The Compassionate Friends – “The Gift” to Bereaved Parents

The following is a poem, written by The Compassionate Friends (TCF) founder Joe Lawley:

The Gift
I have a gift. 
I did not want this gift, it meant suffering and pain.
The pain came because of love.
A love which had manifested itself in a child.
The child brought its love to me and asked for my love. 
Sometimes I did not understand this. 
Sometimes I did not appreciate it. 
Sometimes I was too busy to listen quietly to this love. 
But the love persisted; it was always there. 
One day the child died. 
But the love remained. 
This time the love came in other forms. 
This time there were memories; there was sadness and anguish. 
And unbelievable pain. 
One day a stranger came and stood with me. 
The stranger listened and occasionally spoke. 
The stranger said “I understand”, and did. 
You see the stranger had also been this way. 
We talked and cried together. 
The stranger touched me to comfort. 
The stranger became my friend as no other had. 
My friend said “I am always here”, and was. 
One day I lifted my head. 
I noticed another grieving, grey and drawn with pain.
 I approached and spoke. 
I touched and comforted. 
I said, “I will walk with you”, and did.
I also had the gift.

Founded out of tragedy in 1969 by Joe and Iris Lawley and Bill and Joan Henderson when, after both suffering the loss of a child, the families were introduced to each other by Rev. Simon Stephens who recognised the relationship could be helpful to both, The Compassionate Friends (TCF) organisation offers support, comfort and understanding to other bereaved parents, in a way only those who have suffered the loss of a child can begin to comprehend.

I recently “discovered” TCF in York and the following is an interview with their regional coordinator, Liz which I hope will provide useful to our readers.  Going forward we will be updating the blog with news of the activities and meetings of the TCF groups in our area and beyond.

Please could you share with me what The Compassionate Friends (TCF) do and offer?

TCF can give parents, grandparents and siblings a huge amount of support if they would like it.  There is the Helpline, available from 10:00am to 4:00pm, 7:00 – 10pm daily, 365 days of the years,( 0345 123 2304).  Also Local and Group Contacts, Supportive weekends throughout the country.  There is a postal lending library with over 1200 books covering aspects of grief and bereavement and up to four books can be posted to the bereaved, monthly newsletters, fabulous website and is very easy to manoeuvre, various Facebook Groups, leaflets written by a wonderful team of volunteers on all aspects of bereavement.  There are forty leaflets including factsheets and a handbook.  TCF also has eight Specialist Co-Ordinators, I am the co-ordinator for When Our Child Has Died Through a Road Traffic Incident.  All the Co-ordinators offer one to one support

How did you come across TCF?

I personally did not find TCF until 3 ½ years after my son Nick died.  I read a book called Relative Grief, which covers bereavement for family members, friends etc.  The Helpline TCF number was at the back of the book.  I can remember reading this book and I found it really helpful, as when your child dies you feel so isolated.  I put little bits of paper in the book as a bookmark and again can clearly remember thinking “I feel like that”.

Please could you share a little about you and your experience?

The first we knew of Nick’s death was a knock on the door and the police were standing on the doorstep.  Our son died at 8:45am and we did not find out that he had died until 9:45pm.  Nick was riding his motorbike on the way to work on Saturday 15th November 2003.  He undertook a van in what originally was the outside lane on the North Circular Road, London.  There was a slip road that became the inside lane and a car had broken down on the way to have an MOT.  Nick went into the back of this car and died at the scene.  I collapsed on the kitchen floor and when I eventually stood up, I was a different person.  When you are bereaved, your whole life changes in a flash.  You feel as if you are going mad, losing your mind, lack of confidence, in some cases loss of close family friends and family members at a time when you need the support.  All sorts of sometimes irrational thoughts can pop into your head, lack of sleep, appetite, confidence to name just a few things.  The list is endless and constantly changing all the time.

How did your loss affect your family and how did they help you to cope/you help them to cope? 

My husband and I could not grieve together as the death of our son was just “too big” and so we struggled to communicate with and be there for each other. Talking to other bereaved parents helped me to see that it was very normal for everyone to grieve differently and not to have the energy or strength to be there for other family members particularly as each family member’s relationship with their child or sibling is different and unique. Everyone does what they can to survive the early weeks, months and years. I couldn’t support my mother either as I once told her very harshly that I couldn’t support her, it was enough just trying to stand up and breathe myself. I would not say that now, but in the early days that was so true. I did all my crying either in the shower or driving in the car.

How have TCF helped you?

TCF has helped me tremendously and is the only charity that offers peer to peer support.  We all have a unique relationship with our child and our bereavement is also unique, but if another parent says that they are having a bad day then you actually do have a greater understanding.  We are all in a club, that by choice we would certainly not choose to be in, but we are in this club for the rest of our lives.  I have met some fabulous people through TCF and many people, myself included, feel that TCF is like another family and I have also made many many friends.  When you are bereaved your address book changes as sometime other friends will walk away. I think they are frightened with what they see in us and they are worried that the same thing might happen to them. In the early days, bereaved parents are bowed, grey, very sad, sometimes angry and to actually speak to someone who understands is just amazing.

What should you expect from TCF/ a TCF meeting?

The group meetings are very gentle and I think the important thing is TCF will never make you do anything that you don’t want to. Again you are meeting other bereaved parents and actually to be with someone who truly understands is so helpful. Through this, friendships are made, yes we do talk about our child but can actually have a laugh and share experiences. Most importantly we can talk about our child, people will listen and will not shy away or shun us because our child has died. As time goes many non-bereaved become uncomfortable talking about our child, when all we want is for someone to remember them and say their name. Our support groups also offer reassurance, guidance, comfort and hope for the future – that it is possible to re-engage in a meaningful way with life again but most importantly that this does not mean that our child is forgotten, in fact, we always continue the bond with them even as time goes by.

Can you share any advice for someone who would like to meet you but is afraid they are going to breakdown or pull everyone else down with their grief when others are perhaps further along in their journey?  i.e. they worry they will set back others?

We are all in the “club” and that everyone understands. I have found that no one has ever pulled another parent down as it is intuitive that a bereaved parent, who is further down the dreadful road that we have to tread, will reach out the hand of comfort, compassion and support. I attended my first TCF National Gathering nine years after Nick died, and saw other people further down the road of bereavement and to actually see them conducting themselves like “normal” people gave me such hope that things would get better. Parents can feel they are ‘going mad or crazy’ especially in the first few months or years but attending a group or speaking to another bereaved parent can help them to see that what they are feeling or thinking is normal and that they can feel differently as time goes by and they learn to adjust to a ‘new normal’. I think one of the very important things that helped me was that I only “did” what I felt ready and able to do in my own time and when I had done that I put a mental tick in a box. Many people find ways to help themselves, whether it be yoga, pilates, running, sudoku to name but a few, we all find a way.

Are there any costs involved in attending TCF?

There are no costs in attending a group meeting but any monetary contribution is always welcome as TCF is a self-funding charity and gets no support from the Government. You can a become a donating member of TCF and have a monthly standing order for however much you would like to donate. There are bursaries available for parents, grandparents and siblings if there is financial hardship if they would like to attend a supportive weekend. All of our leaflets are free to bereaved family members.

What have you learnt about yourself through your journey?

I have learnt compassion and empathy and also eventually great strength.  What used to really annoy me was that I was told that I was a “strong woman”.  I certainly wasn’t and didn’t appreciate being told that.  We are all different, have a unique relationship with our child and no one has the right to express views about us especially to our face!  Yes, I have become stronger but it has been a long lonely journey.  In the early days and this took an awful lot of thinking about.  I gave myself permission that if I had a bad day that was okay as I wasn’t hurting anyone.  The bad days over a period time got less, and eventually, after a long time the bad times could often only be brief, but it did not take much for the huge tsunami wave to appear again and engulf me.  I also gave me permission to greave for my son every day for however long I am on this earth.  These two “permissions” helped me so much and took the pressure off me.

Please could you share anything positive that has happened?

One of the most positive things that has happened is that I now have a very good relationship with Nick and a strong loving bond with him.  To the non-bereaved, this would appear to be very strange, but again only people like “us” get this.  I have many plants in my garden that have been very carefully chosen with Nick in mind, these are very important to me.  My involvement with TCF has and is playing a huge part in my life and through this, I really hope that I am helping other bereaved parents.

If you could give one piece of advice to others in the same situation as yours, with the benefit of hindsight, what would it be?

Just be kind to yourself and do whatever whenever you feel able to do it.

Thank you to Liz for her kind contribution to this post, we look forward to learning more about TCF and the support they offer parents in future posts.  Liz is available for telephone and online support via Zoom for any parents reading this who think this may be helpful.

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