BRANDON — They gather monthly, a group of strangers whose ties are quickly forged. Their meetings would have been better left unrealized — for they are predicated by the death of a child.
More important, they come to find hope in the promise that with each passing day their grief might be lifted just a little — just enough — to get them through their darkest moments.
The Compassionate Friends group that meets monthly at The Regent in Riverview, like other chapters nationwide, is founded on the premise that for “those who mourn the loss of a child, at all ages and for many different causes,” they “need not walk alone.”
The grief support group for parents, grandparents and adult siblings was founded nationally by Simon Stephens.
“The first time I came, it was last year in July,” said Molly Liff, whose 4-year-old son, Jackson Hayden, suffered from an autoimmune disease and died from an infection on June 4, 2013.
“I came to the meeting and heard a woman talking, who said when she first lost her child, she would go walking at night without her ID because she didn’t care if anything happened to her,” Liff said. “This woman said she went through different phases. She’d start to take her ID, and her flashlight, and then one day she said, ‘Yeah, I’m not walking by myself at night anymore.’”
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In the room with her at the August meeting was Marilyn Andreatta, whose 18-year-old daughter, Maggie, died in a skydiving accident in 2002. Two years later, her 34-yer-old son, Justin, died from a handgun accident.
“I didn’t think lightning could strike twice but it did,” said Andreatta, whose son died three days after Liff’s son. “I can’t speak for Molly, but I know the pain I feel, and listening to the people in the group it seems to be the same. It’s like someone has stabbed you in the stomach and the knife just keeps turning at different times of the year. At holidays, at their birthdays, at our birthdays.”
Her faith, she said, helps her get through her darkest moments, as does her association with The Compassionate Friends, which in Riverview is open to parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and anyone else who is mourning the death of a child.
“It’s like the credo, ‘You’ll never walk alone,’” Andreatta said. “Basically, we’re all in this together.”
Debbie Rivera, of Brandon, founded the local gathering of The Compassionate Friends group that meets at HCC at The Regent. It’s a multi-use facility owned by Hillsborough Community College, which includes four classrooms and two computer labs on the lower level, as a satellite location for the Brandon campus.
“The reason I started this chapter is because I knew I had to heal in some way,” said Rivera, whose son, Patrick Jernigan, died in a car accident March 5, 2011. “The only way I knew how to do it was to try to help others who have lost a child.”
Lots of things in life are unpredictable, “and this is one of those things,” she added. “Losing a child is not something you know is going to happen. It’s not in the right order of things. And then it hits you. It takes over your whole life and you become changed forever. I go through periods of time when I’m fine and I go through periods when I’m not fine. Sometimes it’s just hard to get up in the morning. Grieving is a continual process.”
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Dede Clinch at the August meeting said her pain was still fresh, with the death of her 35-year-old son in February.
“He decided to try heroin for the first and last time,” she said. “I’ve gone through the shock, the anger and now I can’t cry. I’ve tried really hard to cry and it’s not working. It’s just a stage, I think. Sometimes I feel like a bad mother because I can’t cry for my son.”
Yet around her neck she wears a chain that holds a glass stone, in which some of her son’s ashes have been encapsulated.
It helps, too, she added, to be able to meet with The Compassionate Friends in Riverview.
“I wouldn’t be able to work, or leave the house hardly, if it wasn’t for these meetings,” Clinch said. “People here understand what I’m going through and I don’t feel so lost.”
The Compassionate Friends meets the first Thursday of the month, from 7 to 9 p.m., at HCC at The Regent, at 6437 Watson Road in Riverview. For information, call Debbie Rivera at (813) 662-7595. Send an email to tampa [email protected]
For more on The Compassionate Friends and its national chapters, visit www.tampabaycompas sionatefriends.org.