We Are Islands To Each Other
Building Hopeful Bridges on the Troubled Sea
The title and subtitle of this piece are taken from two lyrics in a song titled Entre Nous, written in 1979 by Neil Peart and performed by him and his band, Rush.
When I first discovered this passage, I was struck by both its simple eloquence and profound significance as it relates to the transformative power of support groups comprised of others who have experienced a catastrophic loss.
My First Meeting
I discovered the potential for the transformative power of support groups in early grief, following the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Jeannine.
Working through my pain with the help of others allowed me to make the decision to celebrate Jeannine’s life, and in the process find a renewed sense of purpose. The people that helped me move through grief were other parents at various phases of grief, who had experienced the death of a child.
About 6 months after Jeannine’s death, my wife Cheri discovered a support group specifically for bereaved parents, sponsored by one of our local funeral homes. One of the facilitators of the group was a nun by the name of “Sister Janet”; the other facilitator was a bereaved parent named “Rene.” When Cheri and I walked into that room for the first time, there were eighteen other bereaved parents. At that moment, I no longer felt unique in my experience, I no longer felt alone.
Until that first meeting, I thought that no one could understand my pain. Hell, there were days that I was so distanced from my own self, that I couldn’t describe what I was going through to anybody. There were days when I didn’t want to describe what I was going through.
Over time, we welcomed new people into our group. It didn’t matter who attended our group, or at what point in their grief journey they attended. Sister Janet and Rene were always able to create a safe and supportive environment where we could all feel free to be who we were in that moment, no questions asked. That room became a sanctuary of sorts for all of us.
The pain that we shared, resulting from the deaths of our children was unconditionally understood. Our shared pain was supported, validated and unconditionally accepted. Through our shared pain, we found hope. I discovered that though my grief would be life long, I could learn to live with joy and purpose in a world where my daughter was physically absent. I learned to bear witness to perspectives that though different from mine, still gave me food for thought. Though all of us in that room were part of a club that no parent ever wishes to join, we came together as one. We truly became islands to each other, building hopeful bridges on our troubled seas.
I found it ironic that Cheri discovered a bereaved parents support group that was co-facilitated by a Roman Catholic nun. I was raised Catholic, regularly went to church, and attended Catholic schools until I graduated from high school. I had my fill of church and organized religion at the age of sixteen. With the exception of holidays, weddings and funerals, I avoided the inside of a church with a devout passion. However, I soon discovered that Sister Janet was willing to bear witness to our own beliefs about religion and spirituality without imposing her beliefs on our group. I think she had long surmised that what we believed was ultimately between us and God. Because of her willingness to not judge our beliefs as right or wrong, I felt comfortable sharing my story and my fears about life after Jeannine. My fear manifested in uncertainty about my ability to live again in a world without my daughter. I feared that my other children would also die. These fears were triggered because my once predictable, orderly and safe world was nonexistent, after Jeannine’s death.
As the years passed following Jeannine’s death, I expanded my support network to include some very creative, spiritual thinkers who helped me embrace different perspectives about life and death. Perspectives that also allowed me to find peace in the aftermath of my daughter’s death.
They encouraged me to read books about phenomena such as past life experiences, past life regression therapy, and the afterlife. The teachings found in Brian Weiss’ Many Lives, Many Masters and The Afterlife of Billy Fingers resonated with me the most. My spiritual mentors also encouraged me to make my own connections with Jeannine and my other deceased ancestors to develop continuing eternal bonds. Through their guidance and wisdom, I began to understand that I had a “community of souls” at my disposal, to help me through the day-to-day challenges that I experienced after the death of Jeannine.
I pass on these perspectives and viewpoints to other individuals as tools to consider as they navigate grief. It is about “planting seeds” as opposed to telling them how to grieve or what to believe.
Paying It Forward
The positive impact that I experienced in Sister Janet and Rene’s support group, nudged me to develop a support group in my area. In July of 2010, with the assistance of an inspired group of parents, The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley was established. We are one of over 600 chapters found in all fifty states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam. The Compassionate Friends mission is to:
Offer friendship, understanding, and hope to bereaved parents, siblings, grandparents, and other family members during the natural grieving process after a child has died.
It has been empowering to share what I have learned from my own challenges with grief with our parents, siblings, and grandparents who have attended our meetings. More so I am honored to have been witness to the stories of their deceased sons/daughters, brothers/sisters, and grandsons/granddaughters. Their stories inspire me, which in turn, fuels my passion to inspire other grieving individuals. Besides, to be trusted with another’s story of loss is to be given the greatest of gifts…the gift of his/her deceased loved one’s legacy.