The words and tears tumbled out at the same time. Her thoughts clearly jumbled and her sentences inarticulate and meandering. Exactly how anyone would be, sitting in a room full of strangers forty-two days after their sibling died. Patience, I told myself, remembering back almost twelve years. She’s new to the club. I looked around the room at the people I was spending an hour or so leading through a workshop on sibling loss. Some I knew from eight years of workshops in hotel conference rooms around the country. Some were new, either because it had taken them till now to find us, or because at about this time last summer, they were blissfully ignorant that there was such a thing as The Compassionate Friends. They had yet to be initiated into the club nobody wants to join. Their brothers and sisters were still alive.
It was a chilling thing this year, to wake up on a sunny morning in Costa Mesa to the news of the late night movie massacre. As I heard the news while getting ready for the first full day of a conference to support bereaved parents and siblings, my first thought was some of them will be here next year. It happened post-Columbine, just before I became a member, and post 9/11, after my sister died, but before I knew there was such a thing as TCF. And so, a brother or sister of one of the slain would very likely be sitting in one of my workshops in Boston next July. A parent who lost a child to a late night movie could be in the workshop where I sit on a panel along with other veteran siblings, helping to explain to them why their surviving child, that remaining brother or sister won’t talk, won’t share, turned to drugs, left school or just can’t stop being so angry at the world. So much of the world is fascinated with the villain. Many more are moved to make sure we remember that he is not important, that we should be focused on remembering the ones that he killed. All I could think about, on that day of all days, as I walked through too-crowded halls of the hotel, was of the families left full of empty holes. Families who would need this place.
I was a few years out from Wendy’s death when I found TCF. Now I’m a veteran. An expert at grief, qualified run workshops, sit on panels. Experienced enough to share my story, to help someone else through the process. Credentials claimed out of necessity to make some sense of my own loss, make a difference to someone else and hopefully make both of us feel just a tiny bit better in the process. It’s not all tears and run-on sentences and harsh reality. In many ways, the weekend is an escape, like summer camp for the bereaved. Where you don’t have to explain a thing to your friends. No one wonders why your eyes are red, you are never the only one doing the ugly cry, and someone’s always there to hand you a drink and know exactly why you need it.
Don’t think we don’t have any fun. My regular crew is a rebellious bunch. We take over the nearest bar at night. You can usually find a handful by the pool on a break, or maybe during a workshop session when it’s all just too much. We sit in the back row at opening and closing ceremonies and act like we’re twelve, making fun of the guest choir who always performs awkward dance/sign language numbers to cheesy pre-recorded music that they don’t sing along to, while wearing strange, cult-like white outfits draped in long, colorful robes. This year we joked that we should form a counter choir. We would call ourselves Hand Jive International, only perform to gangsta rap, and sign all the wrong words. Maybe we would wear lots of sequins and sparkly gloves. We’re all adults and we could skip the performances, but where would be the fun in that? So we’re also kind of joiners, because at the end of the day, if we have to be a part of the club, we might as well reap the benefits. We’ve formed friendships that have lasted long past three days in a Hilton, connections that run deeper than others we have in our daily lives. These strangers, from all over the country and all walks of life have become my brothers and sisters. We have each other’s backs, have to come to each other’s rescue and are an integral part of each others lives.
As hard as they are, I’m grateful for these three days. I’m humbled by the gratitude of others and the strength of everyone in that hotel. I am in awe of my fellow siblings. You’re a family I did not want, but one that I’m glad I now have. I’m a better person for the days that I spend in your company.
And to the brothers and sisters of Jessica Ghawi, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, John Larimer, Alexander Boik, Jesse Childress, Jonathan Blunk, Rebecca Ann Wingo, Alex Sullivan, Gordon Cowden, Micayla Medek and Alexander C. Teves, I think I can speak for all of my TCF crew when I say we wish we didn’t have to offer out our hands in solidarity and support, but there all extended. We’ll be here if you need us.