Toronto Star

GRANDPARENTS' GRIEF: Jack and Valerie Cribben's grandson Brendan died from spinal muscular atrophy at age 3.

Monday, February 15, 1999

When a child dies

`It's tremendously rewarding to see people move from extreme pain and despair across the chasm to healing,' says executive director of Bereaved Families of Ontario

By Nancy J. White
Toronto Star Life Writer

It happened in July, 1995, the family's first summer weekend at the cottage.

Jennifer Knowles remembers she was cooking spaghetti when she heard her husband calling for Christopher, their 3-year-old son. She remembers racing to the boathouse and finding the boy's body in the lake.

GRIEVING: It took Rachelle Allen-Chin eight months to accept her brother Michael's death. She now runs a Bereaved Families support group.

After that, it's all a blur. She remembers the panic and then the overwhelming grief that didn't go away. ``It was like I had my foot on the door and there was a crazy lady on the other side. If I let up my guard, she'd be out,'' says Knowles, mother of four other boys.

She felt alone and helpless. Her husband Brett was consumed with his own grief, as were her children. Her friends couldn't fully comprehend her ordeal. So four months after the tragedy, Knowles began attending a Bereaved Families of Ontario support group.

``It was very reassuring to find out my feelings were normal, that I wasn't going stark, raving mad,'' says Knowles, 43. ``I needed to be with people who knew what it was like. I could walk in with tears rolling down my face and not have to say anything.

``If you don't spend time with your grief, it will be waiting for you,'' adds Knowles. ``It will eventually take its own toll.''

On Sunday, Feb. 21, Knowles and her family will spend time remembering: They'll take part in the Bereaved Families of Ontario annual walk-a-thon at Fairview Mall to raise money for the non-profit organization. Last year, more than $100,000 was raised across the province.

Bereaved Families was formed 20 years ago in Toronto to help parents after the death of a child. Today it has 18 chapters across Ontario, serving about 5,000 people a year in support groups and 40,000 a year through telephone support.

It offers support groups not just for parents of young children who've died, but also for grandparents, older parents who've lost an adult child, and young adults and children, including preschoolers, who have lost parents or siblings. Bereaved Families also offers one-on-one meetings and monthly drop-in sessions.

``It's tremendously rewarding,'' says executive director Michael Nettleton, ``to see people move from extreme pain and despair across the chasm to healing.''

`He didn't want to talk to me about it because he didn't want to upset me'

In the Knowles family, Brett Knowles and the two eldest boys also went to Bereaved Families support groups. ``The group helped me to live with the guilt I feel,'' says the 41-year-old. ``And I now understand it will never be completely okay. There's an acceptance, instead of waiting to wake up one morning when all will be better.''

Members of his group still offer each other support. ``At different moments the death hits you in the face. It becomes so overwhelming you can hardly breathe,'' says Brett Knowles. At those times, he'll find himself on the phone to a group member, whom he knows will understand. ``It's a different relationship than with anyone else in your life. You've bared your soul in a risk-free environment.''

The group gave Timothy, now 10, and Graeme, 8, ways of coping with their feelings and a chance to express them, says their mother.

After Christopher's death, Timothy had trouble focusing in school and became quiet and withdrawn. ``He didn't want to talk to me about it because he didn't want to upset me,'' says Jennifer Knowles. ``The group gave him an outlet, a safe environment to look at how he felt.''

About 25 years ago, people believed children didn't grieve, that youngsters didn't understand death, says psychotherapist Don Hunter. Today it's recognized that children mourn deeply, but differently from adults.

``Children want to be normal,'' explains Hunter, a grief counsellor. ``If you lose a parent or sibling, you're not like everyone else, so children try to hide it.''

In the children's support groups, the youngsters do a lot of art work to express their feelings. ``Some have a hard time finding the words for their grief.''

A child may need help, he advises parents, if their behaviour begins to change at home or at school.

Grief counsellors tend not to talk anymore about stages, but rather tasks of mourning, explains Hunter.

The four tasks, as described by bereavement author William Worden, are:

``Grief is life-long,'' says Hunter. ``It's a matter of figuring out how the deceased can play a role in your life as you move forward.''

The sorrow doesn't lessen, but it changes, says Jean Bickley, whose 26-year-old daughter Shirley-Anne Ohannessian died two years ago after being hit by a bus.

``You have your routines again. You're not as apt to burst into tears as you drive across the 401,'' says Bickley, 66. ``You learn to live with your grief.''

Bickley and her husband John now volunteer at Bereaved Families, talking with people about their losses. ``Bereaved Families helped us and we'd like to help others,'' she explains. ``We do this in honour of Shirley-Anne's memory.''

There's no set timetable for sorrow. ``Some people are in shock for three months before they start grieving openly. Others are in shock for six months or a year,'' says counsellor Hunter. ``It's totally individual.''

Some people have called Bereaved Families 10 years after the loss, finally ready to deal with their emotions.

As a general rule, he says, people should seek help if they are seriously struggling and can't get on with their lives six months after the death.

It took Rachelle Allen-Chin eight months to truly realize her brother Michael was dead. The 17-year-old boy was killed in a car accident four years ago.

``I didn't have time to deal with it. I had two small children to care for,'' says Allen-Chin. Her babies were 2 1/2 years and 1 month old at the time. ``I put my grief on hold.''

It finally caught up with her. ``I'd be playing with the kids or changing a diaper and start crying. My oldest asked why I was always sad.''

She joined a Bereaved Families support group and was relieved to find that her feelings were normal. ``By eight months, friends expect you to be over your grief,'' she says, ``but I was just starting.''

Some grandparents also have difficulty dealing with their sorrow. Everyone's focus is, of course, on the parents of a dead child, and grieving grandparents may feel overlooked.

``They suffer a double loss,'' says executive director Nettleton. ``They see their own children struggling and they have their own important relationship and feelings about the deceased.''

Jack and Valerie Cribben had forged a close relationship with their grandson Brendan Turner, who had spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative muscular disease. They saw him nearly every day and were very involved in his care. ``He was the most charming little guy,'' says Jack.

Brendan died at age 3 years, 9 months. ``I needed help but I was in a secondary role,'' says Jack, referring to his grandson's death almost 8 years ago.

At a Bereaved Families group, he talked with other grandparents and learned coping skills. ``I'm a better person for going,'' says Jack, 64. ``I'm far more sensitive to a person's grief.''

For information on services offered by Bereaved Families of Ontario or about the charity walk on Feb. 21 at Fairview Mall, please call (416) 440-0290 or 1-800-236-6364.

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