It's the time of year when most of us are kicking it up in high gear to get everything done: tree trimming, shopping, decorating, cookie baking, card writing and the list goes on. I was beginning to feel the frantic nature of the season recently until I spent several hours talking with members of The Compassionate Friends (TCF).
The national group, which has a Fort Wayne chapter, provides support to families after the death of a child. On Sunday, members of the group, their friends and family joined at First Presbyterian Church for a candle lighting service, an annual event TCF sponsors across the nation.
TCF members have given me a new perspective of the season, causing me to be more reflective and appreciative of the loved ones in my life, and to have a better understanding of the challenges the bereaved face at this time of year.
No matter where the bereaved person is in the grief process, and no matter how long ago the death of their child or the circumstances of the death, the parents, grandparents and older siblings are welcome. Some are referred to the group by hospitals or a funeral home. Some, like Joe Annis, come to TCF reluctantly at the outset.
Annis' sister, Katie, died unexpectedly of heart failure on July 8. His parents started attending TCF first and asked Joe to join them for the October TCF meeting. October was Katie's birth month. She would have been 24 this year. At TCF meetings, families are encouraged to share about the child they have lost during the child's birthday month.
“I thought, 'Do I really want to do this kind of thing?'” Annis, 29, says. “I really didn't want to go, but went to support my parents.”
At the time, “I was having tons of problems, mostly because I felt like I had to be the strong one in the family,” he says. “I watched my parents crumble, watched my sisters crumble. I felt I had to be that person who held everyone together. Because of that, it was hard for me to grieve.”
He expected to sit quietly and stoically, but surprisingly found the words and pent-up feelings poured out.
“I balled my eyes out that night,” he says. Sharing his pain and perspective helped others.
“The question I always get from people is, 'How are your parents doing?' followed by, 'I can't imagine what they're going through,'” says Annis, who is a nurse and medical informatics specialist at St. Joseph Hospital. “People say there's no love you'll ever feel like that for a child. Well, I loved my sister. I know my sister loved me. I wanted people to understand that.”
His words helped others, too.
“The biggest thing out of that meeting was that there was only one other person there who was a sibling” he says. “I think it helped the parents there see what their children were feeling.”
Healing takes time
Michelle Amstutz is further along in her grief process. Still, the wounds of losing her son Josh at age 22 are raw.
Certain things trigger tears, even though it has been more than five years since Josh died in a motorcycle-truck accident in rural Fort Wayne. Amstutz and her husband, Keith, are TCF Fort Wayne Chapter leaders.
“The first year you are so numb,” she says.. It's hard to grasp that this is the life you are living. Then you start to thaw. You realize you are among the living and that you must go on, but as a parent you feel guilty that you're still here.”
Even when grieving parents or siblings begin allowing themselves bits of happiness, “You think you should be feeling pain. You want to feel pain. It takes a while to learn that it's OK to be happy again,” Amstutz says.
Some turn to harmful ways of coping — alcohol, withdrawal, lashing out, for example. TCF does not replace professional help, but aids bereaved families in positive resolution of their grief. TCF also provides community education for employers, professionals and anyone impacted by the death of a friend's or loved one's child.
Some who contact the group may never attend a meeting in person but find help via emailing members and through TCF educational materials.
For Amstutz and her family, the annual candle lighting ceremony is a soothing balm at an especially difficult time of year.
“We dread September through the end of December,” she says.
September was the month Josh died. November was his birthday — and now songs on the radio ring out phrases such as, “It's the most wonderful time of the year.”
“Keith and I knew people who had lost children, but we could never comprehend the intense pain,” Amstutz says. “It's like you're stabbed in the heart, or your arm is cut off. Grief is like a chronic illness. I feel like I'll always be a bereaved parent. We're changed people.”
This Thanksgiving was the first one without Katie for Annis and his family. Though she was not at her usual place at the table, he wanted to acknowledge her, to remember the joy she brought and not to ignore the elephant in the room.
“When we were saying grace before dinner, I said something about Katie,” he explains. “I wanted to get it out there, to mention her.” He finds comfort when people talk about Katie rather than avoid her name.
“I have many, many days when I'm angry. I have absolutely terrible days,” he says, adding TCF is helping him get through, as is his faith in God. “It's OK to question God and stuff, but you've got to get that stuff out. People are afraid to feel good again, but you have to move on. You have to make new memories.
“Katie would want that.”