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Group helps parents deal with loss of child

By Prue Salasky


No one wants to be a member or be eligible for this group.

Members of The Compassionate Friends, a worldwide bereavement organization, are bound together by the unending grief of having lost a child. As Virginia Peninsula chapter participant Linda White says, "Grieving the death of a child changes but it never gets better." Her son, Michael Goldberg, 30, died four years ago.

The self-help group, which meets monthly, is where bereaved parents can come to talk freely and openly about their children and their grief. For some the loss is recent, unprocessed, raw; for others, decades may have passed.

"It's going to change you forever. If there's anything positive it's the bonds you get from the people who go to meetings," says Brickey Hughes, one of the few men in the group. Hughes and his wife, Judy, started attending when they lost their daughter Heather, 28, in a drunken-driving accident. "Judy grieved really differently from me. She was really angry. Grief is by definition something you do alone. It's unique," he says.

The couple had just got to the point where they were able to help others when Judy passed away unexpectedly last year and Hughes found he once again needed the group's support.

Though members' circumstances are all different, they share in having lost children _ whether to accidents, violence, or illness, whether as children and teens (or younger) or young adults. Each year The Compassionate Friends sponsors a worldwide candle-lighting; this year's memorial is Dec. 14. In conjunction with the worldwide observance, the Peninsula chapter hosts an afternoon candlelight memorial service.

The formal group, which is nonreligious, meets monthly at St. Luke's Methodist Church in York County, Va. On this afternoon, the current co-facilitators Al and Margaret Sylvia, New York transplants who lost their daughter Robin, 23, in a 2001 car crash, have invited half-a-dozen regulars to their home to share their feelings about The Compassionate Friends, free from the privacy constraints of the monthly gathering. At those, they pass around a sign-up sheet for newcomers, introduce the organization, and ask that only the bereaved attend, unless a support person is essential.

Former facilitator Julia Allaman, mother of Carla, who died at 23, chips in that many need support. "They're doing well to breathe in, breathe out," she says.

Each person attending the meeting gets a turn to talk. The speaker holds a silver heart with the words, "I am with you always." If someone doesn't wish to speak, they simply pass the heart to their neighbor. "My husband attended for two years and never spoke _ and he's a talker," volunteers Stella Austin, whose son Billy, 22, died more than 20 years ago.

As the conversation proceeds _ "this is just like a regular meeting," the Sylvias say _ areas of agreement and disagreement emerge among participants. All agree that the group allows them a freedom they don't feel elsewhere to show their grief and to talk about their children. "We celebrate our children. We get to know each other's children," says Sue Dearnley, who worked in the same office as her daughter Laura Anspach-Mutch, 33, before she passed away from cancer.

Together they recall some of their toughest moments since losing a child: posing for a family portrait; attending the graduations and weddings of their children's friends and contemporaries; and answering the question, "How many children do you have?"

Then the mood lightens as all recognize the phrase, "Oh, well." After such a profound tragedy, most things afterward, they agree, fall into the "Oh, well" column of unimportant things. Austin hates small talk; Margaret couldn't understand a pastor praying for his knee; White looks at things at the office differently. They're all irrevocably changed, they agree.

And their children's names are music to their ears. They want to talk about them; they want others to talk about them and to remember them, whether by stopping by, calling and keeping in touch, adding information to a Web site, leaving a memento on the grave _ or by attending the annual candlelight memorial service.

Other people, all are in unison, just aren't in the same place. "We know exactly ... you read the obituary, the deaths in Iraq, the accident account. It's still fresh, it consumes your every thought," says Al. His granddaughter reminds him of his daughter. "It's double-edged," he says, simply.

Where the group disagrees is on how others can reach out to them and what those wishing to offer comfort can say or do.

They do agree on these tips for how people can express condolences:

A hug is better than words if you don't know what to say

Don't say you understand _ you don't

Do use the child's name and talk about the child

However well-meaning, don't say, "At least you had them for (however many) years," or "God always picks the prettiest flower."

Do recognize that siblings are grieving, too



Candlelight memorial services on Dec. 14:

Services are nondenominational. The children's names are read and parents light a candle in their memory.

The Compassionate Friends sponsors a worldwide candle-lighting ceremony at 7 p.m.



"The Compassionate Friends is about transforming the pain of grief into the elixir of hope. It takes people out of the isolation society imposes on the bereaved and lets them express their grief naturally. With the shedding of tears, healing comes. And the newly bereaved get to see people who have survived and are learning to live and love again."

_Simon Stephens, founder of The Compassionate Friends

The stated mission of The Compassionate Friends is "to assist families toward the positive resolution of grief following the death of a child of any age."

The group started 40 years ago in Coventry, England, when The Rev. Simon Stephens encouraged two families to get together and talk after the deaths of their sons. The families continued to meet and formed a self-help group to reach out to newly bereaved parents.

There are now hundreds of Compassionate Friends chapters throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and other countries around the world.

The meetings are informal, guided by facilitators who may or may not have received training. A key component is that the longer bereaved assist and comfort the newly bereaved. Some chapters have separate groups for siblings, others welcome them with parents.

Though some chapter meetings are in church facilities, no religious creed or affiliation is involved.