A Look Inside Bereavement Camp, a Place Where Sadness Is Welcomed

Getty/ Bennett Raglin

Lynne Hughes was 9 years old when her mother died in her sleep from an unexpected blood clot. Two years later, the day before Hughes would start junior high school, her dad had a massive heart attack and died.

The following summer, Hughes attended a two-week summer camp program – and after grappling with so much loss and grief over the previous years, camp allowed Hughes to feel like kid again. “It was a magical bubble where time stood still and you could step outside of your loss,” Hughes tells POPSUGAR.

The experience left a lifelong impact. So much so that over 20 years later, Hughes created a summer camp of her own, for grieving children like her younger self. In May 1999, Hughes hosted her first weekend bereavement camp under her new nonprofit, Comfort Zone Camp (CZC). The organization has since hosted 23,000 campers from nearly all 50 states, Canada, and the United Kingdom, all for free in order to help children ages 7 to 17 who’ve experienced the death of a parent, sibling, primary caregiver, or other significant person in their life.

“I certainly created the resource I wish I would have had,” she tells POPSUGAR. “If I can help make somebody else’s grief journey easier than my own, then that helps me make sense of why it happened to me.”

“You’re going to have tough days again, outside of camp. Do we wish you weren’t? Yes, but you are. So what are the ones you can anticipate?”

Hughes says that a resource like this one is needed now more than ever. The pandemic created a new need for grief processing. In February, CZC says it held the largest COVID-loss bereavement camp to take place in the nation to date. What’s more, in 2022, CZC saw a 47.6 percent increase in the number of families enrolling in camp due to suicide loss.

“We see so many more kids struggling with anxiety or being on medication for depression or anxiety,” Hughes says. “It’s definitely way more than it was 25 years ago.”

Each year CZC hosts about 1,000 kids across its various bereavement camps. The camps aim to give kids the coping skills they need to deal with their struggles. “We’re not going to cure or fix you,” Hughes likes to remind the campers. “You’re going to have tough days again, outside of camp. Do we wish you weren’t? Yes, but you are. So what are the ones you can anticipate?”

The camp tailors weekend sessions to different types of loss, such as suicide, COVID, or overdose. CZC also has a family camp program. While the children process their grief among other kids, parents or guardians receive specialized tools they can use to help their kids grieve, while also processing their own loss openly with other parents.

A lot of the intentional grief processing happens during Healing Circles, or reflection sessions led by mental health professionals and therapists. “We do those four times throughout the weekend, they’re about an hour and a half each, and we break the kids down by age,” Hughes tells POPSUGAR. (In family camp programs, parents also have their own circle.)

Additionally, campers are matched with a big buddy mentor who provides encouragement and support throughout the weekend. “They sleep in the cabins with them, they sit behind them or next to them during the healing circles, they play all the games with them,” Hughes says.

Sometimes the campers will share their loss more intimately with their big buddies, and sometimes they don’t. “Sometimes the big buddies just help them get back to being a kid again, in playing and letting go of that burden that they’re carrying,” Hughes says. Her favorite part of the mentorship program is that campers can be paired with their big buddy year over year. “So we see a lot of really long-lasting relationships come out of it,” she says.

CZC can’t help all grieving kids, and the application process includes a therapist screener to help determine who’s a fit. If a child has a history of violence, for instance, the admissions team would work with the parent or guardian to make sure they’re ready for a camp setting. Once approved, the camp is free and aims to remove as many financial hurdles to attending as possible, Hughes says. It might try to provide a travel scholarship, gas card, sleeping bag, or even toiletries, for instance.

Other factors to consider when deciding to send a child to a bereavement camp include how recent and traumatic the grief was, and whether the child has separation anxiety. “Guardians should consider whether it is appropriate to separate children from a familiar environment and their support system to send them into a new and unfamiliar situation,” says Natalie Jones, PsyD, a licensed psychotherapist and advisory board member for POPSUGAR’s Condition Center.

But when it is appropriate, it can be hugely helpful, she adds. “Camps can definitely have a retreat quality to them,” Dr. Jones says. “They are interactive, kids are surrounded by their peers, and they have various group exercises dedicated to healing from grief which are therapeutic.”

Ultimately, the goal is to give kids, and sometimes entire families, the tools and resources they need to press on. “Grief is something that doesn’t ever fully go away,” Hughes says. “But with time and people, I think you can shrink it and make it more manageable.”

Related Posts
Latest Family
The End.

The next story, coming up!