As a bereaved mother and a first-time attendee at The Compassionate Friends 43rd National Conference, I felt an immediate connection to those who presented workshops and fellow attendees. In my daily life, I rarely am in contact with people who have suffered the loss of a child. In fact, even people I know well rarely talk about my daughter Elizabeth who died at age fourteen. So, it was comforting, even in a virtual setting, to be in the ‘company’ of individuals who understood the struggles, the broken dreams, and the despair that accompanies great loss. And, in contrast, it was uplifting to listen to parents, siblings, and grandparents who have discovered hope, new beginnings, and even gifts on their grieving journey.
I thought it would be wise to select a variety of workshops. The first workshop I listened to was “Connecting and Coping: Loss to Cancer,” which spoke to my experience of losing a child to cancer. I was instantly moved by the mother’s memories of being by her son’s side as he received months of chemotherapy treatments; the anxiety that wrapped around every major, heartbreaking decision; and her devastation after the death of her son. At the same time, I was impressed by the many coping tools she discovered during her time of grieving.
To further my understanding from a sibling’s perspective, I listened to the “Sibling Panel for Parents.” Siblings spoke to parents about the different ways that they coped after their brother’s or sister’s death—frequently with anger, denial, guilt, and sometimes with substance abuse. Siblings shared how they sought help from others but frequently not from their parents. Siblings also shared that they struggled seeing their parents grieving and that frequently, they felt obligated to lessen their parents’ grief. One sibling shared different ways that she learned not to carry this burden. Siblings also enlightened their audience about the challenges of ‘helicopter’ parents. This presentation gave me a greater awareness of siblings’ struggles, and how I as a parent to a surviving sibling, I can explore new avenues for communication and understanding.
One other session I was drawn to was “Coping with Holidays, Milestones, and Special Occasions.” I listened to the bereaved father speak about what he found so hard on these special days and found myself nodding my head in agreement. It often is the anticipation of a holiday without your beloved child that is harder than the actual day; sometimes special occasions blindside us like when we see a sign that says, High School Graduation today, and we realize that our son or daughter should have been graduating; sometimes it’s your extended family’s expectations that seem untenable after your child has died.
The presenter, a bereaved father, had many good ideas for making holidays more bearable. Some of these ideas were: 1) Make a plan. Before the holiday think about what you can handle and what you can’t. It may mean changing a tradition with extended family but if what you’ve done in the past isn’t right for the present excuse yourself from the holiday gathering, and make a plan that feels right for you. 2) Make an ‘escape plan.’ Have a discussion with your extended family letting them know that you may not be able to stay with them for the entire holiday if it gets too difficult. The presenter reiterated, “Take care of yourself and your family first.”3) Do something for others. Make a donation to a worthy cause in memory of your child or contribute time or funds to help those who are less fortunate. All of these suggestions can make holidays and special occasions more tolerable.
I also decided to expand my horizons and listen to “The Gifts of Grief.” The presenter discussed ways that unexpected gifts can surface even while grieving. She spoke of the gifts of true friends who sit by your side never wavering in their support of you; the gift of courage that you give yourself when you attend a Compassionate Friends’ meeting or another support group; the gift of hope that you can make it through the horrible days and that there is a possibility of renewed joy in your life; and the gift that you may have become a more compassionate and caring person. Listening to these different perspectives gave me hope on my long trail of grieving and healing.
In the virtual company of fellow bereaved parents, grandparents, and siblings whether they were presenters or attendees, I felt supported and at ‘home.’ I’ll definitely sign up for next year’s 44th TCF National Conference to be held in Detroit from July 9-11, 2021.
If you were a participant or presenter in the conference and would like to listen to more workshops, log into the conference website or app, find the session you are interested in, and select “Watch Recording.”
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