In the first of a series of articles on the organisations listed on the WayAhead Directory, WayAhead turns the spotlight on The Compassionate Friends NSW. The Compassionate Friends, or TCF, is recognised worldwide for the support and hope it offers families who are struggling with the deep grief of losing a child.
The organisation had its genesis in northern England in 1969 when a devastating flu epidemic caused the deaths of a large number of small children. Canon Dr. Simon Stephens, an Anglican priest, was working as a pastor at a large public hospital where many of the children died. He felt that the families might draw comfort from each other if he arranged for them to meet. It was this group of grieving families that became the organisation now known as The Compassionate Friends. It quickly became international and the NSW branch of TCF was established nearly 40 years ago.
The NSW branch provides support across the greater Sydney area as well as in regional areas across NSW. Its head office on York Street, Sydney, acts as a drop-in centre with one-on-one support from trained volunteers.
Monthly group meetings are held in the city office, in various metropolitan areas of Sydney and country areas of NSW, organised by volunteers trained by TCF. There is telephone support is also available. Every year, TCF NSW holds remembrance events as well as an annual weekend retreat that draws members from all parts of the state.
During a visit to Australia in 2015, Dr. Stephens said that there is a “conspiracy of silence” when children die in our society and we no longer have the time or the understanding of death that enables us to deal with parental or sibling grief, in particular.
Dr. Stephens told ABC Radio that this failure extends beyond individuals to government and religious institutions.
“Doctors, clergy and the caring professions still don’t know how to adjust to the news that a child has died.”
In recent years the NSW branch has been working closely with its Victorian counterpart to raise national public awareness of The Compassionate Friends. Joy Rappo, the NSW State representative on the board of The Compassionate Friends Australia, has been working closely with the Victorian branch. She spoke to WayAhead about her experiences as a bereaved parent.
“I joined TCF in 2000, 11 weeks after my son Antony died suddenly following a medical procedure. He was just 18 years old. For well over a year, I would attend my local chapter meeting and not say a word. It was enough just to listen to other people’s stories and get comfort from the sense of belonging because of the shared deep grief.”
Joy became more involved in the running of TCF, first as a chapter leader herself, and then undertaking much of the administration of the head office in Sydney. She is committed to the wider community awareness of the work of The Compassionate Friends in this state.
The expansion of the work and profile requires concerted fund raising and TCF raised much-needed funds through the formation of its own TCF team in the last City2Surf. It will do so again in 2018 City2Surf. There are other fund raising projects in the pipeline.
Leanne Shanahan is the driving force behind this event and other future fund raising efforts. Leanne recently shared with WayAhead the background to her involvement with TCF.
“When I first lost my 21 year old son, Luke, in a car accident in 2015, I just needed to get up every day and do what I always liked doing and that was walking until one day the reality of losing Luke hit hard and I just crashed; I no longer had the energy to do anything.
“As my sad grief journey took a toll on me after 3 months, my sister knew I needed help. I went to my first meeting and felt part of this very sad club immediately; they felt my pain – the pain of the devastation of losing a child, something that nobody could ever imagine.
“I just wanted to give something back to this support group that helped me learn that there is a little light at the end of a very long sad tunnel. As I was always a walker, I decided to organise a group to walk in the City2Surf in 2017. We were able to raise $10,000 and we are planning this year to have a team of walkers and runners again. We are hoping to double what we raised last year.
“I have just done a support leader group course and I am looking forward to opening up a new support group based in Narrabeen on the Northern Beaches to give back to those families that have sadly been dealt the worst card ever when you lose a child.”
In 1969, The Compassionate Friends began as a response to the death of children from a flu epidemic. In 2018, some 37 years later, families are losing children through many causes – cancer, road accidents, drug overdoses and increasingly from suicide.
TCF is presently involved in a project to connect with the professions involved in family bereavement to make them aware of the ongoing peer support that The Compassionate Friends can offer.
In a recent TCF magazine, one bereaved mother expressed the devastating, lifelong pain of losing a child in these words:
“When we talk about our lives we talk about before and after – it is a pivotal point in our lives, like a whole new life started after our loss. We are not the same people we were before – the whole world is different – finding out how to exist when you are different in a different world is a really tough journey.”
The Compassionate Friends is dedicated to walking alongside bereaved families on this tough journey.
Find out more about The Compassionate Friends NSW at the WayAhead Directory.
By Helen Murcutt