Facing Death Together

Giving support to a parent who has lost their child "is the most intense emotional work a person is called to do in their life," says Sue Hendricks, co-ordinator of the Durham Region Chapter of Bereaved Families of Ontario.

"The loss of a child forces you to re-examine everything you thought your life was going to be about."

As one of 16 such groups across Ontario, the chapter offers help to local parents who've lost a child through death - help which they couldn't get anywhere else.

"All the people who work for Bereaved Families do so in a volunteer capacity and are also people who have lost children (and) have been through the program," Ms. Hendricks points out.

She lost her daughter in a car accident and sought assistance from the Metropolitan Toronto chapter before she helped establish a group in Durham eight months ago.

The focus of the organization is on self-help groups of six to ten people who meet weekly for 12 weeks.

"The greatest way you can finally come to terms with what's happened," Ms. Hendricks says, "is simply by telling your story - to find support in knowing that you are not alone."

The perspective of the group members is something a bereaved parent can't get from friends and relatives. Often, a friend will not know how to deal with the situation.

"After about six months, people begin to think (you) should be getting over (it), and the aprents feel really isolated. By finding other people who can share the same experience and validate your feelings, it establishes a normalcy to life," says Ms. Hendricks.

And there are already signs of people's lives having been turned around thanks to the support of Durham Bereaved Families chapter.

A mother who lost a duaghter in an accident and turned to Bereaved Families "has been able to go back to work," Ms. Hendricks reports. "She's volunteer her time to the organization and brought other (bereaved parents) into it."

Another woman who "had not really spoken about her grief to anybody" is now able to discuss her feelings and has made new friends within the group.

"It shows that she's coming out of her depression. And this seems to be (the result of) meeting other women with whom she could share her experience."

Marian and Michael Rehr, now facilitators with the local organization, lost their son four years ago, and went through the group process with the Toronto chapter.

Ms. Mehr says "meeting those other mothers gave me the hope I needed. Life is not a hundred per cent right without our son, but at least we're surviving. We're trying to make a new life. And I wasn't able to do that before I met them."

She says members of Bereaved Families "form a bond that's very important to get you out of what seems like a bottomless pit. Slowly but surely you're re-entering everyday life."

As one of the originators of the Durham chapter, Ms. Rehr says a grieving parent doesn't "have the stamina to go to Toronto." Thus a local group came into being.

As a faciliator, the work can be exhausting.

"You hear all those sad stories," she says, "and you're reliving your own experience."

A rewarding aspect of both sides of the group process is the new friends that are made.

"Who else after four years is going to sit with me (and listen)?" Ms. Mehr asks.

Ms. Hendrics has also maintained close contact with friends from the Toronto chapter.

"It provided me with a group that I could phone up and just say 'It's really been an awful day' and I don't have to explain what it is I'm feeling. Another bereaved parent just knows, because they've lived it."

How has the group changed her life?

"I decided to go back to school (which) was certainly a result of processing the grief. It really makes you know what it is you value, and what you want to do with the time remaining because life is precious."

- by Stephen Lategan, Friday July 15, 1994.