Local support group forms to help grieving parents

One of life’s greatest joys is the joy of being a parent. To lose a child brings unfathomable sorrow.

The loss of a child is not something everyone experiences or even something that most people can understand. That is why three Braham High School graduates decided to come together and form a support group for bereaved parents.

The group is the first of its kind in the area. The East Central Minnesota Chapter of the international Compassionate Friends Organization will offer parents who have lost children an opportunity to share their experiences with other grieving parents.

On May 16 the group will hold its first meeting. Meetings will be held at the Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Braham at 7 p.m. every third Thursday.

“People want you to get better, and with the death of a child, it doesn’t happen as quickly. You never get over it, you just learn to live with it,” said Debbie Johnson, who is the president of the local chapter and has experienced the loss of two children.

The group is open to any grieving parents, grandparents or siblings who have lost a child. People are encouraged to come as they are, whether that be as a newly bereaved parent or a seasoned bereaved parent. Parents can share the loss of their child no matter what the age or reason for the loss of their child may be.

For more than 40 years, the nonprofit has provided a network of support for families who share in the grief of losing a child.

“Part of the journey with a loss of a child is that it is so unique and so intense that people who have not lost a child really cannot even relate,” Johnson said. “So that would be my hope up here to give that experience of sharing experiences and just to know you don’t have to walk it by yourself.”

Johnson is joined by Shanon Held and Theresa Hasbrook who have each also lost a son of their own.

The women noticed a lack of support for grieving parents locally and decided a support group for bereaved parents was desperately needed.

Together Johnson, Held and Hasbrook have worked over a six-month period to organize a local Compassionate Friends support group.

“People do it differently,” Johnson said. “It’s a unique loss and a unique journey. One of the things they teach us in the support group is if it feels right, do it, if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to please anyone on this journey.”

A part of what the group hopes to provide is an opportunity for parents to talk about their children in a place that allows them to share stories and memories without feeling the need to mask or minimize their emotions.

“It gives them an opportunity to talk about their child and it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to laugh, it’s OK,” Held said.

Johnson said the loss of a child is a discussion that many people who have not experienced such a loss are uncomfortable with.

“We learn to talk around our children’s death often, how to not trigger the tears, but they are always there,” Johnson said.

She said the purpose of the Compassionate Friends Organization is to encourage conversations that keep the spirit of deceased children alive.

“To say their name and to not have what we call a conversation stopper,” said Johnson of the importance for parents to be able to speak about their deceased children, “It brings some normalcy to a really unique and horrific experience.”

Held looks forward to be able to share the life of her son.

“I’m excited to say his name. It gives us our time,” she said.

The group will be servicing a large geographical area that includes Isanti, Chisago, Pine, Kanabec and Mille Lacs counties.

Bereaved parents are encouraged to join the group without the fear that they will be judged or cannot be honest about their experience.

“People grieve so differently,” Johnson said. “There may be five stages of grief, but they are all over the board.”

One thing that the group will provide is a common understanding that the grief of a parent is never over. Nothing is ever quite the same.

“That first step is really hard in every capacity for a grieving parent,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s going to a grocery store or paying bills. All of these things that are mundane and easy and rote just become a huge challenge.”

The group does not provide therapy, but its support can offer grieving parents a healthy and safe outlet for sharing their grief and the lives of their lost children.

“I think it will be interesting for newly bereaved parents,” Held said. “It’s not only what the women feel, it’s what men feel, too.”

Bringing in pictures and mementos of deceased children is something the group encourages.

“It keeps them alive in our heart,” Johnson said.

A quarterly newsletter will be distributed to group members and will acknowledge children’s birth dates and death dates as a way of remembering their lives.

“One of the things that is important to know is that you will get through it,” Johnson said. “When you are in those beginning stages of grief of the loss of a child, you don’t think you’re going to make it, you don’t know how you are going to make it. That doesn’t mean I don’t have days in my bed still; I have more days that are better.”

Held expresses that same sentiment.

“You aren’t supposed to bury your children,” she said.

People are all connected to one another for one reason or another. That’s something this group believes in.

Johnson said it is beneficial to forge a connection with people who have walked in your shoes, yet see from different eyes.

“Come and share coping strategies. To take that step … you don’t have to do this walk by yourself. You don’t have to walk alone,” Johnson added.