The Compassionate Friends: Understanding and support for grieving parents and families

ABC Radio Sydney, by Linda Mottram and Matthew Bevan 11 May 2015.

How do you talk to the grieving parent of a dead child?

There is a “conspiracy of silence” when children die in our society, says a visiting bereavement expert. And we no longer have the time or the understanding of death that enables us to deal with parental or sibling grief, in particular.

That failure, says Canon Reverend Dr Simon Stephens, a British Anglican priest and founder of the support organisation The Compassionate Friends, extends beyond individuals to government and religious institutions.

“Doctors, clergy and the caring professions still don’t know how to adjust to the news that a child has died,” Reverend Stephens told 702 ABC Sydney.

“So frequently we hide behind easy words. I think one of the indictments of the Church is that men and women say that ‘your child is safe in the arms of God’. When the church says they’re safe elsewhere, that’s no comfort at all,” he said.

Rev Stephens is in Australia on a speaking tour to support the work of The Compassionate Friends, which has a network of support groups around the state and the country and has been operating in Australia for almost 40 years.

When Rev Stephens joined 702 Mornings, callers generously shared their experiences and agreed that even good friends were apt to stay away at the news of such deep sadness in a family.

“One of the hardest things we find as a family is people don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything,” said Melanie from Bayview, whose 17-year-old daughter died just over four years ago.

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“They stay away. They don’t come to visit. They don’t call. If I see them in the shopping centre they say ‘I’m so sorry, I wanted to ring you, but I didn’t know what to say’,” she said.

“I’ve had three friends get married in the last couple of years, and we weren’t invited to the wedding, and I think it’s because they can’t tolerate our sadness.”

Melanie acknowledged that people want to make you feel better.

“I don’t want to be made to feel better, because that would be denying the existence of my daughter,” she said.

“Please just listen to how sad I feel and allow yourself to just tolerate that sadness just for a short while. You can go home to your family and you don’t have to feel sad anymore. I can’t ever do that,” she said.

Steve from Wedderburn is still grieving 30 years after his first-born son was stillborn at 39 weeks on Mother’s Day in 1985.

He remembers platitudes like ‘life goes on’ but no real understanding.

“I think it’s such a horror for everybody, the thought of losing a child. People are frightened of catching it,” Steve said.

“It goes away, but of course every Mother’s Day it comes back,” he said, speaking one day after Mother’s Day.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” he said.

Rev Stephens says listening is the key to support for a bereaved parent or sibling, as he reflected on how he came to begin The Compassionate Friends organisation.

“I was a junior hospital chaplain many years ago. In our hospital we had a flu epidemic and we saw 30 children die in ten days,” he said.

“Then two families came together, one family had a child who was dying of cancer, the other family had a child die in a car accident, and I was able to see there was chemistry between the two families.”

“They had found somebody else who was going through the same thing, someone who could hold their hand, and listen to their story time and time again,” he said.

And he is critical of the use of prescription tranquillisers for grief.

“People hide behind tranquillisers and one day they have to wake up and they find they’re still bereaved,” he said.

The healing process after the death of a child takes years.

Sally from the Northern Beaches, whose son was killed as a toddler by a four-wheel drive, said while friends and family may be able to move on, for the parents of a dead child the grief may never end.

“One of the biggest things I learned from that experience is that you never, ever, ever get over it,” Sally said.

“I have four children. It’s coloured the parenting I’ve done with those children. A lot of it has been guilt-ridden, over-protecting.

“I found there was the initial sympathy of people, with the cards and attendance at the funeral, then the wake afterwards, which I found obscene actually – it was like a party.

“After about four to six weeks they’d all gone back to their own homes and their own families,” she said.

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