Finding Comfort in Each Other
Group Gathers Families Grieving Loss of a Child

By Stephanie Staal
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 13, 2003; Page AA14

As the late afternoon sun slants through a window in her Severna Park home, Carole Gilmour tries hard to put into words a grief that many parents cannot even imagine: mourning the death of her 5-year-old son Christopher. Gilmour describes how she broke down in ragged sobs when she inadvertently found herself driving behind Christopher's yellow school bus one morning shortly after his death on April 2. She talks about catching a glimpse of his favorite television show, "Teletubbies," while channel surfing and feeling the sharp ache of his absence.

She talks about the sting of disgust she felt this past Halloween as she passed houses decorated with fake cemeteries and spooky ghosts.

"It's hard," Gilmour, 36, says when words fail to fully describe her loss. Her eyes drop to a photograph of Christopher, a boy with luminous cocoa-colored eyes and a head of brown curls. "It's hard," she repeats softly.

Nevertheless, during the past seven months both Gilmour and her husband, Paul, 37, have found solace in speaking with and listening to other families that are also dealing with the death of a child.

A few days after Christopher's death from a seizure disorder, the Gilmours were put in touch with the Anne Arundel chapter of Compassionate Friends & Bereaved Parents of the USA, a support group with about 600 chapters nationwide.

Since then, the couple has gone to several chapter meetings and events. Every month the nondenominational group gets together at the Calvary United Methodist Church on Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis. A guest speaker discusses issues of concern to those who have lost a child. After the presentation, attendees break into informal "sharing groups" to discuss more personal issues they have encountered in connection with their loss.

"For me it's comforting to know I'm not alone. I have this very special community that understands my tears, understands my anger, and even makes me laugh sometimes," says Carole Gilmour. "We can look in each other's eyes, and we know each other's pain almost instantly."

That recognition of common experience is especially valuable to parents like the Gilmours, who are still struggling through the volatile first stages of the grief process.

"Right after a child dies, there's a feeling of hopelessness, of 'Why am I here?' " says Dave Alexander, leader of the Anne Arundel County chapter of Compassionate Friends.

Alexander first joined the group four years ago, one year after his son Jamie, 28, died in a hang gliding accident in Florida. "People whose children have been dead for longer than two or three years can help those who are newly grieved," he says, noting that some members' children died almost 20 years ago. "We show that you can get through this, and by helping others, we deal with our own grief."

Since its inception in 1985, the Anne Arundel chapter of Compassionate Friends has registered more than 300 participants ranging in age from teenagers to those in their 70s.

Some of the members had children who died before birth; some had children who died in middle age. Some children died suddenly, others after prolonged illnesses.

But regardless of the circumstances of a child's death, "the pain and the grief are the same," says Alexander.

And yet each family has its own personal story of grief.

For the Gilmours, their son's death was swift and unexpected. Although Christopher had suffered from epileptic seizures since he was five months old, his condition had appeared to be improving in the months prior to his death. In fact, the Gilmours, who also have a 9-year-old son, Sean, were so optimistic that they had bought a new house and planned to move at the end of April.

But in one night, everything changed.

From a white wicker chest, where Christopher's toys and clothes are carefully stored, Gilmour pulls out a composition notebook she'd used to communicate back and forth with Christopher's teachers at Central Special School in Edgewater. The teacher's last entry, dated March 31, 2003, is upbeat, noting that Christopher played well and was attentive in class that day.

The rest of the notebook is blank.

Doctors concluded that sometime during that night, Christopher had a seizure. The next morning, after her husband had already gone to work and Sean had left for school, Gilmour quietly opened Christopher's bedroom door and found his small body motionless in his bed.

"The room was quiet, and I turned him over," she remembers, her voice thick. "I didn't process at the time that he was gone. The room was dim and I just thought he was sleeping soundly. Then an amount of shock set in."

The paramedics arrived in a hail of sirens, and Christopher was rushed to Anne Arundel Medical Center, where tests confirmed that he was not breathing, his heart was not beating and he had no brain activity. Although doctors were able to restart Christopher's heart, his condition remained critical.

As the Gilmours sat by their son's bedside, day darkened into night. Eventually, their hope for his recovery faded into the wrenching realization that their son was never going to wake up. In the early hours of the morning, doctors declared him dead.

"I remember walking out from the pediatric unit and feeling like the top half of my body was not connected to the bottom half," says Gilmour. She recalls moving toward her older son, Sean, who was sitting in the hallway playing with his Game Boy, completely unaware of the seriousness of his brother's situation. With a deep breath, Gilmour prepared herself for the conversation they were about to have.

"That was the second hardest moment," says Gilmour. "I just knew the subject we were about to talk about was going to take away a large part of his innocence."

Too soon, though, came the hardest moment of all: saying goodbye to Christopher. The Gilmours gathered around his hospital bed and recited his favorite bedtime story, "Goodnight Moon," which they knew by heart.

Then his parents held him one last time.

In the months following Christopher's death, as the number of arriving sympathy cards has begun to wane and the Penny Saver circulars have again taken over the mailbox, Compassionate Friends has provided an important outlet for keeping his memory alive.

On Oct. 18, the Gilmours joined some 60 other Compassionate Friends members for the group's first annual memory walk, at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis. The walk fell on the day after what would have been Christopher's sixth birthday.

"I woke up that morning and just wanted to stay in bed," says Gilmour. "I was literally having this debate with myself, and then I thought to myself, 'What better group of people to see on this day?' "

So she headed out with her husband to the park. She didn't regret her decision.

"The walk was a wonderful analogy for the journey of grief," she explains. "I was very conscious of the sun coming through the trees, almost like those glimmers of faith, hope and good memories."

Up ahead, Gilmour recalled, were parents who were farther along the path than she and her husband.

"We went up hills and down hills, but we just kept walking," she said. "And the leaves were our tears; they were falling."

Gilmour pauses, "And they will always be falling."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company