As Family And Friends Drift Away, A Support Group Becomes Important
It's been a little more than three months since Shay Persinger lost her son, Blake Alexander. The 31-year-old died after he was ejected from his vehicle during an accident on Old Jacksonville Highway in Tyler. He was not wearing a seatbelt.
"I could not get that boy to wear a seatbelt," Mrs. Persinger recounted, as she talked with three other parents who have lost a child.
She's a new member of the Tyler chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a support group that helps parents deal with grief following the death of a child. Still raw with a mixture of emotions, Mrs. Persinger admits that she placed blame on herself about what happened that fateful day.
Almost instantly, members of the group came to her aid. Like their meetings, their impromptu gathering at fellow group member Mary Lingle's home became fluid, with a range of topics and feelings evoked. Mrs. Persinger was reminded that as a parent, she would have done anything for her son, so there was no need to blame herself.
"It's a safe place for people to share their pain, or even experience pain," Ms. Lingle said of The Compassionate Friends.
For that reason, the group has been a godsend to Mrs. Persinger.
"I wish I'd heard of it sooner," she said. She has lived in Tyler for 35 years, but a friend living in Houston told her about the group, which has chapters around the world.
"No one in Tyler could tell me where to get a support system," she said.
Finding support is an important part of grieving because, as the parents revealed, family and friends may slowly drift away in the days following the funeral. Reliving fond memories or remembering what happened becomes uncomfortable for others, they say.
"I started to lose my support system," Mrs. Persinger said. "They couldn't relate to it. (The Compassionate Friends) stepped in right when everybody else walked off."
At times, the room seemed as though it was coated with a veil of sorrow, but at others, there was a sense of hope, joy and healing.
"We're not all doom and gloom," Mrs. Johnson said. "We laughed until we were crying at our steering committee meeting."
Carol Thompson, who serves on the group's steering committee, concurred, during a previous phone interview.
"It's kind of hard to explain but it is not a sad or depressing situation to be a member of Compassionate Friends," Ms. Thompson said. "It's very uplifting and very spiritually encouraging and it helps you to move forward and think ahead. That's the value of it. It's not a downer."COMPOUNDING THE GRIEF
In the months, sometimes years following a child's death -- no matter the age -- parents are in a fog. Some of their days are forgotten, pushed in the back of their minds.
And milestones, events and memories are recorded in a new way -- before or after the child's death.
"There's a mark in time. It's a reference point," Mrs. Johnson said.
For Mrs. Johnson and David Terrell, the grief of losing a child is compounded by the way in which they lost them -- each of their sons took their lives. Mrs. Johnson's son, Jerad Sheets, was 18 and Terrell's son, Andy, was 31 at the time of his death.
In the years following the deaths, they have both experienced the stigma associated with suicide.
"We lost a lot of friends," Terrell said. "They don't come around because they think it rubs off."
Parents do the best they can, they said. Knowing this eases thoughts of guilt and blame.
"By the time their 14, they're their own person," Terrell said. "The only thing you can hope is that they'll come back to the teachings you gave them."
But no matter the circumstances surrounding death, group members say, "grief is grief is grief."
"And love is love is love," Mrs. Johnson added.
As a man, there is another layer added to Terrell's process of mourning. He said men are taught to hide their emotions.
"I was taught men weren't supposed to cry," he said. "Men fix problems. They don't create problems. When we lost our son, it wasn't fixable."
Group members say men attend special events, but many don't make the meetings.
"I think it's hard for a man to come to a meeting and sit through maybe some very emotional times," Ms. Thompson said. "But we do have some fathers attend regularly and their contributions are so valuable."FINDING SOLACE
Ms. Thompson's daughter, Sarah, died in a hit-and-run accident in 2005 in San Antonio. She was 24.
"I joined in 2006 because I, as many parents, recognized that I needed to get help. ... I wasn't sure how I was going to live a life without her and I needed, I guess, guidance and I needed good examples and role models of people who were surviving the loss of a child. I found that encouragement and support and made very precious lifelong friends."
The Compassionate Friends' credo is parents "need not walk alone." About 300 people in the Tyler chapter receive newsletters and/or attend events and monthly events.
"We are a self-help support group," Ms. Thompson said. "We can't provide a cure, but we walk along with parents and family members who are grieving the loss of a child."
There's no real guide to dealing with grief, group members say, and every one handles it in their own time, in their own way. Some choose to commemorate birthdays, the anniversary of death and other occasions, while others isolate themselves and avoid talking about it. The group believes that society too often encourages people to "suck it up and get over it," and then move on.
Ms. Lingle said it took a long time to begin the grieving process. She was very isolated. Her daughter, Candice, died in 1993 just before her third birthday from a metabolic syndrome.
"I didn't do grief," she said. "I was the poster child for how not to deal with grief. It causes physical problems and I had lots of problems."
On what would have been her daughter's 13th birthday, Ms. Lingle celebrated her daughter's memory with a cake.
"It took me 10 years to do that. It was painful, but it felt good," she said.
Parents emphasize to newcomers that there is no timeline to adhere to. Everyone goes through stages differently. And they note that people who have not lost a child may not be able to comprehend the feelings they have.
The group depends on volunteers and they aren't afraid to ask for donations. They say they need it for the group's website, newsletters, planning events and reserving space for monthly meetings.
They typically get donations from parents new to the group. It's not a popular organization to raise money for, they say, because there is nothing to prevent, nothing physically to treat.
"Our tragedy is so horrible that we don't have a name for this," Mrs. Persinger said, noting that she would have been giving to the organization had she known about it earlier.
Although their lives are forever changed, finding a "new normal" is an achievable goal for these parents. Mrs. Persinger was laid off from work as a research nurse just before Thanksgiving but mishaps and misfortunes no longer matter.
"This is nothing. It didn't even affect me," she said.
Mrs. Lingle understands how things that used to matter are now small to parents of deceased children.
"I've already had the most horrible thing that could happen, happen to me," she said.
But it's not necessarily a bad thing, they say, noting they no longer fear death and appreciate life in a new way.
"It's very freeing," Mrs. Johnson said. "I'm a better person. It puts life in a different perspective. It puts a whole new perspective on taking care of other people and taking care of yourself."'...THAT THEIR LIGHT MAY ALWAYS SHINE'
The age of the children of parents in the support group have lost range from unborn up to middle-aged.
Beginning at 6:30 p.m. today at Crossbrand Church, Compassionate Friends will hold a candle lighting ceremony to remember children who have passed away. For 24 hours, there will be a candle burning in every time zone around the world.
In Tyler, more than 200 pictures of children will be displayed on a projector. Blankets with swatches of children's pictures will also be on display. Organizers say the event is more somber than the group's annual butterfly release, held in May.
People will read poems and live music will reflect the feelings of the crowd. Parents have an opportunity to recite the name of their child.
Ms. Thompson encourages friends to participate in the event.
"Friends of the children are also deeply affected that people don't often think of them," she said.
Meeting with others who share their plight has been a remarkable experience. They understand they will never be able to overcome the death of their child, but they know they can still have a fulfilled life by showing compassion to others.
"Seeing that there were other people who were able to tell a joke, made me feel that there is a life after this, a light at the end of the tunnel," Terrell said.
Mrs. Persinger added, "I realized I would be OK someday."