Thursday, October 11, 2012
One day Todd Harris got a call from an old friend, angry at him for missing a funeral.
“A funeral for who?” Harris asked him. “Your daughter,” his friend said.
Her name was Jennifer Stephanie. Though Harris had been wanting to rekindle a relationship with her “every day,” she died of leukemia in 2006.
“It completely shredded me from top to bottom,” Harris says. “I struggled to find reasons for living, which I didn’t for a few years.
“I would wake myself up crying. I had no release. I cried all day for three years, three months, two days. At three years, three months and three days I woke up and didn’t cry. Then I felt guilty and cried for that.”
His father was fighting cancer at the time. He tried to lean on friends.
“But how many times can you call and burden a friend? You can’t expect your friends to be there months and months, for years,” he says. “[People] avoid you. It reminds them of their own child’s mortality. That’s very common.”
A counselor suggested he go to a grief counseling group. Called Compassionate Friends, it began in 1968 when Simon Stephens, the new assistant chaplain at Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital in England, went to pray for two sets of parents whose children died there. He couldn’t console them, but the four grieving parents met and began talking.
The group grew. In the 1970s, an American couple whose child had died asked Stephens to come to the States, and they began founding chapters here. Today there are 600 worldwide.
Harris, who recently became co-leader of the Pacific Grove-based chapter, says Compassionate Friends gave him, simply, “a place to talk.”
There was a Salinas chapter, but it folded, according to co-leader Vickie Zufelt. She lost her 24-year-old daughter, Roxanna Campbell, who was in the Air Force, to suicide.
“It was a shock,” Zufelt says. “I was in denial many years. I did therapy [but] the therapist hadn’t lost a child. It’s a different loss. No one understands unless you’ve gone through it.”
Brenda Lewis also lost a child at the dawn of adulthood. Her son, Brandon W.L. Johnson, was on a training flight with a friend in Illinois when another pilot, impaired at the time, crashed into his plane.
The Seaside police came to her door, told her there’d been an accident, and to call the number they gave her. “I called the number,” she remembers. “The person said, ‘County coroner’s office, how may I help you?’ I hung up. I thought I must have dialed incorrectly.
“I couldn’t stay at my house because every room had something that reminded me of my son. I moved in to a hotel and lived there a couple years.”
A grief counselor recommended she attend Compassionate Friends.
“[That’s where] I met Todd and Vickie. It was very hard. Some people’s children suffered for years and years before they died. In a way it made [it] easier because I could share my grief. But in a way it made it harder because I had to share theirs.”
They all say the group begins to help in healing.
“It was good to know that there was one place I could go,” Lewis says, “even if for once a month, that I had people who knew what I was going through. Losing a child has to be the worst thing anyone can go through.”
Zufelt keeps her daughter’s memory alive by donating to charity in her name. Lewis has set up a memorial website for her son. Harris, who does pressure washing, recently returned to a happier sideline he did before his daughter’s death: working as a clown for kids parties.
Membership has been waning since the sudden departure of a previous leader and a change of venues, on top of the painful nature of it.
“Sometimes you just don’t feel like going,” Harris says. “It just wrenches you when new people show up… seeing how raw their grief is.”
All three wish they weren’t members, but are grateful for the existence of Compassionate Friends, which desperately needs donations.
Per the group’s creed, Harris has advice for people who know someone who has lost a child: “Say ‘I’m sorry this happened’ and let them talk. All the parents want to do is simply talk about their kid. You don’t have to say anything. Just be there.”
COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS meets 7pm on the third Wednesday of the month, at First United Methodist Church at 915 Sunset Drive, Pacific Grove. 402-6507, 869-2681. www.compassionatefriends.org