Our story – TCF of Greater Newburyport, MA

In 1987, I lost my youngest son Robbie DeLibero, who was near-full-term stillborn, and in 2002, I lost my oldest son, Brent DeLibero, 21, in a motorcycle accident. Thank God, I still have my middle son, Brad DeLibero, who, at the inception date of this site is 25 and owns his own small restaurant (he was 4, then 19 when all this happened and he became a bereaved sibling and an only child). His brothers were my reason to start this; he is my reason for continuing this and other areas of my life.

I had a lot of loving support from family and friends and the trauma sent me on a spiritual journey, one in which I felt like I needed to act, to help others in a way that would also help me heal. A friend told me about The Compassionate Friends (TCF) organization that supported families after the loss of a child. I looked up the organization on-line and found that the nearest chapter was approximately an hour’s drive, so I called for the next meeting date. I needed to talk to other bereaved parents for my own sanity - they were already organized, and the people I spoke to on the phone were very sympathetic and welcoming. I headed out, but had a hard time finding it, and when I arrived the room was already overfull. There were more than 40 parents there, all telling their stories and by the time it got to me, I only had a minute to mention Robbie & Brent and was overwhelmed by all their sad stories – which affected me for a couple of days. However, after that, I still felt like I had to do something and thought that if I set something up more locally, I could somehow offer comfort as well as heal myself.

I began to reach out to other bereaved parents in the area to share our grief and experiences and to see if there was interest in having a local group to support each other. Coincidentally, I soon shared a table in a Café with a longer term bereaved parent couple. Then, six and seven months after my older son died, there were 2 teenage deaths in my town. One was my vetinarian’s 19-yearold’s son and the other was a friend-of-a-friend’s 16-year-old-daughter. Meanwhile, another bereaved mother, with whom I shared a mutual friend, reached out to me to see if I needed help. She’d run a local general grief group after her son died 8 years earlier and offered to help me. We talked about starting this group for local families, not sure whether we should do our own thing or start a TCF chapter. Meanwhile, I started finding myself in situations where I met other bereaved parents and somehow in the first few minutes of our conversation, we’d know. I can’t explain it, and it happened regularly – more than coincidence would allow for. I was running into bereaved parents in many situations – at restaurants, in vetinary emergency rooms, at gatherings, etc – it confirmed for me that I was meant to do this.

So I contacted the national TCF office and got the regional coordinator’s name, made an appointment for him and his wife (also bereaved parents) to visit and talk with our small group. A few of our parents agreed to be on our chapter steering committee, including a local Presbyterian pastor, whose son committed suicide. Others held roles of Treasurer, took on mailing newsletters, writing cards, making calls, organizing events and bringing refreshments or other tasks. I asked some other friends with grief related skills to be our advisory group, like an interfaith chaplain, a funeral director, a spiritual shaman who was twice a bereaved sibling, another pastor, etc. Then, we looked at four possible locations to hold monthly meetings, and chose the Immaculate Conception Parish Center, part of a local Catholic church with the nicest and roomiest setting which was free. It was important to us to be nondenominational so everyone felt welcome and it was a part of TCF requirements, if we went down that path. It was also important to keep costs low as we did not want to require any fees or obligations from the families.

In April of 2003, our group of parents met with the TCF regional coordinator and decided together that we should form a local TCF chapter rather than create an organic group of our own. The primary reason was to provide more resources to the bereaved families. TCF had a library of grief literature and brochures for different situations related to the loss of a child for many reasons. Their entire organization had the same purpose as our objective, plus they held regional and national conferences, chapter leadership instruction, had a web site with resources for bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings, opportunities for memorials, and online chat rooms plus a network of more than 600 chapters worldwide. They were founded in England, but most of their chapters were in the USA. These included a few chapters within 2 hours’ drive of Newburyport, in case our parents wanted to attend more than one meeting monthly or if other chapters fit their family schedule or personality better.

We filled out the paperwork to become a TCF non-profit chapter and held our first meeting in late May, 2003, within one week of the first year anniversary of my older son’s death. That meant a lot to me, to make it happen for his anniversary – a kind of tribute to him and in my mind, keeping a promise to him. We’ve just completed our 5th year of monthly meetings. Our meetings are informal, usually a small group of bereaved parents, grandparents or siblings – sometimes with friends or other family members for moral support. All are welcome and there are no ‘rules’ – it’s perfectly OK to cry, laugh, scream, yell and ‘get it out’ while receiving the sympathetic support of other people who’ve been through similar ordeals. We have a wide range of experiences among our families, including accidents, medical problems, homicide, suicide, drug overdose, drunk driving, carbon monoxide poisoning and more – there is no judgment here. We all do the best we can. Like myself, some of our parents’ marriages have failed, but it is not as common as the media would lead you to believe and we have a mix of that as well as single parents or estranged relationships with children… again, no judgments. Losing a child is the worst thing a parent can experience and we need all the help we can to get through it, especially from others who’ve been there and survived it. We often learn tips from each other that help. Sometimes there is a topic we discuss or a focus on getting through the holidays, but we make it whatever it needs to be for that set of parents at the time. We encourage openness, honestly and to respect everyone’s privacy, asking that our conversations not go outside that room. We even have ‘call anytime’ phone numbers.

In June 2003, we created our first simple 2-page tri-fold newsletter, which greatly expanded later, after our newsletter editor, Mary Sayward, joined the group in August and took it over. We now send an 8-page bimonthly newsletter to more than 100 families with helpful grief information and poems from many sources, a sibling page and a Love Page to remember our children’s birthdays and ‘Angel-versaries’ for that period.

Early on, I reviewed the obituaries in the local newspaper and sent cards to newly bereaved parents, then called them - but I got behind with my full time work and other commitments, including helping my son Brad through his first tough year at college after his brother died, and going through a divorce after 30 years of marriage. But I always cut out the obituary of any child before I discarded the paper and saved it, and we have now printed chapter sympathy cards with contact and monthly meeting information and we are catching up the backlog to notify bereaved parents, when we can find their addresses, in case they are interested in the use of a support group specifically for them. We always participate in the global annual candle lighting ceremony with TCF on the 2nd Sunday in December with our chapter ceremony. All the chapters light candles between 7-8 PM local time, forming a 24-hour candle memorial around the globe. We’ve added a Memory Tree to our ceremony for parents to personalize & hang ornaments too. In our five years as a chapter, with everyone’s help, we’ve been able to dedicate three physical memorials locally, as nice places for families to reflect. We have a Newburyport Waterfront park bench with a plaque to all our children, dedicated in December, 2004 (on the Merrimac river boardwalk, behind The Firehouse Center). We adopted an acre (#5 The Vegetable Garden) at Maudslay State Park and did a live butterfly release in July, 2007. Butterflies are a TCF mascot and a symbol of transition. The Maudslay administrative building has a list of adopted acres, indicating ours. Our third memorial is a beautiful shiny black granite bench in the courtyard of the Immaculate Conception, between the church and parish center, a peaceful place near our meetings.

I wanted to do something to commemorate our children and our chapter’s 5th anniversary this year, and got the idea from a newly bereaved mother, and a mutual friend, to create lanterns and do a Lantern Walk. We held a lantern making session with a group of parents & siblings in April, 2008, making extras for those who couldn’t participate. Then, we got city permission and did a Lantern Walk with several families, between our granite and waterfront benches on Memorial Day, 2008. Now, we are launching the 2nd part of our 5th anniversary memorial, our first chapter web site, where we can offer more local resources to parents and be easier to find when parents need us, plus we’ll link into the TCF national site. Another friend, Kathryn Carnovale, is creating this site for us plus she and her husband Mario are hosting it initially. She’s put in countless hours and created an amazing site with so much love, including quick access to local and national resources, a sanctuary to leave messages for our children and a special area for those who want to sponsor the site for a month. The sponsorship includes creation of a special online memorial (and helps us to fund our ongoing services). The site also serves as a way to access our newsletters on-line and see agendas and photos of past events. We hope it will give our families some comfort and an idea of what we do, so they can decide about participation if and when they need us – no strings attached.

My next step is to write a book about my experience as a multiple bereaved parent and the journey it’s taken me on – with the objective to help families who’ve lost a child on a broader basis than my local community. I’m just getting started and taking multiple writing classes and workshops, laying a foundation. My son Brad, even though it was not his interest, gave me a leather refillable journal six months after his older brother died. That has not only helped me tremendously in discovering how cathartic writing down your feelings are, but it will be wonderful input to the book from accurate memories. I hope to include some other parent’s stories, if they agree.

We are so lucky to have such wonderful people supporting us and in our chapter, where we support each other – as the TCF credo says: “We need not walk alone”. And after all this, helping these families has helped me to heal, and made me realize that my sons’ lives were truly a gift to me, not just a loss.

by Barbara J Hopkinson, 7/9/08