Grieving Parents Find Solace in Each Other

Times Staff Writer

"I remember looking at the clock when Brian stopped breathing. It was exactly 11:58 p.m. I don't know why I looked, but I did. Then I just watched the oscilloscope and waited for the heartbeat to stop.

"And Brian died."

When his chest grew still and the steady wave of the oscilloscope settled stubbornly into one straight line, Brian's mother Kathy remained quiet, very quiet. She sat and held her son for a very long time. And when his body began to grow cold she said goodby.

Kathy Inman and her husband, Tony, had said goodby to Brian before. For three years, their 5-year-old had struggled with a malignant brain tumor. For three years, they faced the possibility of his death and, at times, expected it. But that didn't soften the blow when, in March, 1984, Brian stopped struggling.

Only Talking Helped

And, after Brian was buried and the relatives had all gone home, nothing seemed to help fill the void. Nothing except talking.

Kathy Inman, especially, needed to talk. But friends and family, eager for her to resume a "normal" life, were reluctant to listen.

One friend, however, did listen. Soula Harrington lost her 3-year-old, Marcos, to leukemia just two weeks after Kathy Inman lost Brian. A mutual friend had put them in touch with each other when Marcos fell into a coma that would last six months. Brian had survived a coma and, at that time, was back at home.

After the boys died, Harrington began dropping by the Inman's Redondo Beach home. And while Inman watched over her newborn, Danny, and her 3-year-old, Lisa, the women's thoughts turned to the children they had lost. They talked and hugged and cried.

Support Group

During one of these visits--as Inman remembers it--Harrington suggested forming a support group--a gathering of parents, like them, whose children had died. Harrington credits Inman with the suggestion.

"We needed help and we thought it was a good idea," Harrington recalled recently. "Kathy started it out and I said I'd be her helper."

Inman got to work right away. She called Dr. Jerry Finklestein, a specialist in children's blood disorders and one of the physicians who had treated her son.

"I said, 'You don't have a support group. Would you mind if I started one?' He told me they'd tried to start a 'bereavement group' before. And I said I don't think I'd come if they called it a bereavement group. You don't want to sit there and wail."

Finklestein gave her permission to work with the social worker at Miller Children's Hospital in Long Beach, where he directs the Jonathan Jaques Children's Cancer Center. With the doctor's approval, she began to spread the word about the group, which she simply called P.S.--Parent Support.

In the year and a half since Inman and Harrington sat down together over Kleenex and coffee, parents from 25 families have found a positive way to deal with the anguish of a child's death through the peer support and professional guidance at monthly meetings of P.S.

The Torrance group is open to any parent who has lost a child through an accident or illness. Ten to 15 parents--mostly mothers--attend on a regular basis. In the presence of a psychologist or social worker, they swap stories, share photos, talk out the pain. Some simply sit and listen.

The discussion helps parents cope with "one of life's hardest crises," said Rochelle Pincus, a clinical social worker at the Jaques center and one of P.S.'s professional consultants. "Losing a child is much harder than losing a spouse. It's a much harder bond that's broken."

The loss is so difficult to accept, Pincus says, because a child's death is an aberration. "It's not natural for a parent to outlive a child."

Deviation From Plan

Finklestein agrees. "When one thinks of a child, one doesn't think of death and dying," he said. "And when children's lives are shortened, this is a tremendous shock to the parents' system. It's a deviation from what they had planned with their lives."

Parents who have buried a child "become part of a very unique group," Finklestein said. But by joining other parents in a P.S. discussion they feel less isolated.

Talking with others who have experienced a similar loss is particularly important, Pincus explained, because most parents feel that only another parent who has lost a child can understand what they're going through.

"One mother will, say, tell how she broke down while shopping for groceries at the supermarket," Pincus said. "Then another will say, 'You cried at the market, too?' "

Validating Feelings

For Kathy Inman, validating feelings is what P.S. is all about. "The purpose is to let parents know that the problems and the emotions they're having are very common and there's nothing weird about them," she said.

"You find out that someone else has had problems with the family. That someone else can't deal with the wife's or the husband's emotions."

Husbands and wives often cope with their grief in different ways, Pincus said. P.S. provides an outlet for the more communicative spouse--usually the wife--to express her sorrow without imposing her needs on her husband.

As for men, "their need for comfort isn't any less," Pincus said. "Men cope differently. It's more difficult for them to come to a group. We urge families to respect differences in styles of coping."

Kathy Inman, for one, has learned to respect these differences. Her husband has not attended any P.S. meetings. "He's a private person," she said of Tony. "He's not a talker. Fathers tend to be this way. They're not less emotional, just less vocal."

Difficulty With Friends

Besides differences within the family, grieving parents often find unexpected difficulties in dealing with their friends.

"Friends don't want to hear about it after a while," Pincus said. "They ask: 'Why aren't you doing better?' "

Kathy Inman almost lost her best friend after Brian died; she said she was disappointed in how her friend "performed."

"Sometimes the one you expect to be there--to give you the right answers--isn't there," she said. "They let you down. But it isn't fair. You're expecting something they cannot give. It's not until later that you realize it and, hopefully, you haven't lost that friendship."

Such insights often come to P.S. parents with the aid of the group consultant, who subtly channels the discussion with occasional remarks and questions.

Low-Key Role

Pincus, who receives no fee for her services, says her role is strictly low-key. "The parents are there to help each other. I don't want to take a front seat."

The social worker says she steps in only when the discussion takes a harmful turn.

"Once, one of the parents talked about a shrine she had set up in her home for her little boy," Pincus recalled. "I don't feel that it was a helpful thing to do. So I commented that other parents shouldn't follow her lead."

Parents often find their way to P.S. through a social worker or other hospital staff members, who give Inman the phone number of a grieving family.

Need Help

That first contact usually occurs two to four months after a child's death. By that time, the initial shock has worn off and parents are badly in need of help, Inman said.

"The majority of them are just lost. They've hit a roadblock. They're pleased to know there's something around."

Before P.S., there was no such support group in the South Bay. Some local parents joined a similar group in Santa Monica, others drove to meetings in Tustin.

Once South Bay parents find P.S, they usually attend regularly. But some attend once and choose not to return.

"It's just a matter of need at the time," Inman said. "Some parents come and they expect answers. And when they don't get those answers they don't come anymore. Some come and find it too painful and don't want to come again. Others find it's just what they need."

P.S. met for the first time in August, 1984. A social worker joined Kathy Inman, Soula Harrington and three other parents, including Josie Martinez.

Josie and Bob Martinez had lost their son, Robert, 17, the year before. The high school honors student was found to have a tumor on his trachea in October, 1983.

Josie Martinez had left the house for a short time one day in December and, when she returned, found Robert dead, lying on the carpet in a pool of blood. Overcome with grief, the Martinezes sold their home.

"We were trying to put our lives in order," Martinez said of that very difficult time. She and Bob called around, looking for a support organization near their Harbor City home. The closest they could find was the group in Tustin.

Saw Announcement

Several months later, however, Martinez saw an announcement Inman had placed in the newspaper. She called and offered to help.

Another mother at that first meeting was Grace Prine of Cerritos. She and her husband Paul had joined the Tustin group within a few months of the death of their 18-month-old daughter Carrie. But the group "was depressing," she said. "The people were stuck in their grief."

By the time the Prines heard about P.S, Carrie had been dead for more than two years and they were ready to try again. "We came with the idea of what we could do to help the group," Prine said. She joined the other women in the publicity campaign, mailing out flyers to hospices and funeral homes.

On a cool fall evening they file in and greet each other, pouring coffee from a thermos into plastic foam cups. The plum-colored chairs and couches in this doctor's waiting room are full by 7:30, but the parents keep coming. Tonight's crowd is larger than usual: 14 mothers and 5 fathers. Some settle onto the floor.

Disparate events and circumstances have brought them together: Cancer, a plane crash, a reckless driver. A tumor, a whirlpool, a man with a gun. Most feel the need to talk. They chat in twos or threes until their private conversations evolve, almost imperceptibly, into one free-for-all discussion.

Some prefer to listen. One mother sits cross-legged on the floor at the edge of the circle, saying nothing. She looks down at two photos she has placed on the carpet, photos of a smiling, blond boy. Then listening becomes too hard. She picks up the photos and leaves the room.

Her husband explains: Their 4-year-old son was killed 10 days ago, run over by a neighbor as he crossed the street in front of their home. His wife isn't ready to discuss it.

Others Talk Freely

Other parents, though, whose tragedies have grown more remote, talk freely of the circumstances of their children's deaths:

"A year ago my son was shot to death."

"My daughter was killed by a car. Her blood was on that street for weeks."

They talk of the problems of coping with everyday life:

"If I see potatoes at the market, I think how much my son liked potatoes. I still can't buy Frosted Flakes."

"I avoid the restaurants I know he liked."

"If I could just figure out a way to cancel Thanksgiving and Christmas."

They talk of the seeming injustice of death:

"I feel cheated. I feel robbed."

"I think, 'Why couldn't it have been that 100-year-old man?' "

And they talk of the pain that seems eternal:

"You never get over somebody."

"It would have been easier if they had strapped a bomb to my chest."

"I keep wondering, when is it going to be OK?"

Trapped in Depression

Grace Prine will eagerly tell other parents that when her daughter died, she was trapped in a depression as deep as "the pits of hell."

"I was scared I would be there the rest of my life," she said. "But I knew I wanted to hang on and, now, the pain is gone most of the time. Parents need to know that life can go on." For Kathy Inman, too, life is getting easier. "The hurt comes to me just as intensely as when Brian first stopped breathing," she said. "But the hurt doesn't last as long and it doesn't come as frequently."

P.S parents derive strength not only from hearing words of comfort, but by reaching out to others who need consolation.

"I've been comforted and now I can give comfort to others," said Josie Martinez. "I'm over the worst part and I can listen now.

Parents interested in P.S. can call Kathy Inman at (213) 370-4990, evenings, or Grace Prine at (714) 522-1466, days.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World