“The Compassionate Friends”: Support groups that help after losing your Child: September 9, 2009Posted by johnbohlinger in Uncategorized.
Last year, my then fiance, now wife, told me that “The Compassionate Friends”, a support group for parents who have lost children, had a three day seminar in Nashville and suggested we attend the final night. I would rather attend a combination root canal/ tax audit while having my testicles stapled to my leg than be in a room full of bereaved parents. However, these are the very things that are supposed to make one better so I can’t very well continue pretending that I’m diligently working on beating my depression and opt out of this seminar in favor of staying home and watching a DVD of “The Family Guy”.
In truth, I don’t really talk to anybody about my son. I saw a therapist for close to a year but we spoke more about how I was dealing rather than about August. Sometimes I mention things about August to family, but it’s awkward; it worries them and depresses them to see me down. For over a year, when people I don’t know very well ask about my son, I would say he’s beautiful and living his cool, hippie kid life in Middle Tennessee State. Sometimes I’d show them photos from my phone and give lots of imaginary details, other times I would vaguely say “he’s in college” and change the subject. I still don’t tell the truth. I try and walk out of the conversation when somebody brings it up, fake smile firmly cemented unnaturally on my slightly haggard face.
I still don’t know what the appropriate response is to any casual inquiry about my son. It’s a bit like when somebody ask “How you doing?” Rarely does anybody want to know the answer. Can you imagine?
“How are you John?” asks the casual acquaintance.
“Ohhhh, I’m fit as a fiddle; I’m no longer concerned about retirement or credit card debt because I can’t stop thinking about killing myself. Right as you accosted me I was considering sneaking home to the big stash of pills I’ve been hoarding, washing them down with a nice merlot, putting on some music and taking the big dirt nap. How are you?”
“Uhhhh… fine. I’m fine. Have a nice day.” stammering as they slowly back away never taking their eyes off mine.
In truth, being chronically bereaved feels a bit like leprosy; once people know you have it, they avoid you like they think they may catch it. Attending a support group should be a healthy step, like our own little leper colony, united by our affliction. We may not know how to get better, but we know what it’s like to be crushed.
The Compassionate Friends is a loving organization built out of a grief inspired desire to help others in the same sinking ship. According to Simon Stephens, founder of The Compassionate Friends, they are “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.”
“Whether your family has had a child die (at any age from any cause) or you are trying to help those who have gone through this life altering experience, The Compassionate Friends exists to provide friendship, understanding, and hope to those going through the natural grieving process”.
TCF is built on the principal that in caring and sharing comes healing. The Compassionate Friends has been supporting bereaved families after the death of a child for nearly four decades through a network of more than 600 chapters with locations in all 50 states. Time has proven that TCF helps parents attempting to cope with the death of a child.
The night I attended The Compassionate Friends dinner, I walked into that banquet hall like a condemned man shuffling in shackles to old sparky. Entering the room I saw all of these seemingly normal looking, middle aged parent types talking, laughing, apparently enjoying the prime rib or chicken. I watched them pretending to be normal and I wished an airplane would crash through the ceiling to put us all of out our misery; granted, mine was not a healthy response. I sat down at a table of mid-dinner, happy-to-meet-you strangers who all greeted me warmly, compassionately. I had to keep myself from yelling “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE. Don’t YOU KNOW HOW MISERABLE YOU SHOULD BE?” Grief hovered in the air like a noxious gas leak; we all smelled it and wanted to wretch but instead everyone told pleasant stories and buttered their dinner rolls. I felt my crazy, Tourette’s-like crying coming on and quickly exited to the hallway.
When I get this crying thing, it’s not like any crying I’ve ever experienced. When my mother died, I didn’t cry. I cried when she was sick and in pain but the death of a 70 year old woman who lived a full and beautiful life, made peace with the world, God, the family and gracefully slips into the great beyond is not a tragedy. I’ve never been a crier by nature because there’s just not much that makes us sad here in middle class America; life’s good. But since losing Aug I have these debilitating crying fits that come over me like food poisoning. I walked around the foyer outside the Compassionate dinner and wept insanely. A man from our table eventually came out to check on me, which was really thoughtful. He spoke but I don’t know what he said because I was such a mess I couldn’t really hear anything, but the thought that this guy who’s been through something like I’ve been through wants to help was enough to make me quit crying.
compassion |kəmˈpa sh ən|
a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
The Compassionate friends have hit upon perhaps the one benefit that a person could gain should he or she survive the loss of a child: compassion. By benefit, I can’t really say that compassion actually benefits compassionate people, but it does make the world a better place for people in their paths. I know I’m far more compassionate. Here’s an example of compassion creeping into my life:
I stumbled into owing a a rental house, (not really my thing, business and all, but I wanted a different house to live in and the market hovered around depression era prices prohibiting me from selling my old house so I rented it out while moving into a new place). My first tenants were a revolving cast of four to seven illegals who worked their way into my heart and my house with a long series of transparent lies, broken plumbing, garbage dump salvage decor and late rent. When ever I went to the house and saw the assortment of dilapidated Chevys up on blocks in my yard, the many unfinished home repair projects I had hired them to fix ( and regrettably paid for in advance), my blood would boil, profanities, both English and Spanish, would well up in my throat, and hair follicles would die instantaneously from the toxic anger sweat that would appear on my forhead. I knew this stress and anger could in fact make me keel over from a heart attack or at least incure a crippling case of constipation as the stress and anger turned my bowels to concrete. But as this well spring of anger welled up from my rage constricted bowels and I was ready to throw the whole lot of them out or call INS I would think of what my sweet hippie son would say about it. It was almost like he was there counseling me:
“Dad, it’s only money. These poor guys were raised on dirt floors and don’t know any better. They’re truly second class, non-citizens who work long days for bad pay and expect to be treated like shit by the man. Be kind, work it out, be compassionate to these poor guys. Nobody else is.”
My wrath would melt, I’d step over the rusted engine block, empty beer cans and deflated soccer balls as I made my way to them in the yard and say:
“Amigos, no soy una Iglesia, Tienen gue pagar y limpiar esta casa,” and we’d come to some arrangment that more or less worked for them and keep the spirt of my son happy. The funny thing is, August was right. Yes, eventually the tenants were all deported shortly after rebuilding a motorcycle in my living room but they did pay all their rent, gave me a week notice before the deportation and cleared me from any wrong doing with immigration. I used to tell my son “There’s a reason that the word ‘mad’ means both ‘angry’ and ‘crazy’ because when you give yourself over to anger you really can lose your senses and do crazy things.” When I felt myself growing angry I could feel my son reminding my of this lesson and gleefully pointing out my hypocrisy. August was a very compassionate person, and my compassion has grown exponentially in his absences.
The Compassionate Friends helps a lot of people. I don’t think I was ready to hear their message when I attended their meeting. I was just moving from a state of shock to being suicidal. Even in that state, I could see that these wounded people knew that we are all a little wounded and all need a friend.