The following column is excerpted from Sara Engram's book "Mortal Matters: When a Loved One Dies."
We expect parents to die before children. But when children precede their parents in death, the loss seems more unjust and harder to bear.
Nothing can change what we often perceive as the injustice of death. Yet as many grieving parents have learned, coming to terms with the death of a child can be easier when it is not done alone.
That is the purpose of The Compassionate Friends, a national network of support groups for families who have lost a child. The Compassionate Friends, generally known as TCF (the "T" is included to distinguish it from the Cystic Fibrosis organization), grew out of a British clergyman's experience as a hospital chaplain in the 1960s.
When Simon Stephen, a young Anglican priest, took up his post as assistant chaplain at a hospital in Coventry, England, he was distressed by the treatment given parents who had lost a child. They were simply handed their child's belongings in a paper bag, asked to sign the necessary papers and sent away to cope as best they could.
One day, however, when two young boys died in the same room, Rev. Stephen simply pulled back the curtains and let the two families grieve together. Later the families asked him to form a discussion group for bereaved parents.
The idea spread to the United States in 1971, and since then has grown into a network of about 600 chapters throughout the country. By 1977, TCF had a national board of directors and a national headquarters based in Oak Brook, Ill.
The primary focus for TCF chapters is on parents and siblings, but the groups also provide help for grieving grandparents. Chapters are generally autonomous, with the national headquarters providing guidance and a link to other groups.
The groups are based on seven general principles:
1. TCF offers friendship and understanding to bereaved parents.
2. TCF believes that bereaved parents can help each other toward a positive resolution of their grief.
3. TCF reaches out to all bereaved parents across artificial barriers of religion, race, economic class or ethnic group.
4. TCF understands that every bereaved parent has individual needs and rights.
5. TCF helps bereaved parents primarily through local chapters.
6. TCF chapters belong to their members.
7. TCF chapters are coordinated nationally to extend help to each other and to individual bereaved parents everywhere.
For more information about TCF groups in your area, contact The Compassionate Friends, P.O. Box 3696, Oak Brook, Ill. 60522-3696; (708) 990-0010.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.