Andy Grammer had a plea: "TEXT ME."
At least, that's what it says on his Instagram bio, alongside his phone number, capturing the attention of his 411,000 followers and anyone else who visits his profile. And while skeptics may laugh it off, continuing their scroll through his feed filled with selfies of his two daughters and devotionals to his wife Aijia, one superfan took a shot. In a quick message, she got straight to the point: I volunteer at a camp for kids who have experienced grief. Want to get involved?
The answer, which came in a matter of seconds through a voice note from the singer and not an assistant or publicist, was a resounding yes. Because Grammer—like the some 1,000 kids who head to Experience Camps each summer—knows what it's like to lose someone close to him, his mom having died of breast cancer in 2009.
But since then, he's worked on channeling his pain into purpose. In fact, grief has further connected him to friends, fans and strangers alike. "For me," Grammer recently mused to E! News, "sharing my deepest pains makes it go away faster. It creates a vacuum for the other person to share theirs. And also, it's just my reality. I miss my mom all the time. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to talk about her."
So, clad in a black shirt with "Girl Dad" embossed on the chest, he grabbed his guitar and did just that on Monday, August 3. In front of ExCamps' kids, volunteers and staff, the 36-year-old kicked off this year's virtual session—moved online due to the pandemic—performing a medley of his hits ("Good To Be Alive," "Give Love," and "Don't Give Up On Me") before promising these campers who have lost parents, siblings and caregivers that it will be OK, it will get better.
He speaks the truth. Grammer's mom Kathy lost her cancer battle just months before he met his manager and a year before he scored his first record deal. "That was the first thing in my life that was really, really hard that I had to go through," he shared with the group over Zoom. "It's a very unique slash-not-unique-at-all thing to go through, but it's intense. You learn a lot and it affects your day-to-day life."
That same year though, amid his loss, came the birth of Experience Camps. The no-cost sleepaway camps scattered throughout the country offer kids ages 9 through 16 an escape, a time to just be a kid while surrounding themselves with people who get the confusion, the pain, the immeasurable loss. It's also a week that shows the power of emotion, boosting confidence and creating empowerment.
"We help them tell their story," founder Sara Deren has said. "The more times you tell it, the easier it gets. And hearing other people's stories gives them courage."
Take, for example, what should have been an average Boston tour stop back in 2018. He was grabbing breakfast ahead of a show that night when a group of women walked into the restaurant, giving him pause. He recalled to E! how he approached their table and said, "'Hey, you four remind me of my mom. Would you mind if I picked up the check? I don't get to do that for her because she's not in this life.' One of them just started crying. She said, ‘I lost my son. He's about your age.'"
Cue the hugs, the smiles and the knowledge that their loved ones had sent them a sign. As Grammer remembered, "Saying, 'This is my truth, this is what I'm dealing with' created an amazing situation."
Now, it's a movement. He's taken the idea of "no pain, no gain" and turned it into an optimist's mantra: "Start to see the pain in your life as a gift," he explained. "When you struggle through stuff, you turn into a higher version of yourself to get through it and you get to keep whatever you turn into."
On tour, he opened his meet-and-greets up by revealing his deepest pain—his mom's death and the oftentimes crippling journey that followed—then asked his fans to do the same, lay it all out on the line. He's heard from a young kid struggling with Tourette syndrome, a father and son battling alcoholism and a family who put their 4-month-old son down for a nap he never woke up from.
And what have they gained in return? Patience, navigating sobriety together and being a pillar of strength for other families suffering, respectively. For everyone listening on, a greater connection. "It's a lot easier to have empathy for people when they're being so honest," Grammer, who details these stories in his upcoming "Wish You Pain" music video, said. "It was a spiritual experience every night. We're all superheroes in our own unique ways because of the struggle we've been through."
As with most struggles, they remain with you forever. But over the last decade, Grammer has found the silver lining of his mom's passing. While a good cry is never a bad idea, he knows it's better to put himself on the offensive, setting time aside to mourn rather than let the waves of emotion take him under.
Tickling daughters Louisiana, 3, and Israel, 4 months, before bed, "I feel her," he admitted. "I know my mom would love to be part of that, so I think of her then." He thinks of her while writing his lyrics, while Billy Joel blasts as he cooks dinner, while watching his brother marry the love of his life. "I recognize in that moment I miss my mom," he added, "and whatever needs to happen, I let it happen. Give it a good cry, acknowledge it and continue on."
Which is all any of us can do.
For more on Experience Camps, click here.