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 2010Tags: grief, hope
Your essay is wonderful for newly bereaved or someone like me at 4 years of walking in these uncomfortable shoes. Thank you for sharing today….
Kim, thank you for your comment. At four years it was still so very hard for me. I send hope that you find your own unique way to move through this most difficult and painfilled journey. Take care of yourself.
I know Genesse and she is a life saver. It will be 10 years this July that I lost my 9 year old boy. The feelings of grief were unbelievable and the idea that anyone would know an ounce of what I was feeling was so far fetched.
The Compassionate Friends of Marin were people with open ears, open caring minds, and most important open arms. There was one meeting night where I arrived early and Sandy(one of the facilitators) was already there in her fan. She invited me to sit with her and she asked how I was doing. I spilled my guts and she sat there without judgement, and put her hand over mine and said it was going to be ok. Where did this angel come from?
On the first birthday with Comp. Friends, I was invited to bring in his picture and we both loved carrott cake; and all the paticipants shared the cake and looked at his picture, and some commented “What a beautiful boy!”
But there is something truly unique about Genesse and that is you can walk into the monthly meetings, and she will drop what she is doing and always come and extend her arms to you. I can’t say how many times I didn’t want to let go!
They are a wonderful group of people!!
My heart is full, Brian. I thank you for your very lovely comments and will let Sandy and the others know about it as well. TCF meetings have been lifesaving for so many of us and I so cherish the friends I have made there over the years. You have a special place in my heart, dear friend. I am always so happy to see you and am always pleased that you made such an effort to travel so far to join us. Thanks again, dear friend.
Very inspiring. Thank You for your story.
Thank you for writing Cara. It means a lot to me.
This was such as inspirational story to read. It is so great that you were able to turn your grief into hope for other people in our world. Thank you for mentioning TCF or The Compassionate Friends group, because joining a group like this can really help offset some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and the feelings of extreme grief associated with the loss of a child. It is never easy to lose a child at such a young stage in their life, but hearing stories like yours help to give us hope.
Andrea, thank you for your comment. It sounds like you are familar with TCF and its wonderful work. Again, thank you for your comment.
Unfortunately there now Compassionate Friends close to where I live. I do go to a hospice support group and that does help. I’m only 4 and a half months into this process. I didn’t lose a child, however I lost a precious sister. Thank you for the message of hope. We can never have enough hope.
that was supposed to say no, not now.
Shirley, thank you for writing. I’m sorry to hear that there are no TCF chapters near you. Have you participated in the on-line sibling chat on Thursday nights through the TCF national website? You can find out about that, as well as other sibling support offered by TCF at this link: http://www.compassionatefriends.org/resources/grief_support_for_siblings.aspx
Losing a sibling is such a tragedy. I’m sending you big, big hugs. Good luck to you.
Thank you for your wonderful essay. I have your book of poetry and your writing so eloquently depicts everything I have been feeling since I lost my twenty-six year old son to leukemia this past August. It has been almost six months and it still feels like yesterday. I grieve for my son every day and I wonder when I will ever be right again. I understand what you are saying about reaching out to others, but, I am always amazed by how long it takes to find your way to this new place. I was a pediatric nurse for twenty-eight years and I have been a “motherer” for most of my life. I am waiting to find my new purpose for this life. I am wondering how long it will take. Your thoughts about people not understanding, not knowing what to do or say, they hit the nail right on the head. I feel so alone and yes, I feel hurt too, that no one “gets it.” I have started going to TCF meetings and they have been helpful. I was hesitant at first, but, I knew this was something I should do. I have found much needed support and comfort from those who do understand the toll of losing a child. I am battle weary. My son and I were battle buddies and we lost the biggest fight of his life. I feel the urgency to keep him alive in memory and in love. I am trying to be patient but, the pain can be overwhelming. Thank you for telling such a positive story and showing us there can be hope for a new beginning, that my son will always be a part of whatever I do with the rest of my life.
Thank you for writing BigD. You are so very early in your grief. Six months is just a blink of an eye as far as grief after losing a child is concerned, even though it must feel like forever to you . . . All your strength right now is being used just to hold you together. It is such a blessing to know my writing helps you realize you are not alone in your feelings and brings a bit of solace. I hope you continue going to TCF meetings and that you will find that organization as helpful for you as it has been for me. I’m sending love and big, big hugs to you.
Hi Neil. It works. Thanks.