‘You need not walk alone’

Organization seeks to help families cope with loss.

Compassionate Friends meet monthly at the West Tisbury library. File photo

The Compassionate Friends, a self-help support organization with chapters across the country, has come to the Island. The Compassionate Friends mission is to help and assist families that have experienced the death of a child. Families who have just experienced loss or have had something tragic happen in the past are welcomed to the meetings.

The Island chapter of the organization was started by Anna Marie D’Addarie, Terry Pothier, and Cindy Douglas. Monthly meetings are held for families to come together and share their stories. This gives families a place to share their pain and sadness with others who can support them.

Douglas became involved with the organization after her daughter, Ivy, died in a swimming accident in Vermont in 2005.

“For a long time I just didn’t talk,” she said. Douglas would frame her daughter’s artwork and plant ivy in remembrance.

Finding a way to deal with her loss came when she found a grief group on the Island where she met D’Addarie and Pothier. “Thank God for this community,” she said.

A few years after the death of her daughter, Douglas moved out to Portland, Ore., where her other daughter was living. It was there that she discovered Compassionate Friends and went to her first meeting. When she walked into the room, she said, she became overwhelmed because “the people who were in the room at the meeting knew the feeling I felt.”

The connection to others knowing how you feel is the philosophy of the Compassionate Friends, which doesn’t use the label of therapy group or therapy session. Peer-led meetings let families share their loved one’s stories and heal.

For close to eight years, Douglas went to meetings with the Compassionate Friends in Portland, where she bonded with group members and even took a grief writing class. Having found solace in the organization, Douglas decided to move back to the Island and share it with friends who she knew had been through something tragically similar.

“The group was wonderful,” she said, “It was so good for me in Portland, Ore., that I wanted to do the same here.”

The only thing Douglas needed to start a chapter on the Island was a steering committee, and she quickly found it. “I got together with [D’Addarie and Pothier] last summer … telling them I wanted to do this. I said, ‘But you need a steering committee,’ and they said, ‘We’re your steering committee,’” she said with a laugh.

Douglas, D’Addarie, and Pothier completed the paperwork to start the new chapter, which has now joined the more than 650 chapters across the country. The chapter also received a $150 donation from Chapman, Cole & Gleason Funeral Homes in Vineyard Haven to pay the chapter startup fee. The chapter has two community advisors available as resources: Jean Hay, a clinical social worker, and Lori Perry, a hospice nurse.

The committee works together to help facilitate the meetings. Douglas and Pothier help lead the meetings with a similar format to the one Douglas had while in Portland, and D’Addarie gets members’ email contacts to send them reminders for upcoming meetings.

The organization also helps each of its chapters with ways to organize and run meetings. People at the organization have been very helpful, Douglas said, providing all the information she needed and answering questions she had.

The organization has special events such as a candle lighting on the first Sunday of December, in which chapters from around the world light candles for one hour in remembrance of loved ones. The lighting usually starts in New Zealand, and works its way around the globe. Members can light candles in the privacy of their living room or go to large gatherings with others. “It feels nice to be a part of that; they’re really helpful,” Douglas said.

Meetings usually start with families and brothers and sisters reading a credo. People then take turns going around the room sharing what they want. There is no requirement to say anything, but if you choose to, you can tell the group your child’s name and what happened. Families whose child has a birthday on a particular month can bring in pictures, poems, and have extra time to tell stories. Douglas says she always keeps a list of topics, but finds meetings have a good flow, and people want to stay longer than the allotted time.

Douglas understands people not wanting to go to meetings; “it’s a completely personal thing, it’s hard to talk about,” she said. “I’m 12 years later and it’s still hard to talk about, but at the same time, my feeling is there are so many common feelings and it’s good to talk about it … It really helps.”

A lending library has also been set up at the meetings for people to share and exchange “love gifts” such as books on grief that are accepted in the memory of a child.

The organization has a motto of “You need not walk alone,” which Douglas thinks it all boils down to. “You’re always going to have that hole. Grief changes, but you’ll always have that hole, but you need not walk alone,” she said.

Meetings are held on the first Monday of each month from 7 pm to 8:30 pm at the West Tisbury library in the downstairs meeting room.