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Grieving parents find comfort in Compassionate Friends

Julie Coleman, left, sits with Daphne Hill and pictures of their children. The two founded the Chapel Hill chapter of The Compassionate Friends, which helps parents cope with losing a child. Photo by Emily Burns.
Julie Coleman, left, sits with Daphne Hill and pictures of their children. The two founded the Chapel Hill chapter of The Compassionate Friends, which helps parents cope with losing a child. Photo by Emily Burns.

By Emily Burns
Staff Writer

Four and a half years have passed since Olivia Royal Petty, then 25, was killed in an automobile accident, but her mother Daphne Hill said that it sometimes feels like it has been just four and a half weeks.

For parents who have lost a child, Hill said, the grieving process never stops.

“We are always thinking about our child in the back of our minds,” said Hill, co-founder of the Chapel Hill Area Chapter of The Compassionate Friends, an international self-help support group for adults dealing with the loss of a child or sibling.

“We just want to say, ‘Talk about it,’” she said.

With nearly 600 chapters across the nation, TCF strives to create small, close-knit communities in which grieving adults can come together to remember their loved ones, share coping skills and develop lasting friendships with others who have experienced similar loss.

“I think The Compassionate Friends is still a new idea for many people,” said Julie Coleman, who co-founded the Chapel Hill chapter with Hill in 2005. “We want people who need the help to know that we are here.

“We try to let everyone speak. We learn from every member, and every member learns from us,” said Coleman, whose son Justin Lord Coleman died in 2003 at the age of 27.

At most monthly meetings, the first hour is reserved for group discussion of a single topic, such as what coping skills have been most effective. The last half-hour is reserved for more intimate, one-on-one conversations between members.

Through their experiences with the organization, Hill and Coleman have learned that many adults who have lost children find it difficult to express their emotions, especially as time passes and their friends and family assume the grieving process is over.

Both Coleman and Hill said they have found acceptance and comfort through their involvement with TCF, and the organization has offered the type of support they need.

For Hill, TCF meetings offer an opportunity to keep memories of her daughter alive. She is able to show the same pictures and tell the same stories over and over, and someone is always there to listen.

“People have to have this because it hurts too much not to,” Hill said.

“I can be in a bad mood or a good mood or no mood, and I can feel total acceptance,” Coleman said.

Coleman also said she has gained an extended family through her involvement with the organization.

“We’ve all been through the same things,” she said.

Hill first learned of TCF through a fellow teacher at Pittsboro Elementary School. Soon after, she learned that Coleman was also interested in forming a local chapter.

Hill called Coleman in the spring of 2005 to ask if she would like to meet to discuss the possibility of forming a chapter together.

That same afternoon, they met for the first time in Coleman’s kitchen, talked about their children and began to make plans for their own chapter. The first meeting of the Chapel Hill Area Chapter was held Oct. 17, 2005 — exactly two years after Justin Coleman passed away.

In addition to providing a local support network, the organization offers other opportunities for its members from across the nation and the world to come together.

TCF hosts a Worldwide Candle Lighting and regional and national conferences each year. This year’s national conference will take place in Nashville, July 18-20.

The Chapel Hill Area Chapter of The Compassionate Friends meets at 7:30 p.m. on the third Monday of each month at Evergreen United Methodist Church, 11098 Hwy. 15-501. The next meeting will be held Monday, March 17.

Any adult who has lost a child or sibling is invited to attend the meeting and to participate or listen, and there are no membership dues or obligations.

For more information, visit www.chapelhilltcf.org or contact Julie Coleman at 967-3221.

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