Sitting in the Joyce K. Carver Memorial Library conference room Saturday afternoon, five of the six Compassionate Friends of the Kenai Peninsula chapter steering committee met for what evolved into an open discussion on addressing the death of a child.
The five women said they are part of a “club no one wants to join.”
Four months ago, committee leader Leslie Boyd, Lisa Garcia, Vickie Herrmann, Kit Hill, co-leader Brenda Zuck and Patsy Marston created a local chapter of the international Compassionate Friends organization. With the guidance of Lynette Knapp, the small coalition founded a long-term place of support for grieving parents and siblings.
The response was far greater than they expected.
Nearly 30 people showed up in the library’s community room for the first meeting on Sept. 23, Zuck said.
“They kept coming and they kept coming and they kept coming,” Zuck said.
The committee had guessed they would make up the majority of the attendance for the first gathering, Boyd said. After that night, the significance of the issue the group was addressing was obvious, she said.
In the conference room, resting on the table in front of Boyd, housed in a wooden frame was the picture of a young, brown-haired man, with globs of ice frozen to a short beard. The photograph is of her son Seth, who died four years ago in 2010, when he was killed in a plane crash, she said.
Seth was 29 years old, “an adventurer, poker player, fly fishermen and lover of beautiful women.” She characterized the event as “very sudden” and “very traumatic.”
“I was shocked at how visceral losing a child is,” Boyd said. “It is like an umbilical chord attached to you, something’s physically missing afterward.”
To her left, Herrmann had a handful of framed and paper photographs of her daughter Jenna who died in a car wreck outside Soldotna. On the top of the pile was the small pamphlet that had been made for the funeral service.
The three-year anniversary of Jenna’s death is on Jan. 9, 2015, Herrmann said. She said she still has a relationship with her daughter, and the Compassionate Friends support group is a place where she can discuss what that interaction now means to her.
Herrmann can still remember the feel of holding Jenna against her breast, and that she always held one eye shut if someone was taking a photograph of her.
For Garcia, the group is one place she can spend time processing the death of her daughter, who died 24 years ago after combating a brain tumor.
“She woke up one day to go to the bathroom, and then she never woke up again,” Garcia said. “We were told she was brain dead. I still imagine what she would be like today.”
As the women talked, each expressed thought was acknowledged or expanded on by one another. Occasionally, Boyd would wipe the wet skin underneath the rims of her glasses with her fingers.
Hill said people need a place to be able to talk immediately after losing a child.
Hill said it took a long time to make the choice to move forward after her daughter Amy died of an asthma attack the day before Mother’s Day 15 years ago. For a period of time, she said she blamed herself.
“You have to have a place where you can go and talk to people who understand you area not crazy,” Hill said. “You still need that support.”
Zuck said with the unpredictable variety of emotions, and changes in family dynamics following Amber’s death, she sometimes felt as though she was going crazy. Having people to talk to gauge how much of that is a reality has been essential for her.
After Zuck’s daughter Amber died in a car accident in 2007 she would spend so much time in her old bedroom, the family sold their “dream house,” just to move on.
“It is important to know everyone is on their own journey,” Hill said.
Since the group has all been going through the grieving process for a long time, they have some insight into productive ways for dealing with grief, Herrmann said. She wants to help people realize what she had to learn, which is that it is possible to live through the death of a child.
There are about seven men that attend the meetings, which is important because men and women grieve differently, Hill said.
Saturday, the group also spent time talking about the logistics of outreach and if they should change the starting time for the meetings. Starting in January the meetings, which are held on the fourth Tuesday of every month, will start at 6 p.m. in the library community room.
“It is a pretty sacred space,” Boyd said.
The meetings are open to parents, step-parents, foster parents, siblings and mothers who have had a miscarriage or stillbirth, Boyd said. The group hosted their first candle lighting vigil at Christ Lutheran Church of Soldotna on Dec. 14, which also had a strong turnout, the group said.
“As a parent this is not the right order,” Hill said. “You try to find a ‘new normal’ but things will always still blindside you.”
Zuck said she wants the Compassionate Friends to help people feel hopeful.
No one is alone in dealing with the death of a child and there is a way to honor and remember that relationship, Hill said.
“Every time I go, I leave feeling comforted,” Herrmann said.