‘I don’t fear death.’
It’s 6 p.m. on a Thursday night and nine people are sitting anxiously in the Summerville Hampton Inn’s meeting room. They chat idly with each other, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice the little things: sweaty palms, tapping feet, trembling hands and watering eyes.
Their smiles are jaded and when they speak, it’s as if their thoughts are somewhere else.
The club is not a happy one, and yet it’s clear after the first meeting that the members feel comfort knowing they’re not alone.
And unfortunately, they aren’t. Each person in this room has lost a child.
The Compassionate Friends, a national nonprofit organization providing support from grieving parents, accepted the newly founded Dorchester chapter Sept. 3, just two days before its first meeting.
Paula Schaefer and Jasmine Steward started the group to try and make the experiences of other grieving parents easier.
“When I lost my baby I knew nothing about this, I had no support at all,” said Steward, whose unborn child died four years ago.
Her experience isn’t uncommon; Schaefer also was unaware of any empathetic support groups when her daughter died in a car accident 13 years ago. The unavailability of resources for grieving parents is exactly why Schaefer knew opening a branch of the organization in Summerville was of the utmost importance.
“Even if we have one person [at a meeting], that’s enough. We’ve touched one person’s life,” said Schaefer.
The meeting is a long one, 6 – 9 p.m., and the parents use every minute of the time sharing their stories.
Each tale is more painful than the last.
Bill Sessoms is the veteran of the group; he lost his daughter to leukemia a week before her 8th birthday in 1981. It’s been more than 32 years since her death, and to him it still feels like it happened yesterday.
“The pain will never completely go away, and that’s why I’m here tonight,” he said.
Others parents have lost their children as recently as last year.
Donnie and Patty Medley came to the meeting clad in tattoos, necklaces and buttons representing their son who died last August in a motorcycle accident.
Donnie Medley was recently baptized. Never a religious man, he said he has grown to love God the way his son did.
“I wanted to get baptized. I want to be with my son,” he said.
His brother-in-law Jimmy Roy echoed the same sentiment: “I don’t fear death anymore.”
Roy’s daughter died only a few months after the Medleys’ son. It was a rough time for their family.
“We call them ‘Jana and Claye, cousins together forever,’” Donnie Medley said as his wife began passing around a framed picture of the two in a warm embrace.
After all of the parents have shared their stories, the meeting hits a low point. The scariest part – the truth – starts to come out.
“I pray to God every night that He’ll take me,” said Patty Medley, with tears in her eyes. “And somehow I’m still here, and I don’t know why.”
Steward quickly jumped in. “I know why. You need to help others.”
And that’s how, slowly, the group began to build themselves back up again.
Armed with a Facebook page, a smattering of flyers around town and can-do attitudes, Schaefer and Steward are determined to get the word out about the newest chapter of The Compassionate Friends. They have big plans for the group, including fundraisers, lantern launches and a candle lighting ceremony.
“This doesn’t have to be a sad thing,” said Schaefer. “We can find some joy together.”
From the looks of the end of the meeting – parents swapping advice, offering empathetic stories and expressing how glad they were they came – it appears the group has begun that journey to joy.
The Dorchester chapter of The Compassionate Friends meets the first Thursday of every month, from 6 – 9 p.m., at the Hampton Inn, 1015 Jockey Ct.