How a grief camp can assist youngsters heal

Jocelyn and Addison Aquilino, lost their father to suicide in 2014 when they were 10 and 8, respectively. 

Two years later, their mother enrolled them in Comfort Zone Camp, a nonprofit bereavement camp for children who have lost a loved one. The organization offers weekend camps for children impacted by all types of loss, including some, like the one the Aquilinos attended, specifically designed for kids who’ve impacted by suicide. 

The sisters had attended other grief camps that didn’t work for them so they were skeptical about their first weekend at Comfort Zone, located about two hours away from their hometown of Marlton, New Jersey.

Grief and death are often considered taboo topics, especially when it involves a suicide or homicide, according to research published in the journal Sociology of Health and Illness. Bereavement for these kinds of deaths is more isolating, as many people, especially those not directly impacted, are uncomfortable talking about the circumstances surrounding the death, or even the person who died.

The Aquilino sisters refrained from talking about their grief and emotions until they attended camp and found themselves surrounded by others with shared experiences.

“I didn’t like people. I was scared of meeting new people. But as time went on and I learned about other kids with my same story, and I even met adults who had gone through the same thing, it was eye-opening to see that I was not alone in this journey,” Addison tells Fortune.

The sisters, now 18 and 19, have returned to Comfort Zone every year since 2016, and consider their fellow campers and the volunteers family.

“I made friends who I still talk to every single day.” Addison says.

“The people from camp are like immediate family. We’re connected in a deeper way.”

Two sisters smile and pose next to each other in the woods wearing white camp t-shirts and lanyards.
Sisters Jocelyn (left) and Addison (right) Aquilino have attended Comfort Zone Camp in New Jersey since 2016.

Jocelyn and Addison Aquilino

What is grief camp?

Bereavement camps have been around since the 1980s, but grew in popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for grief camps has increased.

Some camp waitlists have grown as much as 100% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as approximately 43,000 American children experienced a death of a parent due to Covid, according to JAMA. Experts say the pandemic also has increased the number of deaths from other causes, like opioid misuse and diabetes. 

About six million children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. 

In the book Bereavement Camps for Children and Adolescents, researchers suggest that bereavement camps decrease traumatic grief and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, including denial, irritability, and intense ongoing fear or sadness in children after the loss of a parent.

Though there are different types of grief camps, they have similar goals of helping children process their grief while still allowing them to be kids.

“Grief is certainly challenging as an adult, and can be a difficult concept for kids to grasp as it is a process to navigate without an end point,” says Mary FitzGerald, CEO of Eluna, an organization that supports children grieving or struggling with mental health issues. 

Eluna was cofounded in 2000 by former Major League Baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer and child advocate Karen Phelps Moyer. In 2002, Eluna created Camp Erin, the largest free bereavement program for children and teens in the U.S. and Canada, with locations in every Major League Baseball city.

“We invite kids to express themselves as they learn it’s okay to smile, laugh and just be a kid while grieving,” FitzGerald says.

Children have a difficult time navigating heavy emotions for a long period of time, which is why the camp is structured to provide fun activities alongside opportunities to process grief.

Comfort Zone Camp was founded in 1998 by Lynne Hughes, who hoped to give kids a place share their grief free from the taboo associated with talking it. 

“We have this society that doesn’t really talk about grief, so it’s this closed-off subject, and they’ve been conditioned to not bring it up because it makes other people uncomfortable,” she tells Fortune.

Hughes lost her mother unexpectedly when she was nine, and three years later, her dad died, too.

Hughes says even as a kid, she had to make sure others were comfortable with hearing about her loss, despite it being hers. It was always something that felt uncomfortable to talk about, even if people said she could discuss it.

Hughes tried to live as normal of a childhood as possible, despite the circumstances, and did what many young girls do: she attended summer camp. From the time she was nine, Hughes was drawn to camp. She loved being a camper and interacting with the “cool camp counselors,” she says. As Hughes grew up, she chased the feeling of community and support she found at camp.

In college, she became a camp counselor at a co-ed summer camp in the Poconos––where she met her husband––and continued living the camp life into early adulthood.

Hughes and her husband contemplated what they would do “when they grew up” and often wished they could instead go back to camp, the place they met and that gave them a sense of community.

“I was keenly aware there weren’t any resources [to help with grief] when I was growing up, and many years later, there still weren’t,” says Hughes. “So I combined my love for camp with an unmet need in society, and Comfort Zone was born.”

What happens at grief camp?

Comfort Zone has all the common camp elements, like s’mores, swimming, a challenge course, kayaking, arts and crafts, singing, and a bonfire, says Hughes. But between those activities, campers are also given coping skills and time to reflect and share about their loved one and their grief, if they choose.

Children and adults are gathered around a bonfire roasting marshmallows.
While grief camps offer time for mourning, they also include typical summer camp activities, like roasting marshmallows.

Comfort Zone Camp

Licensed therapists lead what Comfort Zone calls healing circles, or small grief support groups. In healing circles, campers are given the opportunity to tell their story, or introduce their loved one with a photo or a memory.

Young campers, or “little buddies,” and are paired with older, veteran campers, called “big buddies” to help guide them through their experience and be someone they can lean on. Buddies are matched prior to camp based on personality, and will typically meet over the phone before getting to camp. 

Jocelyn had the same big buddy for five years. 

“She picks up whenever I call her. She texts me on the anniversary of my dad’s loss. I know that even though I’m not her little buddy anymore and I’m an adult now, I still have this connection with her that I don’t really have with anyone else,” she says.

Campers also take part in a ceremony Comfort Zone calls Circle of Remembrance, where they write notes to their deceased loved ones and throw them in a bonfire.

“We talk about the smoke carrying the message to their loved one. Sometimes it’s really emotional for the kids because in that safety of the fire and safety of this community that gets it, they’re able to have that cry if they need to,” says Hughes.

On the final day of camp, parents come to pick up their children and everyone takes part in a memorial service, where campers honor their loved one. Some choose to sing their loved one’s favorite song, or read a poem, or tell a deceased parent’s favorite joke––jokes that some younger campers may not fully understand, but the crowd of parents and older kids certainly do, says Hughes.

Hughes says many campers show up with an “invisible backpack full of rocks,” like they’re carrying around a heavy weight because “grief unexpressed doesn’t go anywhere.” After telling their stories and sharing what they feel comfortable with, Hughes says the difference within them is like night and day.

“They get lighter and brighter, almost like their backpack of rocks has dropped and been dumped out,” Hughes says.

“When they see their kids again [on the last day of camp], many parents are like, ‘What did you do? This is the first time I’ve seen a real smile.’”

Parents are also taught the strategies used at camp so they can reinforce at home and help their child continue their healing process.

“The real emotional stuff comes after camp, where you just need that time to decompress and go back into the real world, instead of this nice little grief bubble,” says Addison.

Two sisters stand next to each other to pose for a photo. Both are wearing lanyards around their necks.
Addison and Jocelyn Aquilino at Comfort Zone Camp.

Addison and Jocelyn Aquilino

A ‘special place’ to not feel alone

Sometimes the biggest feat for kids isn’t even going to camp, but having to leave it, Hughes says.

“We end up explaining to parents that this is a place where everybody is kind and uplifting, and you almost have to prepare them for that let down of going back and interacting with the people who don’t get it,” Hughes says. 

Because of this, Hughes says they stress the importance of keeping a relationship with their buddies throughout the year, and remind campers they can always come back to camp.

This year was Jocelyn’s first time being a big buddy, mentoring a new camper throughout the weekend.

“It was so fulfilling to finally be able to be that support person for someone, and meeting this little girl who has gone through so much but is still so excited to meet me and come to camp,” Jocelyn says.

It’s important for people of all ages, especially young children, to have people they feel comfortable enough to share their emotions and talk about their grief with, especially those who understand. For many kids, that happens at camp.

“As grief does not go away, children, like adults, will re-grieve over the course of their lives, so it’s important to learn how to integrate grief into our lives and not avoid it,” says FitzGerald.

“Making new friends and enjoying some fun at camp can help kids process their grief, and does not dishonor their person who died.”

The Aquilinos say they have no plans to stop attending Comfort Zone, especially since they are able to volunteer at any age. To them, it’s bigger than a camp.

“It’s our special place. Once you’re there, you are part of the family. It’s a forever type of thing,” says Addison.