Another Compassionate Friends National Conference in the books. I wish I could explain what it is like to spend the weekend with 1200 grieving parents, grandparents and siblings. Sounds depressing doesn’t it? I’m here to tell you it is anything but depressing.
There are stories of auto accidents, suicides, cancer, heart problems, death secondary to substance abuse, shaken babies, murders, drowning accidents, AIDS, electrocution babies who didn’t survive, deaths secondary to mental health struggles, and many died leaving loved ones with no answers at all. There are tears and more tears, but there are also laughs and smiles and magnificent stories of survival. To hear these stories is a gift to the listener because this group can’t share their stories with just anyone. If they share their story with you, it means you are someone special and you make them feel safe and that their loved one mattered. In this environment, it doesn’t matter how your loved one died, no stigma, no judgement, just love and understanding. We are all the same, we loved someone and we lost someone.
We wear picture buttons, make memory boards, visit the Crafty Corner to make memory items, shop in the Butterfly Boutique, check out raffle items and silent auction, attend workshops, sit quietly in the reflection room, get some healing at Healing Haven, listen to speakers who walk our same walk, light candles and walk through a sea of signs with pictures of our precious children, grandchildren and siblings. We also hug and hug and hug some more.
In the corner you see a young mom, head in hands, hiding her tears. Within seconds, she is flanked by those that recognize the face of new grief. They offer something unique, a promise of survival. Further down the road, they have an understanding of the journey before her and offer information on finding a chapter, closed Facebook pages, and resources on hope and healing. Before they part ways, there is usually a phone number or email exchange. See, they know what she needs. She needs hope that this searing pain she has at this moment will not last forever. She needs to hear the stories of survival and how it took years to find their way. She needs the truth, no platitudes and no promises, just guidance as to how to continue her life when getting out of bed this morning was hardly manageable.
The mother stands close to her daughter as they enter the room. She is a grandmother so her journey is very different. Her grief for her daughter and her grandson is a double loss as she knows her daughter’s pain all too well. She watches her take steps into her new reality, cautiously, slowly trying to figure it all out. A mother takes care of her daughter so she remains present for her while silently grieving her own loss. It’s as if she is there to buffer the world for her daughter by wrapping her in love and understanding. A grandparent’s love is unique and their journey is tough trying to comfort while, at the same time, suffering their own loss.
Across the restaurant, you see someone sitting alone. You ask if you may share his table and he graciously accepts. He is here alone, having lost all of his siblings and a niece. You share your story of hope and healing and you listen to his. He has no surviving family and has a Birthday coming soon. He always shared his birthday with a sibling. You get a picture with him and wish him a safe journey home. He has been coming to this conference for 17 years. You have been blessed to share this time with him and walk away with a new friend, keeping in mind, he has a birthday coming.
The young brother-sister team grew up at National TCF conferences. They lost their sister when they were 10 and 12 and their life changed in a way they could have never imagined. Now they stand in front of the room speaking about how the loss of their sister changed their lives forever. They speak honestly about things that hurt them, things that affected their lives, and how it feels to be a bereaved sibling. They offer more than advice, they reach out all year to broken siblings in an effort to help them find their way. Siblings are called the “forgotten mourners” as most people say “How is your mother?” They feel invisible as shrines are built and the parents try to survive. The parents take their advice with them and try to fix what they didn’t even know was broken.
A very special friend shared this blog with other Bereavement Groups she belongs to while we were at the conference. Someone took the time to read it and reached out to her through Facebook, asked what Compassionate Friends was and what the Conference was like. She wanted to know about the Walk and all the details. It turned out she lived close by and my friend registered her for the Walk and got her a T-shirt. We met that morning and walked along side her in memory of her daughter. This is what Compassionate Friends is all about.
I attended this conference knowing it would be even more difficult this year with the recent loss of Rick. I wasn’t sure I could get what I needed at this point and surely I wasn’t going to be able to help anyone else. It was going to be different and I knew that. A mom and daughter sat beside me at the Candle Lighting and we started to talk. We looked at our children on our buttons and we briefly shared a little about our kids. Common ground right? Turns out she lost her husband shortly after losing her son. She is a widow and also grieves her child. Maybe it’s coincidence, but I don’t think so. I’m walking the maze again and there appears someone who gets it. How blessed am I to have had this week with these people? There are no words. The maze today is lined with the signs of all the loved ones we miss so deeply. I feel them with me holding my hand.
I can do this…
‘We Need Not Walk Alone. We are the Compassionate Friends”