was doing OK.
“I didn’t feel like people would understand how I was feeling anyway,” he said, “and I didn’t want to give people my burden.”
Donna Schuurman, a counselor and founding board member of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, said that tactic is common, and emotions are often pushed aside by a “feel-good” society that doesn’t know how to support those who are grieving, especially teenagers.
Being told to move on, to forget the traumatic event and that everything happens for a reason often translates into anger and loneliness, said Schuurman, who also runs the Portland, Ore.-based Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families.
“We can transform terrible events over time,” she said. “But you can’t rush that. You can’t push it.”
Stout, who based Heroic Journey largely on the Dougy Center’s model, envisions a program that can eventually handle 1,000 teenagers a year.
“You can’t start healing if you can’t acknowledge that you’re suffering and that someone has died, and that’s a defining moment,” he said.
“What I want is for kids to find out there is something beyond endurance. We want our kids to have resilience. … They have it, but when they do Outward Bound, it’s uncovered.”
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