SEASIDE HEIGHTS - When police officers are killed in the line of duty, their family's grief is public and whenever another officer is killed, that grief - which never completely goes away - comes rushing back.
So on Tuesday, as the nation continued struggling to heal from the killings of five police officers during a July 7 protest in Dallas, more than 100 family members of fallen New Jersey law enforcement officers were invited to come together to comfort each other and if possible, have a little fun on the Jersey Shore.
This gathering was part of the 9th Annual at Breakwater Beach Waterpark and Casino Pier, which was also attended by state, county and local law enforcement officials, as well as Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
"The fact of the matter is when you kill a police officer, you're not just losing someone who is serving his community, you're losing an entire family and the family is losing a branch of their family that is never, ever going to be there again," Guadagno said.
Every year, Guadagno tells the family members at the Law Enforcement Survivors Day event the same thing.
"I tell them that it's important for them to keep coming out and talking about their loss, so they all know that they're not alone and so that the memory of their loss is never lost," she said. "But today it's even more important, because people outside of this group need to know that there are human beings who have sworn to throw themselves in front of a bullet for us and that's what today's about. ... Clearly, events like this are bittersweet. But events like this are necessary, unfortunately."
The families who attended the event were given free access to the waterpark, rides on the Casino Pier, a free meal and also complimentarily cards to use in the arcade.
Lisa Preslar, president of Garden State C.O.P.S., the local branch of the national organization that provides resources to assist families and co-workers of fallen law enforcement officers, said the Breakwater Beach and Casino Pier gathering is always the organization's most-attended event for the survivors. She thanked the Storino family, which owns both facilities, for making it possible each year.
"With the events that have happened lately, it is all weighing very heavily on our hearts. So this really happened at the right time for us this year, for everybody to come together and support each other," said Preslar, whose husband, Lakewood Police Officer William Preslar, was killed in a car crash in 2007.
"The grief hits us all in different ways and it comes back all the time, especially for the children. My children were 4 and 5 years old when my husband died, and as they grow up I see them grieving for their father in different ways," she added. "To be able to come together with the other families and talk to other the ladies here, I know that they have felt the same things as I've felt at some point."
This was John McCarson's first time attending the Law Enforcement Survivors Day event. His son, 30-year-old New Jersey State Trooper Eli McCarson, was killed in a crash en route to a domestic dispute call on Dec. 17, 2015.
"I believe being with this group helps a lot, especially a day like this, which is a beautiful thing," McCarson said. "We all came together under all of the stress and emotion of the losses we suffered. So there's a good, tight-minded relationship we now have with so many people. But I think that a day like today, when we can have things be light and have some fun together, it really opens up that relationship to the next level."
McCarson said the slayings of the Dallas police officers and other recent attacks on police have stirred up some of those feelings of grief for his family.
"We didn't lose our son through felony violence, ours was a tragic accident. But the pain, the loss, the hurt - as things are in the news, and it happens again and again - it does stir things up," he said. "You have to protect your heart, you have to guard your heart from giving in to hatred."