I have been honored to serve as President of The Compassionate Friends’ National Board of Directors. After six years of service, I now leave this all-volunteer board confident in our leadership’s commitment to expand TCF’s outreach to grieving families nationwide. Every dedicated board member I have been privileged to serve with understands the agony of grief, having suffered heartbreaking losses of their own precious children and/or siblings or grandchildren. Each year Chapter Leaders, delegates, and Regional Coordinators across the country elect board members from a slate of approved candidates. Any bereaved parent, sibling and/or grandparent is eligible for consideration as a candidate in board elections. This process ensures TCF’s leadership has a constant infusion of creative ideas and fresh perspectives.
It seems like yesterday when our beautiful nineteen-year-old daughter, Tiffanie Amber, died of bacterial meningitis. Having just finished her exams, she looked forward to her junior year challenges at Clemson University. Tiffanie loved her family, friends, and was excited about her future.
After graduation, she hoped to continue her studies with aspirations of becoming an occupational therapist. As a newly licensed aerobics instructor, Tiffanie kept herself in great physical condition. She never hesitated to lecture her father about my poor eating habits. Like so many TCF families we’ve met over the years, our hopes and dreams for our daughter were limitless.
Those dreams were crushed over one torturous weekend. Prior to leaving campus, Tiffanie was treated at the school clinic for a sore throat. She seemed vibrant and healthy after arriving home, but the next morning Tiffanie began experiencing flu-like symptoms. She was taken to a local hospital and admitted into the Intensive Care Unit. Tiffanie’s inexplicable death two days later from bacterial meningitis left our family shocked, devastated, and emotionally suffocating. It seemed impossible to imagine our lives or our family without Tiffanie. As my wife, Kathy, searched for ways to comfort our young sons, David and Christopher, she grew increasingly depressed and withdrawn. While I did my best to comfort my family, privately I struggled with persistent thoughts of suicide. Logical thinking offers little deterrence when dying seems preferable to living with such intense anguish.
After being referred to a local Compassionate Friends chapter, Kathy expressed a sudden willingness to venture away from the isolation of our home for a meeting. My long police career shaped many of my attitudes, especially the view that “cops don’t do support groups.” No matter how traumatic a police officer’s experiences, my generation of law enforcement was taught to “just suck it up!”
Kathy and I soon found ourselves in a church parking lot discussing whether “she” could attend a TCF meeting alone. Suddenly a young man knocked on my car window inquiring, “Are you here for the Compassionate Friends meeting?” When I reluctantly acknowledged we were, Stu Schippereit, the Chapter Co-leader, introduced himself and coaxed us into the building. Inside we were met by his wife, Marianne, and a group of caring people who understood our pain and openly shared their heartbreaking experiences. I was struck by the realization these parents had also suffered the tragic deaths of their children. Yet somehow they had managed to survive. They discussed many issues Kathy and I were struggling to comprehend. We asked one question so often posed by newly grieving parents: “Does it ever get any better?” Their answer was an unequivocal “Yes!”
As these caring strangers described their individual survival paths, an amazing bond formed. Stu Schippereit never anticipated his parking lot rescue would drastically change our lives. Kathy and I began attending meetings at every chapter within reasonable driving distance. Each time we were amazed by the sheer compassion we received.
Those early TCF meetings gradually helped us to rediscover hope in our lives. We began to understand that while we will never “get over” Tiffanie’s death, we could learn to better manage our grief. We slowly grew stronger in the months and years that followed, thanks to emotional support from so many people. We began trying to pay that compassion forward by attending meetings to support other struggling families. Each time we comforted another devastated family, we felt closer to our daughter.
Five years after Tiffanie’s death, when a local TCF Chapter was near closure, Kathy and I joined Mary Ann Noble (Sean Stephen’s Mom) to become Chapter Co-leaders. We attended special workshops at the National Conference to prepare ourselves. When our first TCF meeting attracted only one person, we intensified our efforts to publicize the chapter. Our meeting size gradually increased along with our male participation. Whenever we brewed coffee, worked on a newsletter or performed a variety of other Chapter-related responsibilities, we discovered what every good Chapter Leader knows. These tasks are small acts of love dedicated to families struggling after the loss of their children, siblings or grandchildren.
TCF Chapters are the backbone of this organization. While every Chapter-related responsibility is important, three are especially critical. The first is having someone reliable answering or promptly returning phone calls. Whoever handles those initial inquiries must communicate hope and reassurance in his or her voice or callers may lose hope the meetings will help them.
Equally important are the volunteers positioned just inside each meeting room welcoming newly bereaved attendees.
It takes a combination of desperation and courage for a grieving parent, sibling or grandparent to walk into their first TCF meeting. Whether they stay or leave may be influenced by how they are received once inside. Lastly, it is crucial to have trained meeting facilitators, who ensure participants are given an opportunity to share their feelings, if and when they feel able to do so. Most Chapter Leaders perform some or all of these duties, at least initially. Kathy, Mary Ann, and I strived to become proficient in all of them.
One year after becoming a Chapter Co-leader, I volunteered as an internet chat moderator in TCF’s Online Support Community. After some training, I was paired with Nicole Rinehart of Warner Robins, Georgia. Nicole was a vibrant Chapter Leader who volunteered in memory of her beloved nine-month-old son Chase Preston Rinehart. We worked together on Monday nights for over four years to create a meeting-like experience for chat room visitors. These heartbroken people often had limited opportunities to attend an actual TCF meeting. Nicole and I hope we comforted as many people online, as those who touched our hearts along the way. It was a wonderful, challenging, and emotional experience.
By 2006, Mary Ann had relocated to Texas and started another Chapter. Our meeting attendance had increased to 35-40 people each month and our finances had improved, due mostly to Kathy’s fundraising efforts. We then attended a Chapter Leadership Training Program, where we were advised that five years is a critical point in managing a Chapter. The concern was that after five years, the membership begins to identify the Chapter personally with the individual leader. Since this can deter potential future leaders from stepping forward, it was recommended that five years was a good time to transition new leadership into a chapter. To this day, I question the wisdom of this advice, but I relied on it nonetheless. I immediately stepped down as chapter co-leader, while Kathy remained to assist as two volunteers assumed leadership roles.
We were surprised when invited to become Regional Coordinators for twenty Chapters in Virginia and the District of Columbia. Working with other Chapter Leaders to resolve a variety of issues proved to be a particularly rewarding experience. In that role, Regional Coordinators have the opportunity to witness as their dedicated Chapter Leaders touch the hearts of bereaved people in their communities.
Grieving families honor their loved ones in a multitude of meaningful ways, including planting trees, creating foundations or participating in TCF events. There is no greater example of this than TCF Executive Director Alan Pedersen. After the death of his beautiful daughter Ashley Marie, Alan sought comfort from a TCF Chapter in Littleton, Colorado. As a singer and songwriter, Alan began creating heartfelt lyrics capturing the pain and emotions of losing a child. Over the next decade, he personally visited over 300 TCF Chapters and other grief organizations bringing his message of love, hope, and survival to families across the country. Alan honored his beloved Ashley and the loved ones of every family he met along the way.
I vividly remember the absolute horror of the early days after Tiffanie’s death. This fueled my obsession to find some way to comfort struggling families during the worst times of their lives when desperation and hopelessness can seem overwhelming. I began drafting a survival guide to prepare grieving parents for the challenges they will face. My experience as a Chapter Co-leader, chat moderator, and Regional Coordinator provided keen insights into many issues facing newly bereaved families. In 2009, I published Holding Onto Love: Searching for Hope When a Child Dies with all profits to be donated to TCF. If I eventually sold a few books, I hoped to raise a few hundred dollars for TCF in the process. To my surprise, nearly eight hundred copies have been sold, raising more than three thousand dollars for TCF. As Tiffanie used to say, “Go figure!”
In 2009, I was elected to serve as a member of The Compassionate Friends National Board of Directors. Kathy and I also agreed to chair the 2010 National Conference in Arlington, Virginia. We were blessed to have a group of dedicated volunteers sharing our commitment to create a safe, healing experience for the 1,350 people who would attend. The relationships formed during that planning process will last a lifetime. In 2012, I was re-elected for a second board term culminating last July, when I became president.
Over the years, The Compassionate Friends has helped my family in many ways. In over 690 communities across this nation, dedicated Chapter Leaders and steering committee members volunteer their time, energy, and resources to comfort grieving families. Like police officers and firefighters, our Chapter Leaders really do save lives. I remember one in Virginia who definitely saved mine!
I have held many titles during my nineteen years in TCF, but the most important one is “Tiffanie’s Dad.” That cherished relationship drove me to get involved in this organization. It motivates me each day to do something ensuring our daughter is remembered. Bereaved families often worry their loved ones will be forgotten. Throughout the year, TCF provides many opportunities at the local, regional, and national level to honor our loved ones. Whether we are setting up meeting chairs or sponsoring a conference workshop, everything we do to support our Compassionate Friends families honors our own loved ones as well.
A few years ago I spotted a man in an amusement park wearing a tee shirt bearing photos of two teenage girls. The caption read, “My two beautiful angels.” I immediately approached and assured him they were beautiful. I then inquired, “Are they really angels?” He openly shared the tragic deaths of his beloved daughters in a car accident a few years earlier. He had attended TCF meetings for emotional support. We were surrounded by people laughing and having a great time, oblivious to two bereaved fathers standing on a corner. Although we were strangers, a special bond formed as we openly shared the heartaches and joys of our daughters’ lives. We were just two members of this amazing Compassionate Friends family ensuring that neither of us had to grieve alone that afternoon.
An amazing transformation often happens as part of The Compassionate Friends experience. Instead of attending support group meetings to help themselves, our members keep coming back to comfort others. After Tiffanie’s death, Kathy and I considered TCF a “place” we went for help in desperation. In the years that followed, “compassionate friends” became an integral part of who we are. When that happens, the meaning of “compassionate friends” goes beyond meetings, conferences, or walks. Rather, it affects how we live our lives comforting other grieving families. at really is the miracle of The Compassionate Friends.
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