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 managed to integrate my mother'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 the monthly meeting of the Washington chapter of Compassionate Friends to share their grief with others who had experienced 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 relieve pain.
There were 27 people -- couples and single parents -- sitting in a circle. They heard from friends or had seen newspaper articles about the group sessions where bereaved parents can talk about the loss of a child, a loss immediate 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 run, for the most part, by parents who have lost children, will convene in fourth annual conference in Baltimore on April 3.
The Washington group, headed by the Rev. Paul Edwards of Wheaton. is one of 231 loosely knit chapters, most of which are in large metropolitan areas. Chapters, with an average membership of 30, usually meet monthly; membership is free. During the past two years, 104 new chapters have been formed, attesting to the bereaved parent's need for open discussion and the emotional support of others who have felt the same kind of grief.
"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.
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 Time magazine story who had imported the concept of a support group for bereaved parents from England, where it orginated in 1969.
The first Washington chapter meeting took place in October 1977, at the Edwards' home in suburban Maryland. The chapter has grown from the six people who attended that first meeting to about 30.
This group meets for two hours in a basement room of the River Road Presbyterian Church, on River Road in Northwest Washington. Recently the group used a $400 donation to install a telephone listed under the organization's name.
After introductions, the only structured part of the meeting, Paul Edwards urges the members to talk about anything relating to the deaths of their children.
A lengthy silence ensues. Half of the assembled persons are smoking their second cigarette, 15 minutes into a meeting that began at 8 p.m. Four of them are clenching tissues drawn from pocketbooks lying open on the floor.
Edwards gently prods one couple: "Today is the six-month anniversary of your son's death. 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, a period during which friends and relatives expect the parents to be recovering, says Rita Rucker.
"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."
Indeed, Terry McCrary, a single mother, says although her child died almost a year ago, there are still times when she feels she cannot function. She feels silly asking to leave work because she fears co-workers may feel she is carrying things to extremes, she says. McCrary says she plans to take off from work what should have been a happy occasion, the date of her child's birth.
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 and Behavioral Science at George Washington University.
In our culture, he says, the group may be a kind of ritual for coping with death in the absence of something else that is no longer available. The Irish wake, for instance, gave a bereaved person the support of the extended community.
"Loss is the antecedent to a whole lot of emotional and physical illnesses," says Weiner. The group makes perfect sense."
In Atlanta, where the murders of 20 black children have incited national indignation, the parents of the victims have formed their own group.
At a fund-raiser last May for the families of cab drivers who had been killed, three of the bereaved parents met, exchanged phone numbers and vowed to stay in touch. Their chance meeting led to the formation of the Committee to Stop the Murder of Children, a network through which the murdered children's parents stay in touch and work to keep the issue in the public eye. Two Atlanta children remain missing.
"We feel a certain closeness because all of our children have been murdered," said Camille Bell, a founder of the committee. Her child, Yusef, was found strangled three days after he disappeared in October 1979.
The parents meet and talk at the committee's headquarters, not far from the housing projects and litter-strewn streets where most of them live Usually two or three parents can be found around the office, says Bell. There are no structured meetings.
In Washington, many members stay on after they have recovered from their grief, to help newcomers who fear they may never again feel normal or be able to laugh spontaneously.
"We find you get a new circle of friends because you feel other people don't understand," says Fran Nathanson. She and her husband Kenneth have been with the group for five years. They are also active in seeking stiffer penalties for drunken drivers, which is their way of making use of a painful experience, she said. Their 14-year-old daughter was killed the day after Christmas, 1975, in a wreck involving an intoxicated driver whose license had been suspended.
During the course of the meeting, questions of philosophy and religion are addressed. Some find comfort in believing in an after-life, and are sure they will see their children again.
Others just try to live with the loss.
"I just remember my daughter and I don't believe I will see her in heaven. I envy those who can," said one father.