Parents seek solace at a memorial Mass Coping: An annual gathering at a chapel in Western Howard County unites families dealing with their children's deaths.

March 30, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

The names are written neatly in blue ink, tucked inside the cover of a diary. They form a simple list, recording the names of children and the date their brief lives ended:

Jennifer, 1992. Scott, June 6, 1982. Matthew, October 1973. Ryan, Aug. 11, 1994. Twice, the families of these and other children have gathered at a small, white chapel in Western Howard County, seeking solace, healing and the words of parents coping with the same loss.

They will come together again today as St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church holds its third memorial Mass for parents who have lost a child. The service was created in 1995 after a string of deaths in Western Howard in recent years, some involving young people in the St. Michael's family, said Deacon Bill Fallon.

"We thought it would be good to try once a year to have a memorial Mass," said Fallon. "It's good therapy for the people. I think it's special."

Since its inception, the Mass has been organized by Linda Gasch, a St. Michael's member whose teen-age daughter Debbie died after a car accident in June 1989. She was a month shy of her 16th birthday.

Debbie, a Glenelg High School sophomore with a ready smile, was in a car with three friends heading back to school for cheerleading practice. As they turned onto Route 144 from Route 32, a milk truck hit their car. The other three girls lived, but Debbie died a few days later.

"It's an intersection I travel a lot," Gasch said. "I can't go by there without thinking about it."

Gasch said she found great comfort in her husband, Doug, her three other children -- Jennifer, Cindi and Doug -- and in God. The memorial service is designed to offer hope to families who are dealing with the same overwhelming grief, she said.

"They need encouragement that the pain they're in won't last forever," Gasch said. "It takes a long time. [But] the intensity, the intense horror lessens."

Like Gasch, some parents who attend the Mass have lost a child to an accidental death. Some have had sons or daughters who have committed suicide. Others are coping with a miscarriage or an abortion. And there are parents whose children are missing.

In addition to the Mass, a few parents offer personal testimony about their situation and how God helped them through, Gasch said. Colorful butterfly decorations are used as symbols of hope.

The children's names are recorded in the memorial diary.

"You want to do it because you see these other people in the same place you've been and you want to help them," Gasch said.

While the death of a loved one is never easy, the grief from losing a child can be especially difficult, said Carol Billett, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. For the past decade, Billett has helped organize an annual memorial service at the hospital for parents whose children have died there.

"It's out of the normal sequence of events," said Billett, who has worked with the pediatric hospice program at Johns Hopkins. "Your child's not supposed to die before you do."

In some ways, Billett said, a child's death also represents the death of the future; the proms, graduations and marriages that will never be.

"All those milestones -- high school graduations, all that stuff -- just constantly hit [parents] in the face," Billett said.

Gasch agreed. When another daughter married in September, it was hard not to think about Debbie and what she would have been doing, she said.

"With an adult, it's like they already lived so much of their life," Gasch said. "With a child, you have so many hopes and dreams for them and those dreams are never going to be fulfilled."

Gasch and Billett said that programs such as the one at Johns Hopkins or St. Michael's are therapeutic for people who might feel alone. At the Johns Hopkins service, parents acknowledge their children by saying their names aloud as a basket of flowers is passed around.

Gasch hopes the memorial service will give grieving families another source of support.

"I want people to know that they can get through this," Gasch said. "You will laugh again. You will have joy again."

The Mass begins at 7: 30 p.m. in the small, white church across the street from the large church at 1125 St. Michaels Road. It's open to people of all faiths. There will be testimonies and opportunities for individual prayer after the Mass.

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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