Healing by sharing their loss

Bereavement camp helps youths deal with death in family

Michelle Sullivan, whose husband died 3 1/2 years ago, comforted her daughter, Isla, during the closing ceremony at the bereavement camp yesterday in Sandwich. Michelle Sullivan, whose husband died 3 1/2 years ago, comforted her daughter, Isla, during the closing ceremony at the bereavement camp yesterday in Sandwich. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / August 30, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

SANDWICH — A few moments before yesterday’s closing ceremony began at Camp Burgess, Zack Rizzi, 10, stood in the brilliant sunshine showing his mother a photograph of a small group with whom he had spent a lot of time during the previous three days.

“Look, Mom,’’ he said to Jen Rizzi of Bellingham, pointing out a new friend, “his dad died by suicide, too.’’

That Zack could speak those words, casually and without fear of being judged, was one goal of the Comfort Zone Camp, a nonprofit that is expanding its bereavement camps for children into Massachusetts.

Zack and his brother, Alec, 7, were among 59 campers, ages 7 to 17, who shared meals, bunked together, and met in what the organization calls healing circles. In those support groups, led by licensed therapists, children who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling talked openly about the void in their lives, often for the first time.

“I told them about how my dad died,’’ said Zack, whose father, Chris Rizzi, took his life last year. “I know that the other campers would understand, because they all dealt with similar losses. Some of them lost their dads, like me, and some of them lost their moms.’’

“This one camper lost his sister when she was 4,’’ Alec said.

This weekend’s gathering at Camp Burgess, a South Shore YMCA camp, was designed to provide emotional respite for children who are isolated by their grief in ordinary social settings.

The three days were not without the usual trappings of summer camp and included canoeing, kayaking, and arts and crafts such as designing memory boxes honoring their relatives who died.

“Camp is designed that way,’’ said Lynne Hughes of Richmond, who founded Comfort Zone Camp in 1998 with her husband, Kelly. “We’ll do an hour and a half of healing circle, then have a chunk of mindless, wear-’em-out fun. It mirrors their grief.’’

Hughes drew inspiration for the organization from her own life. She was 9 when her mother died of a blood clot. Her father had a heart attack and died three years later. After working as summer camp counselors, she and her husband decided to organize bereavement camps for children.

Free for participants, the camps are funded by corporate sponsors, grants, and individual contributions. To date, Comfort Zone has held camps in just a few states, including Virginia and New Jersey, as well as Massachusetts, so the organization offers financial assistance with travel expenses for children who have journeyed from more than 40 other states.

From two camps initially, the Comfort Zone will hold 25 this year. About 6,500 children have participated since 1998, Hughes said, including an increase after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that prompted the organization to begin holding camps in New Jersey.

The expansion into Massachusetts was funded by a $3 million grant, $1 million for each of three consecutive years, that Comfort Zone Camp received two years ago from the New York Life Foundation, Hughes said in a phone interview from her home in Richmond. This weekend marked the second overnight camp in the state, after the first was held in April.

The Massachusetts camps provided a coming home for some participants and volunteers.

Cassie-Lee Backstrom of Worcester was 14 when her father suffered a heart attack and died in front of her on Thanksgiving Day. In 2001, her mother, Sandra, first took her to a Comfort Zone Camp in Virginia.

“When we drove those 13 hours [to Virginia], she didn’t say a word,’’ Sandra said. “She talked the whole way back. I tell Lynne and Kelly, ‘You gave me my child back.’ ’’

Now 24, Cassie-Lee began volunteering as a big buddy for new young campers two years after attending her first camp.

“I had finally found a place where people understood me,’’ she said. “I could cry, and they didn’t ask me why or tell me to suck it up. This place has given me the coping skills to go back home and function. It really changes people’s lives.’’

The camps let children know that “it’s OK to remember,’’ said Helen Henrich, a clinical social worker in Williamsburg, Va., who has volunteered as a healing circle leader since 2002. “Children will run to avoid the sorrow. We really help them walk toward it, and then we help them move away from it.’’

Comfort Zone, she said, “normalizes grief.’’

The closing ceremony was a forum for many campers who chose to remember a parent or sibling with a song or a poem or a drawing. Sung by children mourning the deaths of parents, lyrics from “You Are My Sunshine’’ took on new resonance:

You’ll never know dear, how much I love you Please don’t take my sunshine away

Dozens of the children’s family members attended, and dry eyes were not in abundance when one young girl read a poem that included the line, “I cried for you, I smiled for you, I did everything I could.’’

“This camp has been a phenomenal resource, not just for them, but for me, too,’’ said Jen Rizzi.

“It makes me feel a lot better,’’ Zack said. “I don’t feel alone.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at

Connect with

Twitter Follow us on @BostonUpdate, other Twitter accounts