Bereaved parents find lifeline, comfort from Compassionate Friends

Bellevue resident Marsha Stevens and her son

Sometimes, when the wind blows gently, Marsha Stevens hears her son speak to her through wind chimes that hang outside her house.

She also sees her son in the vibrant sunflowers she planted in her yard. Once, Stevens even saw him in a white butterfly.

“Brad came to me in a dream and said he was okay, he’s sorry that he had to go,” the Bellevue resident said on a recent morning, adding the butterfly hung around for three days. “I woke up the next day and it meant so much to me.”

Stevens says parents who have lost their child “look for these little things like finding butterflies.”

She twists a blue ring on her finger – her son’s class of 2000 ring from Issaquah High School. One of several rubber bracelets on her wrist says “forever in my heart” that she got from The Compassionate Friends, a self-help support organization that assists bereaved families toward the positive resolution of grief following the death of a child of any age.

The Eastside chapter, based in Kirkland, has nearly 300 members.

“Our life now is bringing Brad back to life through memories,” Stevens said, noting how Compassionate Friends has validated her need to keep his memory alive. “I will always be his mother and I can’t forget that. That’s hard for me to say because it’s sad – my child’s not here. I have a lot of memories around the house about Brad.”

Growing up, Brad, loved sports. He was a smart student, when he wanted to be. She recalled how her daughter used to play dress up with Brad, putting a wig and lipstick on him and they loved to dance.

As a young adult, Brad graduated from Washington State University and decided he wanted to go to architecture school.

“He went off to school in Boston and then came home in March and wasn’t sure if architecture was for him,” Stevens said. “We never got to that point.”

While Brad was home on vacation for nine days, he was half-a-mile away from his home when his car went off the road and crashed into a tree. Police came to Stevens door at 2:30 a.m. to let her know her son was killed instantly.

March 20, 2007 is what she refers to as Brad’s “Angel Day.” He was 24.

“Our life has been changed since then,” she said.

Early on in her grief journey, Stevens could barely take care of herself and didn’t want to carry on. She found out about The Compassionate Friends through someone she knew at her gym and now says the support she has received from other bereaved parents has been “invaluable.”

Since her son’s death, she has had to educate her friends and let them know it’s okay to talk about Brad.

“If I cry, I cry, it’s okay. I just don’t want people to forget about my son.”

And that’s how Compassionate Friends has been so helpful. Parents can sit down in a group, talk about their children they have lost and connect with each other.

Life now for Stevens is simple. She can’t handle a lot of stress, so she doesn’t sweat the small things. She is also more aware of other parent’s grief.

“I watch the news and there’s so much tragedy, so many children every day that are lost,” Stevens said. “It just happens every day so much and I’m so well aware of it now and I have this feeling in me that kind of breaks for each one.”

The one thing that she’ll miss the most are Brad’s bear hugs. The night of the accident, the family ate dinner and her son had a meeting with her husband and Brad rushed out of the house. But a moment later he ran back inside to give his mother a bear hug before he left.

“Having a young man give you a hug, especially when he’s your son, is so neat and I miss that.”

Like Stevens, who met Bonnie Holstad through Compassionate Friends, the organization has also validated the need for Holstad to connect with her son, Sonny, through “linking objects.”

Holstad sees her son in a lumber store.

“He was a custom sider in the construction industry and he did precision work,” said the Snohomish resident, who drives her son’s truck to connect with him. “It’s really a joy to go around the community and see houses that he worked on. It’s a treat for me to go to a lumber store in Seattle that he did the siding on.”

Her family also has evidence of her son’s life in their homes: a pergo floor he put down at her in-law’s house, bookcases he made for his sister.

Holstad pulls out a wallet and flips through pictures of her blond-haired, blue-eyed son, in his early years at the age of one, and then all dressed up at a middle school dance.

As a child, Sonny loved sports, golf, fishing and chess. Not long before he died, he asked his mother to play a game of chess with him, but Holstad was too tired from work.

“I’d give anything right now to play that game,” she said.

She stops at her favorite picture of him as a young man at 18 years old.

“Here he is with his first niece, Katherine,” she points to the picture. “They were very close. We’re all so thrilled and pleased that in his life he had this relationship.”

An intelligent and humorous man, Sonny suffered from Schizophrenia.

On May 12, 2005, he committed suicide. He was 32.

In a letter he wrote, Sonny felt “they” were threatening not only his life, but his family “and that it was because of him that his family was endangered,” Holstad recalled. “So we have this tremendous guilt in our family because he basically sacrificed his life to save us in his delusion.”

Compassionate Friends has helped Holstad sort through her guilt. She found out about the organization through searching and reading stories by other bereaved parents.

Her daughter made a phone call and Holstad was invited to the August parent meeting, which fell on the annual Balloon Release event.

During the event, bereaved parents attach a note to a balloon and release it in honor of their child.

This year’s Balloon Release begins at 7 p.m. Aug. 13 at the North Kirkland Community Center.

“I didn’t speak to a soul that first night,” Holstad recalled. “I have learned from other bereaved parents that that’s not all that unusual that we have a sense of alienation from the world because how can the world go on when our lives have changed in ways we can’t even describe.”

Her “lifesaver” has been the separate support group for mothers, ran by Kirkland resident Sue Anderson, who is one of the founders of the Eastside chapter. Healing occurs when others validate her story, Holstad says.

She describes how difficult it is for bereaved parents to connect with their old lives.

“That was my life before, this is my life now,” she said, adding everything has changed from her personality to her view of the world. “Many of our loved ones want us to be how we were – that’s a very common thing.”

In their “new lives,” Stevens and Holstad take each day as it comes, learning how to carry their broken hearts with them.

But they also take comfort in knowing each other and talking about their sons, who both had blond hair, blue eyes and loved sports.

“We think they’re friends now,” Holstad said.

The Compassionate Friends

The Eastside chapter meets from 7:30-9:30 p.m. the second Thursday of every month at the Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, 10021 N.E. 124th St., Kirkland. For information, visit www.eastsidetcf.org or call 425-325-0357.

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