Finding faith: Group offers support for grieving families

Finding faith: Group offers support for grieving families

Savannah Morning News, December 25, 2013  




As grandparents and parents, we expect our grandchildren and children to outlive us. As siblings, we imagine our brothers and sisters will be around as we grow older.

We expect to spend Christmas day with those loved ones every year — or at least pick up the ringing phone early in the morning and hear them say “Merry Christmas!”

But despite what we expect, the natural order of our lives can change in an instant.

At a monthly meeting for Compassionate Friends of Savannah, a support group for anyone who has lost a son, daughter, brother or sister, the range of grieving attendees spans from a father of a murdered daughter, a mother of a murdered son, a sister who lost her brother to cancer, two mothers who lost sons to cancer, a mother and father who lost a son after he drowned in their pool, parents who lost their son to poor medical treatment and a mother whose son took his life.

While their circumstances are different, their pain is shared. They all say they “get” each other’s sorrow and they know each other’s sadness. They say they are not a group, they are a family.

Mark and Debbie Rambis founded the Savannah chapter of Compassionate Friends after their son Tony passed away unexpectedly at their home on March 2, 2011. Tony was 29 years old.

Debbie said she knew she needed help to deal with her grief.

“We tried some counselors and they were helpful in their own respects, but just getting connected with people in the same situation was really what we were looking for,” Debbie says.

Mark adds that he had a hard time with counselors because they lacked the ability to share a common experience with the couple.

“I looked at these counselors and thought, ‘Tell me what qualifies you to talk to me about how you know how I feel?’

“It’s like no death you’ve ever experienced. I call it a hole in your soul. You have a hole in your heart when your mom dies or your dad dies, but you expect that. You don’t expect your child to die — it leaves a hole right through your soul.”

A friend told the couple about Compassionate Friends. Debbie found a number but discovered the Savannah chapter was no longer active.

Debbie began connecting with other parents through the virtual chapters online and began finding comfort, but the couple still longed to connect with other parents face-to-face.

“So our next step was…in July, we went to the national conference and one of the workshops was about how to start a chapter,” Debbie says.

But the couple hit a roadblock. The national office wanted them to wait until 18 months after the July event.

“But we were really persistent with them and believed we really could do this even though we were still fresh,” Debbie says. “We were able to get a waiver and a charter and our first event was in November, the candle lighting service.”

“The great thing about Compassionate Friends is that it’s not counseling per se — it’s peer to peer assistance, just sharing your common experience,” Mark says.

The organization also has a closed Facebook group called Compassionate Friends Savannah where people can connect online rather than leave their comfort zone, Debbie adds.

“It’s hard to make that first step,” Debbie says.

Mark says the group tries to plan activities outside the monthly meetings like the candle lighting, a balloon release and an event on the river.

“It’s good to get out like that because sometimes it’s really sad in the meetings and you end up wearing the grief of others, and we don’t want it to always be so down,” he says.


True friends

Alan and Sherry Collins lost their only child, A.J., on Dec. 25, 2011, when he died from a brown recluse spider bite while serving with the Coast Guard. They have been coming to the group for five months and appear to be life-long friends with everyone in the room.

During the helping hands exercise, Alan says, he wrote down “true friends.”

“Some people avoid you,” he says. “They don’t want to talk about it. I don’t consider those people true friends.”

Sherry agrees and says the closed Facebook group has helped her to become close to other women in the group.

“We do things to make each other feel better,” she says. “It’s a place where we can talk about our kids. I find funny things so we can laugh. It’s just something to cheer them up.”

The couple agrees that finding Compassionate Friends was a turning point in their journey to get a handle on their grief, but they didn’t find the group until over a year after A.J.’s death.

“The second year, I just lost it,” he says. “I thought, ‘It should be getting better. What’s going on?’”

He says a mother who also lost her son in the Coast Guard helped connect him to grief counselors, which led to Compassionate Friends where Alan found comfort in another father who talked about the difficulty of the second year after his son’s death.

“Now I understand. After that first year, the flood waters are going to subside; things have calmed down. Family has quit coming by; church has quit coming by. People think you should be over it by now.”

Sherry agrees and says they have to just make the best of it.

But how do you make the best of it?

“I think through faith,” Sherry answers. “I believe I will see him again.”

For her helping hands activity she wrote, “I have faith that I will see him again, faith that he is okay, faith that he wants us to be okay and that we will see him again and that he doesn’t want us to live down here and not live.”

Alan and Sherry say losing a child can make you feel isolated, especially with the holidays.

“Holidays are hard,” Alan says. “We don’t’ have that one down yet. It happened Christmas morning for us. The phone rang that morning, and I was expecting to hear ‘Merry Christmas, Dad,’ but instead I heard his girlfriend say, ‘You need to come to the hospital.’”


No one walks alone

Alan and Sherry’s advice for other grieving parents — seek help from all angles and when you feel like you can talk, start talking.

“Don’t think you can get through it alone because you can’t,” Alan says. “You can’t do this alone.”

That’s why the motto for Compassionate Friends is “We need not walk alone.”

Debbie Floyd says she felt isolated from friends and former co-workers after the death of her son T.J. who was murdered on Jan. 22, 2012, at the age of 19.

“My advice to parents is to find someone who understands,” Debbie says. “That is so huge. No one can understand what we have been through. They have no clue.”

“There are some people who have been so wonderful to me who don’t know the loss of a child, and I’m not dismissing that, but what I’m saying is that you need that support. There’s just nothing like it. There is an immediate bond.”

Debbie says the loose ends of her son’s death make each day harder for her.

“I would never tell someone who just lost their child that it gets easier — it gets worse. It’s a nightmare.”

She says her faith in God has been her foundation for dealing with her son’s death.

“We are faced with many trials in life so we can help others — I have no doubt about that. I just want to dedicate my life to reaching out to help others.”

Debbie says connecting with Compassionate Friends has been a blessing.

“Coming here was tough at first,” she says. “I sat in the parking lot telling myself I don’t know if I can do this.

“When I came in here for first meeting, I left here feeling like, oh my God, why did I wait so long? I waited a year.”


Remembering helps

Debbie says the camaraderie she feels through Compassionate Friends was a piece she was missing. She also admits she lost friends because they got tired of her talking about T.J.

Lost connections with friends and family is a common thread shared by all group members.

“I have to talk about him,” Debbie says. “It makes me feel close to him.”

Remembering is a big part of healing and moving forward, says Michelle Green, who lost her brother Rich to cancer on Dec. 8, 2011.

“I came to support my mom,” Michelle admits. “I used to think she needed it and I thought I didn’t.

“If it weren’t for Mom, I wouldn’t have come, but I’m glad I did because it forced me to talk about it. I try to avoid it because I have two children and I have to function. I use my busy life as an escape, but that’s not healthy.”

Her advice to other people who have suffered a loss is to face it and talk about it.

“It has given me the chance to look back and remember to when we were younger,” she says. “Those memories help me through the pain because I think back to when he was happy.”


Love trumps all

Bill DeLoach appears calm and peaceful, even smiling, when he talks about how proud he was the day he brought his daughter Amber home from the hospital after her birth. Amber was just a few weeks shy of her and her twin sister’s nineteenth birthday when she was killed on Sept. 30, 2012.

“I would never be where I am today in my spiritual life if I hadn’t have suffered this,” DeLoach says. “I truly feel that in any tragedy of any kind, whether it’s my family’s tragedy or the Newtown tragedy, whatever it is, we all have to find something positive and to look at the tragedy to find something positive and when we do that, it gives us hope. And a life without hope is the real tragedy.”

DeLoach says he hopes this holiday will be one of peace and healing and that the end of Amber’s murder trial will give the family closure.

He says he wasn’t sure Compassionate Friends was a good fit when he first came to a meeting the November after Amber’s death.

The first time I came here and everyone was crying, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be around all this sadness,’” he says. “But then one of the people from the meeting got in touch with me and told me how much I helped him. It is healing for me to help someone else. I wish I could help others, especially people who are grieving.

“I truly feel that Amber wouldn’t want me sitting in here crying,” he says.

DeLoach says he feels chosen for this path in life so he can heal his grief by reaching out to help others.

“I have improved my life in a lot of ways,” he says, and his job as a general contractor has given him tools to provide for others.

“I volunteered to build some spaces for a counseling center here in Savannah to help the disadvantaged — mostly homeless people and the disadvantaged. I’ve been asked to sit on a board.” He says with a laughs, shrugs his shoulders and admits he’s surprised to be in such a position. “It’s not an ego-based thing. I feel good about the work I do now.

“I really feel that after going through this that the most important thing in life is love, so to share that with other people feels good.”


Community support

So what can the community do to help Compassionate Friends of Savannah?

“First, funeral homes need to have an awareness of Compassionate Friends and to know when to say something,” Debbie says. “It’s all in timing.”

Compassionate Friends also offers advice and strategies to people who want to comfort friends or family who have lost a loved one.

“For the community, when there is a loss, it’s important to talk and say the child’s name. Don’t avoid the subject. People always say, well, I didn’t want to say anything, I didn’t want to make you sad. Well, I’m already sad. You’re not making me sad. I’m sad. Our tears come from the amount of love we have for our children.”

Mark says he wants to have an annual day for bereaved parents in the county and have a moment of silence, but it’s hard to know how to organize the event because the Savannah chapter draws people from Hilton Head to Hinesville.

“We are also looking for some area where we can plant trees or plant a tree with markers around it for the organization, something centrally located in Savannah, maybe at a park or something, a peaceful place where people can gather,” Debbie says.

“The community can help by donating funds or space for the trees,” she says. “We are a nonprofit organization and run solely by donations, and there is never a charge for any of our services or for our meetings,” she says.

“We need more support to grow and gain community awareness, but we aren’t good at asking for money. I’m sure people would help if they just knew about us.”



For more information on Compassionate Friends Savannah or to donate funding, call Debbie Rambis at 812-249-5452 or email For more information on Compassionate Friends, visit the website at

The Savannah chapter of Compassionate Friends meets every second Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. for full circle grief support at 450 Mall Blvd. Suite H. Those in need of support can also connect with the group on the closed Facebook page for Compassionate Friends of Savannah.






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