After the death of our daughter Lori, I was completely devastated.  Everything I believed about life was tossed out the window and I was filled with despair. It felt as if grief would destroy me.

Much of that time is now a blur, too painful to remember.  But I do recall clearly my feeling of disconnection from most of the world of the living. My life had been ruined and I had no idea what to do. The friends with whom I’d surrounded myself before Lori’s death had no way of knowing how to befriend me in this, and I had no idea how to ask for the help I needed. So onto my overwhelming grief was added hurt and loneliness because friends who didn’t know what to do or say often opted to do and say nothing.

Then my husband and I found the monthly meetings of The Compassionate Friends (TCF) a support group for families who have experienced the death of a child. I won’t say it was immediately a perfect fit for me, because it wasn’t, or that I felt comfortable at the meetings, because I didn’t. I was a very private person; I had had no experience crying on anyone’s shoulder. My tears had always been in solitude. I’d never learned to express my feelings in words.

So when someone asked me how I was feeling, I’d almost panic. How DID I feel? And after listening to the others in the circle, by the time my turn came, I was often overwhelmed with feelings. Like many others, I can’t cry and talk at the same time, which caused people to have to wait as I tried to get the words out . . . I hated all the eyes on me while I tried to gain enough control to speak.

So why did I keep going? At the beginning it was because my husband, Bill, wanted to go and it was there that I learned more about how he was feeling. I was also learning from the more seasoned grievers ways of coping with my loss. All too soon I learned that TCF was actually a sanctuary, the rare place where I could try to explain my feelings or talk about Lori and her death without people trying to change the subject because they were being made uncomfortable by my words.

And it was such a relief to find out that not only was it OK to voice my darkest thoughts and feelings, but others often felt the same way too. They understood! Some months, I had to overcome my lethargy to get into the car and drive the half hour to get to the meetings, but every time I went I was thankful that I had. Looking back now, I realize that the meetings, and the friends I made at the meetings, probably saved my life.

By the spring before the second anniversary of Lori’s death, we were no longer attending every meeting. I regularly spoke with TCF friends, but didn’t feel I needed to go every month.  I had come to the point, as so many do, where I felt I’d received most of the help I would get from TCF. I might soon have stopped going to the meetings altogether.

Now I can’t even imagine who I would have become if that had happened. Instead, I was given a gift, a reason to keep attending the meetings. Our facilitator was moving out of the area and I was asked to facilitate the local meetings. I said yes and found there was a whole new world of healing when I stopped going only for myself and began to attend meetings to help others. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this turning point in my life.

From then on, every month, I had to look outside myself into the hearts and minds of others and try to give them hope. I found the intensity of my own raw pain began to take a backseat to that of others more newly bereaved than I. Because I needed to find words for THEM, to try to help ease THEIR pain, a floodgate was gradually opened in me and words, amazing words, began to fill my life.

Feelings, with the words to describe them, began to well up from my innermost being, feelings from the past, from those first months after Lori’s death, and feelings in the present, words in the form of poetry, poems to help me understand myself and poems to help others.  Truly, I believe this would not have happened if I hadn’t opened my heart to my newly bereaved compassionate friends.

I believe there is the potential for something like this to happen to all who become actively involved in the “helping” aspect of The Compassionate Friends. I don’t mean that everyone begins writing poetry. But I do believe that the greatest healing derived from TCF is this outward movement, this growth away from the self-centeredness, self-absorption of grief, towards the open hearted hope of helping others.

It comes to me that parenthood, itself, does something like this. From our self-centered, self-directed lives before our children are born, we learn the awesome responsibility of another person’s life when we first gaze upon them. Our lives change focus and their survival and growth become our highest purpose; our hearts become larger because our children are in them. When our children die, we not only hurt because the most important, most loved people of our lives are gone, but that intense focus is gone and our sense of great purpose. We wander in a wasteland, searching for what has been lost.

When Lori died, we still had our 15 year old daughter Megan at home, but I felt so crippled as a mother. How thankful I am that Megan was somehow able to get through those early years with a mother so distracted by grief – and emotionally distanced by fear. I was half a mother in more ways than one.

Now, because of TCF, I began to find a new focus for my maternal instincts and a new way to grow back into the loving mother I’d been before Lori died. As I tried to grow to the task of helping those more newly bereaved than I, just as I’d had to grow to the task of being Lori and Megan’s mother, I was benefiting three-fold. First, my “mother” energy, which is a huge part of me, was again flowing outward. Second, as I was learning ways to help others heal, I was learning them for myself. And third, once again, I began to feel that I was doing something important with my life, that my life mattered, that my life had purpose.

When I look at other bereaved parents who seem to have survived this great loss the most successfully, I find that they too have again found purpose. And often that purpose has something to do with the child who has died.  Sometimes they work towards eradicating the reason their child died: drunk driving and cancer are two examples. Some start foundations in their child’s name. Some take up and even finish the work that their child started.

Many bereaved parents, like me, have regained a sense of purpose through The Compassionate Friends. My work in TCF has given me a great sense of purpose, satisfaction in helping the newly bereaved at our monthly meetings, being part of the Steering Committee, a vital part of my chapter, and Chapter Leader. As Regional Coordinator I also try to give support to my region’s chapters, and the ripples go out from there.

And just as important to me, besides this sense of purpose, TCF has allowed me to keep Lori more visibly in my life. Wherever I go, whatever I do for TCF, Lori’s name is mentioned; Lori is not forgotten. Because what I do for TCF matters, and because all I do for TCF, I do in her name, Lori’s life continues to matter, all these years after she left this earth. Through TCF Lori remains in the forefront of all I do, the guiding star in the direction of my life. I could not have found a more loving or fitting way to honor her than I have through The Compassionate Friends.  My grief and TCF have forced me to grow in ways of which I had never dreamed.  And Lori has been with me every step of the way.

From Catching the Light – Coming Back to Life after the Death of a Child. A version of this was previously published in The Compassionate Friends’ quarterly magazine, We Need Not Walk Alone. Genesse Gentry 2010

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Genesse Gentry

Genesse Gentry

Genesse Gentry is the author of two books of poetry, Stars in the Deepest Night - After the Death of a Child and Catching the Light – Coming Back to Life after the Death of a Child. She lives in northern California with her husband Bill. They are the parents of daughters Megan and Lori, who died in a car accident in 1991 at the age of 21. Following Lori’s death, Genesse and Bill joined the Marin County, California Chapter of The Compassionate Friends (TCF). Genesse has continued being involved in that organization ever since. She has been meeting group facilitator for both the Marin County and San Francisco meetings as well as chapter leader. She is currently on the steering committee of TCF Marin, as well as Regional Coordinator for Northern California. She presents writing workshops at national conferences of The Compassionate Friends as well as for northern California chapters. Genesse appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss “Compassionate Friends: Finding Hope Through Service.” To hear Genesse being interviewed on this show, click on the following link:

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