One by one, they filed into the basement of Saint Charles Borromeo Church in Sicklerville.
Seated in a large circle, they introduced themselves with the worst details imaginable to any parent: their name, their child’s name, the day they lost their child and the cause of death.
Thirty-five mothers and fathers. Some lost multiple children. Some lost all of their children. Most of the deceased were under the age of 30, and most died of drug overdoses.
It was two days before Thanksgiving, and these 35 parents were attending the bi-monthly meeting of their Comfort Club — a group for parents who have lost their children — coordinated by Father John Stabeno, director of Catholic Charities’ Addiction Healing Ministry.
“This is my first year without my son. I cried the whole way here. Christmas carols were playing and my mind was just spinning, thinking about what the holidays would be like without him. Am I allowed to put up a stocking for him?” asked one mother who lost her 19-year-old to an opiate overdose less than a month ago.
“The first day — everyone is there. Six hundred people attended the funeral. They say that they will be there for you. But after the burial, everyone disappeared,” said another mother. “Maybe they don’t know what to say, or they don’t want to upset me, or because there’s a stigma surrounding addiction. But I don’t remember the last time I heard my child’s name. It’s like she’s been forgotten. And the only time I can talk about her is here with this group. They’re willing to listen, and they understand because they’ve been through it. They’ve become my family.”
The feeling of isolation is one of many emotions that all could understand — and one that only seemed to be overcome through the support of other Comfort Club parents.
As described by two mothers in the Comfort Club, “Father John Stabeno was the catalyst for the club…it was born of a fundamental need for a support system that understands what it means to bury a child. We started as a small group with meetings in our homes where there were pictures of our children on the walls and memories in every corner. Unfortunately, our group has grown larger… but through the strength of our faith, the support of Father John and the guidance of our beautiful angels in heaven, we carry on as best we can.”
The group offers a safe haven to help mothers and fathers navigate the complex feelings about the loss of a child. In raw, unfiltered language, no topic seemed off-limits: autopsies, strained marriages, the difference between open caskets and closed caskets, where they found their child, losing faith in God and in religion entirely — and, for many, finding their way back.
“I’m not scared of dying anymore. I lost both of my children to drugs. The worst possible thing that could have happened in my life has already happened. I don’t want to die, but when God wants to take me, I’m ready.”
Several Comfort Club parents initially sought solace from parish bereavement groups, but agreed that the type of grief experienced by those who lose a loved one due to disease or old age is different from grief experienced by those who lose a child.
“I lost my parents when I was young, I lost my brother,” said one woman whose 23-year old daughter died of a heroin overdose. “But losing my child — that broke me in a different kind of way. You can’t just ‘move on,’ despite what people tell you.
“You do learn how to cope with the grief to an extent. You eventually find yourself able to laugh again. You can find joy and you can find meaning again. But at the end of the day, I know I will never be the same,” she said, as others nodded in agreement.
Another mother revealed, “There are still days when I just break down. I work as a nurse delivering babies all day. And I know that I need to be ‘OK’ for the sake of my patients, and I love what I do,” she said, pausing. “But there are still days when I break down. I delivered a baby on my daughter’s birthday, and her mother named her the same name as my daughter — Chelsea. But when I come here, I feel like I can take my mask off and I know that others will understand.”
Some parents remain haunted by thoughts of guilt or regret — “Was there something different or something else I could have done to save her?” Others spoke of blunt, contrasting feelings — “I miss my son. I don’t miss my son, the addict.”
A number of parents had driven hours to attend the meeting. Many expressed a wish that Comfort Club groups were more accessible throughout the diocese.
Despite the pain that these parents endured, the group proved to be far more than an echo chamber of irretrievable loss.
“If it weren’t for Father John, and this group of people, I would not be at the point where I am today — which is acceptance. I used to drive around for hours just crying after the rest of my family fell asleep, because I felt like I had to be a rock for everyone else. But we gain strength through each other,” said one of the three men in the group, who mobilized a group of fathers who meet regularly.
According to many in attendance, men tend to be more reluctant to attend groups. One woman noted, “My husband told me that he doesn’t want to talk about it. He never told me why, but he finally said, ‘I’m scared I’ll cry in front of everyone.’”
Others have devoted their lives to increasing awareness of the epidemic by reaching out to other parents and the greater community. “I can’t change the past, and there are things that I would have done differently. … but I can’t,” said one parent who lost her 25-year-old child to heroin and Xanax. “But I want to do everything in my power to prevent any parent from going through what I have.”
For many, participation in the Comfort Club brought them back to the faith that they had lost with their children.
One mother wore a shirt with a picture of a broadly smiling young man on it. Under his picture were the years of his life, 1992-2016, and the phrase “Gone but never forgotten.” She reflected, “I am getting stronger. There was a point where I couldn’t get out of bed for a month. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think. And I dreaded coming to this group because I thought it would make me relive the hell of losing my child. But it did the opposite. I’m not alone with my thoughts anymore. I can talk about it with this group, and now I can talk about it with others. There was a point when I hated God. I hated him. But I’ve found my faith again through Father Stabeno, and through the parents in this group.”
Others spoke of the ripple effect that occurs when a child surrenders the best parts of himself or herself to addiction, who pushes away and hurts those closest. Families are destroyed, grudges are held, and that dynamic does not end with death. But, through open discussion and counsel from other group members, many reported that they were able to rebuild family relationships and reconcile their suffering with a sense of peace.
The group ended their session with the Serenity Prayer — “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I should; and the wisdom to know the difference.”