The Compassionate Friends

The Compassionate Friends is a wonderful place for grieving parents.

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Compassionate Friends

A place for grieving parents

-Stephanie Elliot

Jett and John TravoltaWhen we reported the sad news of Jett Travolta’s untimely death, it brought up a lot of questions, one of the most obvious being, “How does a parent survive outliving his or her own child?”

How do you go on living when what was your WHOLE WORLD no longer exists?

I spoke to Wayne Loder, public awareness coordinator at The Compassionate Friends, and also, sadly, a bereaved parent. In 1991 his children, Stephanie, 8, and Stephen, 5, died in a car accident. Wayne shares his story and information on The Compassionate Friends with you here:

My wife and I experienced the death of both of our children, Stephanie, who was 8, and Stephen, who was 5, when my wife’s car was struck broadside by an inexperienced driver on a high-speed sport motorcycle. The world caved in for us. As I woke up the next day at the hospital, after a fitful two hours of sleep on a cot next to my wife, I heard myself repeating, over and over again, “Not my children … Not my children.” As I came around, I remember the utter depression I felt when I realized my children truly were dead. It wasn’t a nightmare where you wake up and everything’s OK. There was no waking up from this. It was real. How can I go on when my very reason for living had been destroyed in one day? Neither of us knew what to do, and basically we did what others told us. The world seemed so empty as we saw the hopes and dreams we had for our children gone. Many of our friends did not know how to handle the loss we experienced and gravitated away from us. However, one of my friends did some research and told us about a chapter of The Compassionate Friends that met near us. While it was difficult at first to attend and talk about our loss, we found true friendship, caring and hope from others who understood much of what we were going through because they, themselves had experienced the same loss, that of a beloved child.

What really is the best thing for people to say and do when a family is faced with the tragedy of the loss of a child?

There is nothing anyone can say that will make things right. Being there, giving a hug and saying “I’m sorry” is perhaps the best way to let those grieving know that you care.

Is there anything NOT to say?

Don’t give platitudes such as “God only gives you what you can handle” (maybe if I were a little weaker, my child would still be alive); or, “You’re young and can have more children” (but that doesn’t stop me from mourning the child I’ve lost, and no child can replace another). Or, “They’re in the best place; they’re with God” (the best place would be with me).

Does everyone experience the five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) in the same way/same order?

Every grieving person is different in the way they grieve in relation to the five steps of grieving that so many believe is universal. Some people may only go through two or three of them. Others may go through all five, but not necessarily in the order presented by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Do you have any statistics on marriages and divorce after the tragic loss of a child? Could this be a factor to break up a marriage?

The high divorce statistics often cited after the death of a child are a glittering generality. They don’t exist. We did two surveys of bereaved parents. The first, in 1999, found that only 12 percent of bereaved parents divorce following the death of a child. The second, made public in 2006, found that only 16 percent divorced after their child died, and less than half felt that the impact of their child’s death contributed to the divorce. These are truly remarkable statistics and indicate that, if anything, the death of a child is a shared experience that brings parents closer together in the aftermath of tragedy.

The Compassionate Friends is a place for healing; can you tell us more about the organization?

The Compassionate Friends is a national organization with more than 600 chapters blanketing all 50 of the states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. It is a self-help organization in which chapter leadership is made up of bereaved parents, siblings or grandparents who understand the pain of those who walk through the doors to a meeting because they have been there themselves. The Compassionate Friends originated in England in 1968 and operates autonomously in at least 30 countries around the world.

On a personal note, how soon did you go after your loss? How did the organization help you heal?

My wife and I learned of the organization several months after the death of our children, in March of 1991. We found that we were no different than anyone else attending the meetings. We had all suffered the same loss and were trying to find our way down a path that we had never traveled. Quite often we heard other people open their mouths and our words emerge, as many of the same feelings and emotions surfaced.

Are meetings weekly?

Most chapters hold meetings once a month, although some hold meetings twice a month and sometimes in different meeting locations within an area, so more of the community can be served.

What would you like to tell people who are unfamiliar with the organization?

A bereavement group like ours is not going to be right for everyone. But until you go and give it a try, you’ll never know. It’s difficult to come to that first meeting – some people never come back, as their wound is reopened whenever they openly discuss their loss with others in public for perhaps the first time. We always recommend attending at least three meetings before deciding if The Compassionate Friends works for them. While it won’t work for everyone, it works for many as we have more than 15,000 who attend meetings every month. Many people have told us they don’t know how they could have survived without The Compassionate Friends.

We are open to any family member (parents, adult siblings, and grandparents) who has experienced the death of a child at any age from any cause. We are not a religious organization, and there is no charge or dues of any type. We operate on donations.

The organization is preparing for its 32nd annual national conference, this year August 7 to 9, in Portland, Oregon, and we expect 1,200 to 1,500 people to attend. The conference also includes our Walk to Remember, in which about 1,400 people will walk in silent remembrance of their children. We also sponsor The Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting the second Sunday in December. In 2008 we received information from throughout the United States on more than 500 services open to the public, as well as those in 19 additional countries around the world.

If someone needed to contact The Compassionate Friends, how would they reach you?

Our toll-free number is 877-969-0010, and our Web site is compassionatefriends.org. My wife and I work together – I am the public awareness coordinator, and she is the executive director of the national organization.

I would like to thank you, Wayne, for sharing what can be life-saving information for parents because I truly believe that, without the help of grief support of some type, the will to live would not exist after such a horrifying and life-altering personal trauma.

When I heard about your tremendous loss, there were really no words that I felt that I could say, although I wish I had words to comfort. You mentioned to me that you’re now at a place in your grief where everything has mellowed and you’ve fully accepted what happened. You didn’t personally share this following information with me, and I know it in no way replaces Stephanie and Stephen, but I discovered that you and your wife, Pat, had two more children. I know the Betty readers would have wanted to know this.

You had to put such faith in a higher being to trust that things would be OK. Can you tell us a little about your journey on adding to your family after such a great loss?

Pat and I discussed whether we could have more children knowing that we could possibly face more pain down the road – nothing is guaranteed in this life. But we decided we still had love to give, and so we decided to try. Within a couple of years, Christopher and Kathryn were born to us. Now they’re both in their teens, and we’ve learned that they have to live their own lives and find their own way. We can’t protect them every step of the way. We have to place our trust in a higher being that they will be fine.

I hope the joy of loving your children (all four of them) and raising them after such a profound loss brought you countless blessings and continues to do so. Thank you for opening your heart to those in need, for sharing your personal story and for your efforts to help those who find themselves in the place no parent ever hopes to be.

Stephanie Elliot is Betty’s Lit Lounge and Parenting editor, and she also answers your parenting questions at Just Another Manic Mommy. Visit her at manicmommy.blogspot.com or stephanieelliot.com.

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0 thoughts on “The Compassionate Friends

  1. april says:

    This was almost too heartbreaking for me to read! Thank you Stephanie for writing this — and thank you Wayne for sharing your story and doing the work you do with Compassionate Friends. I hope people who read this article will have nothing but compassion for people like John Travolta, and stop the painful accusations and knee-jerk judgments that have been spread about him and his family at what is a devastating time in their lives. My heart goes out to all parents with lost children.

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