One by one they spoke: "I'm Barbara Kalivas. My 15-year-old son was killed in a gun accident three years ago."

"I'm Rita Rucker and this is my husband Jerry. Our 21-year-old son was killed in an automobile accident in August 1979."

"I've managed to integrate may mothers's death, my father's death and my husband's death, but I can't seem to get over the death of my child, and that's why I'm here," said one mother.

They had come to a meeting of Compassionate Friends to share their grief with others who had experience a similar loss and to seek -- and give -- comfort. They wanted to talk about being unable to get up in the morning, about wanting to scream and throw things to relive the pain.

There were 27 people, all parents who had lost a child, sitting in a circle. They had heard about the group from friends or newspaper articles describing the group sessions where bereaved parents can talk about their child's death, a loss close friends and relatives often sympathize with but cannot really understand.

Compassionate Friends, founded in the United States in 1972, is a nationwide organization for people whose children have died through illness, accident, murder or suicide. The organization, which is nondenominational, nonprofit and urn, for the most part, by parents who have lost children, will convene its fourth annual conference April 3 in Baltimore.

The Washington group, headed by the Rev. Paul Edwards of Wheaton, is one of 231 loosely knit chapters, including 104 chapters formed in the last two years. The groups, whose average membership is 30 people each, usually meet once a month and membership is free.

"In past times you lived in a community with most of your relatives. Now, with greater mobility, you begin to depend solely on your friends," says Marion Bolster, who is administrative director at the group's national headquarters, near Chicago.

In this area, there are groups in Falls Church, at Quantico Marine Base and in Washington. All are open to anyone, no matter where they live, and meeting days are staggered to allow parents to attend sessions more than once a month.

Lila Edwards, who heads the Washington chapter with her husband, says they learned about Compassionate Friends from a magazine article just after their 17-year-old son died in a car accident.

"At that time we were screaming for help and had no one we could talk to," Edwards said. They contacted a Florida couple featured in the magazine story who had imported the concept of a support group for bereaved parents from England, where it originated in 1969.

The Washington chapter first met in 1977 at the Edwardses' home in Wheaton. Since then, the chapter has grown from the six people to about 30.

The group meets for two hours each month in a church basement on River Road in Northwest Washington.

After introductions, the only structured part of the meeting, Paul Edwards urges members to talk about anything relating to the deaths of their children.

A lengthy silence ensues. Gently, Edwards prods one couple: "Today is the six-month anniversary of your son's deaths. How do you feel?"

"You lose track of time. I didn't realize it had been six months. In a year I'll probably still feel sad. It will always be there," one of the parents responds.

The couple is experiencing what most members agree is the most devastating part of the grieving process, a period of two years in which the parent gradually feels less obsessed and overwhelmed by the grief. The full weight of the loss is not felt for six months, just about the time friends and relatives expect parents to be recovering, says Rita Rucker of Bethesda.

"During the first couple of weeks after the death, parents are usually in shock, and think they are handling things okay," Rucker says. "Then things get worse."

Terry McCrary says although her child died almost a year old, there are still times when she feels she cannot function. She feels silly asking to leave work because she fears coworkers may think she is carrying things to extremes, she says. McCrary, who lives in Lanham, says she plans to take off from work on what should have been a happy occasion, her child's birthday.

The death of a child defies the natural life-and-death cycle. A seemingly inexplicable and irrational event quashes hopes for the future and leaves parents feeling empty, angry and unable to cope with an unexpected loss in their lifetimes, said Jerry Weiner, chairman of the department of Psychiatry of Behavioral Science at George Washington University.

In our culture, he says, groups like Compassionate Friends may be a kind of ritual that can replace the type of traditions that once gave so much to the grief-stricken. The Irish wake, for instance, enveloped families, giving them the comfort and support of an extended community.

"Loss is the antecedent to a whole lost of emotional and physical illnesses," says Weiner. "The group makes perfect sense."

Many members of Compassionate Friends stay on after they have recovered from their grief, to help newcomers with the agony a child's death brings.

"We find you get a new circle of friends because you feel other people don't understand," says Fran Nathanson of Bethesda. She and her husband Kenneth have been with the Washington group five years. They also are active in seeking stiffer penalties for drunken drivers, Nathanson said, which is their way of trying to bring good from a painful experience. Their 14-year-old daughter was killed in 1975 in a wreck involving an drunken driver whose license had been suspended.

At group meetings, philosophical and religious questions are addressed. Some parents find comfort in faith, and the belief that they will see their children in an afterlife. Others simply try to live with their loss.

"I just remember my daughter and I don't believe I will see her in heaven," said one father. I envy those who can."

There are three chapters of Compassionate Friends in the Washington area.

Tysons Chapter, meets at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Falls Church; phone, 941-3747.

Quantico Chapter, meets at Quantico Marine Base; phone, 640-7372.

Washington Chapter meets at River Road Presbyterian Church on River Road NW; phone, 229-8986.