Compassionate Friends offers support for grieving parents

Dec 11, 2013
Theresa Kuykendall shows off a tattoo of her son, Andrew, who passed away in 2007.

Every Christmas, John Chapman Sr. hangs stockings for both his children. It’s one way that he keeps his son John’s memory alive during one of the toughest times of the year.

Chapman's son unexpectedly died in 2009 after unknowingly taking a lethal dose of Fentanyl.

The journey of dealing with the death of his only son has certainly been a difficult one for Chapman Sr.

“John was a great kid. I couldn’t have asked for a better son,” Chapman Sr. said.

When he began searching for support outside his family, he found a group called the Compassionate Friends Network, an international organization that helps provide comfort, hope and support for families grieving the death of a child at any age. However, he had to drive to Hendersonville or Asheville to attend meetings.

After realizing how important peer support has been in his healing process over the years, Chapman Sr. recently decided to start his own chapter of the Compassionate Friends for other grieving parents and family members in Haywood and other counties further west. He is currently awaiting the charter to make the local chapter official.

"The meetings helped me know that I wasn't crazy for feeling what I was feeling some days," he said.

The people who attend Compassionate Friends meetings are experiencing the same pain that comes along with grieving the death of a child or family member, which is why the meetings are so valuable, Chapman Sr. said. It’s a safe space where people can listen and talk or not say anything at all.

In a meeting last week that took place in a small room at Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church, Chapman Sr. and three grieving mothers gathered around a table just to talk. Just like each story of loss is different, each parent has a different way of coping with the pain.

“There’s no right or wrong way to do what you’re doing,” Chapman Sr. said to the small group. “But by listening to us you might find something that helps you.”

Tiffany Kyle, whose 8-year-old son Matt was accidentally run over and killed in 2010, wears a specially-made necklace with angel wings and her son’s picture on it. She also frequently visits the Friendship Reading Garden that was built in her son’s memory at Central Elementary School.

With a story similar to Chapman’s, Theresa Kuykendall lost her son, Andrew, also a Pisgah graduate to an overdose of methadone in 2007.

Though she still feels the devastation of life without her son, she has found her own ways to work toward healing. One of those is an intricate tattoo depicting a picture of Andrew on her forearm.

And when it comes to the most difficult times of the year, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, she decorates a special tree in memory of her son.

Kyle said each year on Matt’s birthday, she has a cake made with his picture on it and has a birthday party in his memory. All of the gifts and toys guests bring to the party are then donated to needy children.

Jessica Messer always wears a necklace with her daughter, Deslyn’s fingerprint on the front. Deslyn was 10 years old when she passed away this year, even though the doctors didn’t expect her to live past six months after she was born with hydrocephalus.

Whether it has been several years or very recent, the pain of loss remained for the parents in the room.

“I know she’s running and talking and she can see, but she’s not with me and I can’t see if she’s OK,” Messer said of her daughter.

Messer chose to work on Thanksgiving this year to avoid the first holiday without her daughter.

No matter how one parent chooses to cope with the death of their child, the meeting allows others to simply listen and say, “I’ve been there; I know what you’re going through.”

“We want to talk about our children,” Kuykendall said.

Joining the Compassionate Friends has been an important part of Kuykendall’s ongoing healing process, especially in the beginning. There were times when she wondered how she could ever go on with her life. But hearing others talk about losing their child helped her.

“It gave me hope that I could survive and see that other people had made it through,” she said. “It’s comforting just to be able to talk to people that know how you feel.”

Early on, Kyle also began attending Compassionate Friends meetings in Asheville and Hendersonville, but the drive was too long. She said she had always wanted to see the same type of meetings offered in Haywood County.

Being able to talk about their children is important, but they all agreed that they  love to hear others talk about them as well.

“It helps to know the memory is still there, that people haven’t forgotten about him,” Kyle said.

After sitting through her first meeting, Messer said it was a good experience, “just being able to talk to people who understand the feeling of missing.”

That’s what the goal of every meeting is, said Chapman Sr.

“Compassionate Friends is all about letting people know they don’t have to walk alone,” Chapman Sr. said.

Meetings are the first Thursday of every month and are open to anyone interested in attending. The next meeting will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 2 at Long's Chapel United Methodist Church in room 105 across from the fellowship hall.

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