At its fourth annual children’s bereavement camp, Camp Erin NYC, the COPE Foundation pioneered a more comprehensive approach to supporting children’s bereavement by offering a concurrent parent camp to the caretakers of the children attending Camp Erin NYC, allowing for their own simultaneous healing. Camp Erin NYC is the only Camp Erin across the country to offer this unique program.

COPE Foundation (Connecting Our Paths Eternally), the Long Island-based grief and healing organization dedicated to helping families living with the loss of a child, pioneered a more comprehensive approach to supporting children’s bereavement this past August at its fourth annual Camp Erin® NYC.

While providing Camp Erin NYC, a free weekend bereavement camp for children aged 6-17 who have lost a loved one, the COPE Foundation also offered their grieving parents a simultaneous weekend retreat. According to Lilly Julien, COPE’s Founder and President, “Our intention was to help the children by helping their parents so they could both have a transformational and healing experience. We may be the first bereavement organization in the nation to offer both a children’s camp and concurrent parent retreat.”

The objective of the parent retreat was primarily to benefit the children. “It’s as basic as the safety instructions you get on an airplane,” explains Jerry Weinstock, co-leader of the retreat. “You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you can help anyone else. Before there was a parent retreat, only the children benefited from this healing weekend. Now the children and their parents can both have this experience.”

On the last weekend of August, bereaved families from as far away as Maryland, drove to Camp Wayne for Girls, a beautiful summer camp on a private lake in the Poconos, where COPE has offered Camp Erin NYC since 2012. After dropping their children off, 22 parents who had signed up for the Parent Retreat—representing 60% of the children attending Camp Erin—were taken to the opposite side of the lake, Camp Wayne for Boys.

The Parent Retreat weekend provided lodging, meals and programming that included various grief workshops, as well as healing modalities such as Reiki, art therapy and exercise training. Though the grieving parents were encouraged to participate in the full schedule, it was not mandatory. If they preferred, they could sit by the lake or take a walk in the woods.
The Parent Retreat was led by Ms. Julien and Mr. Weinstock, who have both experienced profound loss in their own lives, and are authors of the award-winning book series, Grief Quest: A Workbook & Journal to Heal the Grieving Heart. For the past several years, Ms. Julien and Mr. Weinstock have presented workshops at bereavement conferences throughout the country.

The Parent Retreat was designed to mirror some of the children’s activities on the other side of the lake. During Friday evening’s “memory board,” parents (like their children) shared memories of their loved one, placing a picture on the memory board that became a visible reminder for the entire weekend. During the Saturday evening lakeside “candle-lighting,” parents could see the lights of their children’s candles floating in the distance as they lit their own memorial candles and launched them on the moonlit water.

There were gut-wrenching moments when the parents could hear their children sobbing, but they were soon followed by the soothing sounds of laughter and singing from the distant campfire.

There were also poignant contrasts: during a late afternoon workshop entitled “You and Your Children’s Grief” that was held in the woods on the edge of the lake, the parents’ heartfelt sharing was punctuated every few minutes by the roar of the speed boat and the squeals of joy from the children who were tubing.

The theme of the weekend was tools for healing, and those tools came not only from the varied programming, but also from the socializing and bonding that took place during meals and “free time.” Many of the parents said they had “made lifelong friends.”

During the closing ceremony of the children’s camp, with all the parents in attendance, the Camp Director, Ann Fuchs, was so moved that she got choked up. In front of over a hundred people—campers, parents and volunteer staff—a 7-year old camper who had lost a loved one called out encouragingly, “It’s okay to cry!”

The children’s camp, Camp Erin NYC, was already a success. In 2014, it was awarded the prestigious Roger E. Joseph Prize, whose past recipients included the family that sheltered Anne Frank, the civil rights activist Rosa Parks, and the photo-journalist Daniel Pearl to name a few. Camp Erin NYC serves approximately 50-60 children every summer (2015 was its fourth summer), and is one of 43 Camp Erin’s across the country.

The Parent Retreat, however, was an experiment. “From the feedback we’ve received,” said Ms. Julien, “the Parent Retreat has been a huge success.” Mr. Weinstock added, “As parents were leaving, one told me, ‘This has been the best weekend since my husband’s death!’ People have called it ‘life changing’.”

Imagining what the long drive home would be like for both the children and their parents, Mr. Weinstock speculated, “The parents who didn’t attend the retreat will engage in an interrogation—What did you do? What was it like? Etc.—trying to understand the obvious transformation they see in their children. But those who attended the Parent Retreat and experienced for themselves a healing weekend, will instead of an interrogation have a very interesting conversation. Having learned the invaluable lesson of self-care and self-healing, they’ll be in a healthier place to help their children.”

To view a press release about this parent camp, please click here.

Downloadable Press Release