- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Austin Tulley was just 5 months old on May 26, 2009.
“He was a happy, healthy boy,” said Brandy Tulley of her baby. He had a shadow of blonde hair and blue eyes. He loved bananas, peaches and pears, but didn’t care for applesauce. His parents laughed at the way he was fascinated by his feet.
But at day care that day in 2009, Austin died while taking his afternoon nap.
“It was determined to be Sudden Infant Death Syndrome,” Tulley said during a phone interview last week.
“I didn’t know how I could survive it,” she said.
Losing a child is “the ultimate” loss, said Carol Paschall of Dunkirk, who facilitates a Compassionate Friends group in Prince Frederick, a support group for people dealing with the death of a child. “It’s bereaved parents helping bereaved parents,” Paschall said.
Tulley sought comfort at a monthly infant loss support group hosted by Hospice of St. Mary’s. At the advice of the funeral director who handled Austin’s arrangements, she also started attending monthly meetings of The Compassionate Friends groups in both Charles and Calvert counties, becoming a regular at Paschall’s group.
Tulley couldn’t get enough of that time with other parents who had gone through the same experience people who understood how she felt.
“I felt like I could talk every day to parents who had also lost a child,” she said. She started an infant loss support group at the St. Paul’s campus of First Saints Community Church in Leonardtown to set up even more support as she worked to create a “new normal.”
This year, three years after her son’s death, Tulley changed her infant loss support group into a Compassionate Friends group, thereby opening up the group to those who had lost a child of any age.
The Compassionate Friends is a national nonprofit, self-help support organization offering friendship, understanding and hope to families grieving the death of a child of any age, from any cause. There is no religious affiliation, and no individual membership fees or dues are charged. All bereaved family members are welcome.
Founded in England in 1969, The Compassionate Friends was established in the United States in 1972. It operates as separate entities in at least 30 countries.
The Compassionate Friends has more than 630 chapters in the United States, with locations in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. There are now three chapters in Southern Maryland, one meeting monthly in each of the three counties.
Paschall said she knew the value of talking to others with similar issues even before her 4-year-old daughter’s death in May 1999. “I had been involved with support groups before because my daughter was special needs. You go and vent about doctors,” she said, laughing, “and it always helped me.”
She went to her first Compassionate Friends meeting two weeks after her daughter, Elizabeth, died due to an infection after surgery. “I felt like I had a hole in my heart ... like there was an empty space in my heart.”
People who haven’t experienced the death of a child have a hard time knowing what to say to a grieving parent; so, too often, they don’t say anything, Paschall said. But the parents want to talk.
“They want to remember them. They want to talk about them,” she said. The Compassionate Friends is “a safe place to do it.”
Participants in the group talk about “how we feel, the kids, the guilt, the if-onlys,” she said. “It just helped me to know that there are other people going through the same thing.”
Tulley wants the community to know that there is a group for them if they are struggling with this kind of loss.
“The support I received from friends, family, our church, coworkers and complete strangers from the St. Mary's County community was overwhelming. It sounds kind of cheesy, but I was touched by the compassion I felt from the St. Mary's community many people who I didn't even know,” Tulley said. “And even with all that support, there was one thing The Compassionate Friends group and other bereaved parents gave me that no one else could. And that was hope.
“By meeting and talking with other bereaved parents I was able to see there were people who had survived this and not only survived but were learning to live and find joy in life again,” she said.
To learn more
Three Compassionate Friends groups meet in Southern Maryland. The St. Mary’s County group meets the second Thursday of each month from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the St. Paul’s campus of First Saints Community Church in Leonardtown, next to St. Mary’s Hospital. For more on this group, call Brandy Tulley at 240-434-8414.
A group meets in Calvert County the fourth Monday of every month from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Trinity United Methodist Church in Prince Frederick. For more, call Carol Paschall at 301-855-3068.
A group meets in Charles County the third Monday of every month from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Good Samaritan Presbyterian Church in Waldorf. Call Pat Pruss at 301-753-4121.
For more about Compassionate Friends, see www.compassionatefriends.org.