Grief takes no holidays, which makes this season of celebration especially hard for people who have lost loved ones or suffer from depression.
Unpacking ornaments collected over the years, she looks for one in particular, “a crafty thing that Brent made in second grade that has his picture on it. And that’s the first thing that goes on my tree.
“I do things in memory of him. Brent loved Legos. So every year I go find a mitten (for the Santa’s Workshop charity) with a little boy’s name who wants Legos.
“Brent is still here, not to be forgotten. He holds a place in our hearts.”
Times like these have gotten a little easier to handle since she met Georgia Cockerham, who founded a Brookings chapter of The Compassionate Friends (TCF), a national non-profit self-help bereavement group that provides a caring environment in which bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents can work through their grief with the help of others traveling the same road.
In short, said Georgia, “All who need us will find us and all who find us will be helped.”
Each year at this time, TCF chapters around the world hold candlelight ceremonies. A Brookings ceremony takes place Sunday at 6:30 p.m.
‘It was a lifeline’
Georgia and her husband Bruce have been involved with the group for almost a decade.
It was 10 years ago that the couple’s 27-year-old son, Zachary Ward, died when a motorist ran a red light and collided with Zach’s motorcycle. He and his wife, Jessica, were celebrating their first wedding anniversary at home in Phoenix. “Jessica was making dinner and Zachary was going to get a movie at the video store,” Georgia said.
Georgia, then a resident of Central California, sought counseling after the accident, and it was there she learned of TCF.
“The counselor told me, ‘I can help you with depression, but I do not know what it is to lose a child. These people say they know.’
“It was a lifeline for me,” said Georgia. “When I first started going to the meetings, there was a sense of relief. I looked around the room and they all looked like normal people. I thought, ‘If they can survive this, then I can.’ It gave me hope that I, too, would survive.”
Not only did she survive, but she and husband Bruce started a chapter of TCF in Brookings after moving there in 2004.
The Northwest Coast Chapter is one of 660 chapters across the United States. It meets in Brookings on the first Tuesday of each month at the Chetco Community Library, and in Crescent City on the third Monday of each month in the Washington Medical Building behind Sutter Coast Hospital. Both meetings run from 6:30 to 8 p.m. She said about 12–14 people are in the Brookings group.
The Compassionate Friends was formed in 1968 in the United Kingdom when two families who had just lost sons were introduced to each other by a hospital chaplain. In the immensity and the rawness of their grief, they discovered that they could help and support each other in ways families and friends couldn’t.
“There’s a common understanding when talking with someone with a similar kind of loss,” said Georgia. “There’s an isolation that a bereaved parent goes through, just from society’s inability to understand,” she said.
‘No place for people to go’
Carol Layton, pastor at the United Methodist Church in Crescent City, started a grief support group at the church about seven years ago after talking with Richard Wier of Wier’s Mortuary Chapel in Crescent City.
“Wier’s would take care of things and then it’d be over,” said Carol. “There was just no place for people to go” for support in the days following the funeral.
Carol’s support group is different from TCF in that it’s open to anyone dealing with any kind of sadness or loss, not just that of a family member, but possibly a pet, a job, or the end of a relationship.
“Or even if you’re having a bad day and you need to reaffirm that things will be OK,” she added. She said it’s helpful for people to come together and support each other.
“It’s so much better than me as a professional counselor to tell you what you should be doing,” she said. “They can talk about it when I can’t because I didn’t go through it.”
The group meets for an hour every Wednesday at 664 H St. “The doors are always open at 6 p.m.” said Carol. “We’re even meeting on Christmas.”
On Dec. 18 after its usual 6 p.m. meeting, the group will hold a “Blue Christmas” service open to everyone.
“If they’ve heard ‘Jingle Bells’ one too many times, it’s a way to reconnect to what Christmas is all about, a quiet, contemplative time,” said Carol.
Her efforts began years ago when she offered a six-week session that 25 people attended. From there it morphed into a meeting just during the holidays, and more recently a weekly gathering with a core group of about five and sometimes as many as 30 people.
She says young people are welcome, but there’s no child care. “Sometimes teens might come once or twice, but then drop off ’cause they’re so doggone resilient,” said Carol.
“It’s helpful to know that there are other people who have gone through it. It’s like a black hole, like there’s no way out,” said Carol. “There’s nobody talking down to anybody,” said Carol.
The topics can vary widely. “With the recent 50-year anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, they talked a lot about that,” said Carol. “Those kind of events can knock us sideways. Sometimes we go off on those kind of trails.”
“Even though it happens at church, it’s not religious. There’s no denominational ‘isms.’ We’ll talk about a religious component of grief from different perspectives, but we don’t talk about prayer because that can be somewhat of a turnoff.
The meetings are entirely confidential, Carol said, adding, “We have a lot of alums. Occasionally they pop back in, usually around an anniversary or birthday.”
‘A smile on their face’
Beth Enea is one of Carol’s alums, attending the group shortly after she lost her son just two weeks after his 22nd birthday. It was her conduit to TCF.
“I went there and she handed me a Compassionate Friends pamphlet,” said Beth. “At that point I made the call (to Brookings).”
“I was brand new to my grief, but I could see they had a smile on their face, and I could see myself, that I, too, would have a smile again,” she said. “It keeps me going, instead of sitting in a dark room.”
After attending the meetings in Brookings for several years, Beth approached Georgia Cockerham about starting a “satellite” group in Crescent City.
For the last couple of years, Beth has facilitated a small group of Compassionate Friends the third Monday of each month in the Washington Medical Building behind Sutter Coast Hospital from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
“We come together and talk about where we are with our grief,” Beth said. “We come to express our feelings.”
September is a difficult month for Beth with both the anniversaries of Brent’s birth and his death. “It’s like that song by Green Day, ‘Wake Me When September Ends.’ I don’t like September. I get through the month and go on.”
Each Christmas season before Brent’s death, Beth, her husband and three children would have professional family photos taken.
“I don’t do family photos anymore,” said Beth. “My kids just want to go and get one done. They say let’s just take it with the four of us. But I say, ‘uh-uh, I’m not ready for that.’”
“I’m glad I found Compassionate Friends, ’cause you can’t always talk about it with friends and family. Your friendships and family relationships change.”
Georgia understands. She’ll never stop missing her own son.
“It’s a tragic ending to a life of a wonderful young man,” said Georgia. “They are all tragic. There isn’t story I’ve heard that isn’t tragic.
“You don’t get over it, but you learn to adapt,” said Georgia. “It never goes away. You adapt to the loss and the pain subsides. The absence of your child is something you think about every day. The healing process goes on forever.”
So, in all likelihood, will her involvement with TCF.
“There is a sense of gratefulness when I can see healing. We’ve been able to help others survive. I thought, ‘This is my life.’ The death of a child changes the lives of the parent for life. We feel very privileged to help others who have suffered a loss. This is a way of life for us.”
TWO EVENTS ARE COMING UP SOON
Two events are coming up to support the grieving this holiday season.
• On Sunday, the Brookings chapter of The Compassionate Friends will hold a candle-lighting ceremony beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Kalmiopsis Elementary School, 650 Easy St. The public is invited, with candles and refreshments provided. The “local program,” in which a music video is shown with people being remembered, starts at 6:30 p.m. and the candle-lighting at 7 p.m.
• On Wednesday, Dec. 18, after the Crescent City United Methodist Church’s regular grief support meeting at 6 p.m., a “Blue Christmas” worship service will be held. Pastor Carol Layton describes it as “a cross between a memorial and church service.” The church is at 664 H St.