This story was produced jointly between THE CITY, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations as part of “MISSING THEM,” THE CITY’s collaborative COVID-19 memorial and accountability journalism project. Do you know a child who has lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19? Tell us more here. ¿Conoce usted a un niño que ha perdido a un padre o cuidador por el COVID-19? Cuentenos más aquí.
At every Comfort Zone Camp weekend, without fail, dinner on Friday night when the children are all together for the first time is always the most awkward, said Brenda Catalano, a volunteer.
Unlike most summer camps, every child has lost a parent or close family member. Returning campers are “running around high-fiving and hugging,” she said, while new campers tend to be more shy.
But by the time Sunday rolls around and it’s time to go home, it is nearly impossible to tell who was new and who wasn’t, said Catalano.
Although Comfort Zone Camp is geared toward bereaved children aged 7 to 17, Catalano described it as “the most fun place on earth.” The nonprofit organization runs virtual support groups and overnight camps around the country, including in the New York City region, where children can come together and heal from trauma — including the loss of parents who died of COVID-19.
“Maybe now after their loss they’ve assumed a whole bunch of responsibilities because mom or dad passed away,” Catalano said. “But here at Comfort Zone, all you’re gonna do is you’re just going to run around and play and have great meals and s’mores and sing and dance.”
She has volunteered at the camp for over a decade and facilitates a “healing circle” where children are invited to share stories about their loved ones who died and how they are coping. During the weekend, campers receive peer support and participate in shared meals, games and hikes.
Founded in 1998 by Lynne Hughes, who lost both of her parents at a young age, Comfort Zone Camp saw an increased demand in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, offering support to children who lost parents then. Since the pandemic, it has expanded to include COVID Loss Camps in New York, New Jersey and Virginia in response to the volume of deaths due to COVID-19.
Tobias Noboa, left, passed away from COVID in 2020, leaving behind his great-granddaughter, for whom he was a caregiver.
Courtesy of Shyvonne Noboa
Over 8,700 children in New York City lost a parent or guardian to COVID as of May, according to an analysis by Dan Treglia, an associate professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania, using data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That amounts to 1 in 200 children — almost double the national rate. Black, Hispanic and Asian children in New York City were around three times more likely to lose a parent or caregiver to COVID compared to white children.
Losing a parent to COVID during the ongoing pandemic can be uniquely challenging, said Dr. Shawna Newman, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital. Children may feel guilt, fear and anger. Some minors “refuse to leave their home ever again because they are anxious and fearful of this thing they can’t see that harms their life,” she said.
Children who have a strong support system are better able to cope, according to researchers at COVID Collaborative, a bipartisan group advocating for COVID-bereaved children.
In a report titled “Hidden Pain,” they found that 90% to 95% of children who lose a parent or caregiver can manage their grief and prevent long-term mental health struggles through non-clinical, community-based support, such as mentoring programs, peer support and grief camps, while the remaining 5% to 10% experience traumatic grief that needs clinical interventions through a doctor or a mental health professional.
dr Hetty Cunningham, a pediatrician and director of equity and justice in curricular affairs at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said a child’s pediatrician can help connect a family in need of support with social workers and mental health professionals.
“As a pediatrician, we act as kind of a first point of contact for many people,” Cunningham said. “What we generally do is that we say, ‘Would you like to talk to the social worker?’ or if they’re presenting with mental health difficulties like depression or anxiety, then we might say, ‘Would you like to speak to the therapist more?’”
Experts who spoke with THE CITY said that while more resources and support for families with children who lost a parent to COVID are needed, some no- and low-cost support is available from bereavement organizations, support groups and grief camps, mentorship programs and financial resources.
For family members who want to talk to children about COVID loss, childhood bereavement organizations can help. These nonprofit groups have created articles, videos, and activities for families to work through grief with young children and teens:
Sesame Street in Communities
Sesame Street in Communities is an organization aiming to support parents and caregivers through multimedia resources for children up to age 10, including articles, videos, and interactive activities for children who have experienced grief and loss.
In the activity “Something Small,” Sesame Street in Communities encourages adults to read to the child a short book in which Elmo’s cousin Jesse is dealing with losing her father. Afterwards, the activity suggests that adults guide a conversation about “small things” the child loved about their family member who passed and to follow up with a drawing exercise.
The Dougy Center
The Dougy Center is a national organization that supports children and families who have experienced loss. The center has created resources for children and teens that explain grief and offer activities to process it and work through heavy feelings. It has also created a resource directory for adults who are supporting children and teens through COVID, including articles, podcasts, and tip sheets for speaking to children who have lost a loved one to the pandemic.
COPE is a childhood bereavement organization based in Long Island. It funds and runs Camp Erin in New York City (see below) and bereavement support groups for children, teens and adults. COPE has also set up a hotline for grieving individuals to receive information, referrals or support, and a peer support service. All of COPE’s grief services and resources are free.
Children’s Room is a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts that provides online peer support groups for bereaved children and teens, an educational program for adults caring for bereaved children and a resource guide for adults on how to talk to children and teens about loss.
Eluna is a national nonprofit that supports children and teens affected by grief and addiction, and runs camps dedicated to young people who are affected by each. It created Camp Erin in 2002, a bereavement camp for children with locations across the United States.
The Eluna Resource Center is a national directory of resources that can be filtered by location or need for families and children experiencing grief or other issues.
One in 200 children in New York City lost a parent or guardian to COVID at of May of 2022.
Grief camps or bereavement camps are usually held overnight over a weekend, although some have adapted safety measures in light of COVID and thus may be held during the week or online.
Comfort Zone Camp
Comfort Zone Camp will host its first COVID Loss Camp the weekend of Friday, Aug. 5 at Camp DeWolfe, on a beachfront overlooking Long Island Sound in Wading River, on Long Island.
Children, called Little Buddies, are paired with an adult Big Buddy for the duration of camp. Those pairs are assigned to groups that do everything together, from eating meals to high-energy activities to peer support circles where children have the chance to share their grief stories.
“The connection is so intense that the kids that come year after year after year say it’s just because it is a wonderful place to be,” said Catalano, a long-time volunteer and healing circle leader. “[It’s] like you never wanted to need it, but you’re so happy you have it.” She added that children leave with new coping skills they can apply to their lives in the future.
Families interested in the COVID Loss Camps can register online. There is no cost to attend, and while families are encouraged to provide transportation, financial aid is available for those in need of assistance upon request.
Upcoming camp events and programs:
Camp DeWolfe in Wading River, LI (Aug. 5-7): Open to children aged 7 to 17 and young adults ages 18 to 25 who have lost a loved one to COVID. There is currently a waitlist for families who want to sign up. Camp Mason in Hardwick Township, NJ (Sept. 9-11): Open to children aged 7 to 17 who have lost a loved one to COVID and includes a parent/guardian program . Sign up is open until the day of the camp. Virtual Support Group on Zoom (Starting Nov. 15): Open to children aged 10 to 17 with a parent/guardian program, weekly from 7 pm to 8:15 pm EST.
Camp Erin in NYC
Camp Erin in NYC, run by the COPE Foundation, is set to take place overnight during the weekend of Aug. 26 at Camp Wayne, in the Poconos in northeastern Pennsylvania.
On the first night, each child brings in a photo or item that reminds them of their loved one to post in a communal space. At the end of camp, children have the chance to create a luminary for their loved one and speak about them before sending it out on the water. The luminary can be taken home the next day.
“Camp is really amazing because it blends free support with fun traditional camp activities, really giving kids a chance to be kids again with their peers, but also in a community where they feel very understood,” said Bethany Gardner, Eluna’s Director of Bereavement Programs .
The camp, which serves children under 18, is free. COPE also runs a concurrent camp for parents of children or teens who attend Camp Erin in NYC for a nominal charge.
Upcoming camp events and programs:
Camp Wayne in Preston Park, PA (Aug. 26-28): Open to children ages 7 to 17 who have lost a parent or close family member. Sign up is on a first come, first serve basis.
Eluna, Camp Erin’s parent organization, is currently developing a nation-wide virtual camp program for COVID-bereaved families specifically, according to Gardner.
Researchers at COVID Collaborative found that children who experience loss or trauma can greatly benefit from mentorship — whether it is grief-focused or general mentorship.
Here are just some free mentorship programs in the New York area:
Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City
Children between the ages of 7 and 17 — “Littles” — are matched with adult volunteers — “Bigs.” Bigs and Littles go on two outings per month, doing activities around the city. The mentorship program is free, and families can enroll through an online application.
MENTOR New York
MENTOR NY runs 850 in-person and online mentoring programs across New York State. Through an online application, MENTOR NY individuals matches to a program that suits their needs and preferences.
Big’s & Little’s NYC
Mentoring at Bigs & Littles NYC is the city’s keystone mentoring program where children, or Littles, ages 7 to 19 can be paired with an adult, a Big. (The organization is separate from Big Brothers Big Sisters.) Pairs are matched based on the child and parents’ preferences and meet twice a month on outings in the city. Parents or caregivers can enroll a child into the mentorship program online. There is no cost to participate for families.
People who lost a family member to COVID can also access financial benefits through the government to pay for funeral costs or support surviving family members.
MISSING THEM is supported, in part, by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia Journalism School.