Debbie McCarthy sits in the living room of her East Lawrence home, bouncing her smiling 8-month-old son on her lap. Christmas stockings hang from pegs on a shelf behind her. The lights on her Christmas tree blink.
A picture of McCarthy's first child, Paul Joseph, sits in a frame at her feet as she talks about how difficult Christmas can be.
McCarthy is the leader of the Lawrence chapter of Compassionate Friends, an international organization that encourages listening and sharing among parents who have endured the death of a child. The Lawrence chapter was established in May 1985.
McCarthy joined in July, 1988. Paul Joseph died in March of that year when he stopped breathing. He was 2 months old.
MCCARTHY SAID she wanted to lead the group so she could return the support she has received. She hopes to boost participation. A dozen people at the most attend the monthly meetings, and McCarthy knows there are many more grieving parents than that in the area. But she understands why this month's meeting may not have much of a turnout.
"Sometimes it's harder for people to come in December because it opens those wounds back up," she said.
The December meeting of Compassionate Friends is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Dr. Although the group has no religious affiliation, it meets at the community center the third Tuesday of every month.
The December meeting is special, McCarthy said, because the group has a ceremony during which each parent lights a candle and says his or her child's name. It's a time to remember.
Bereaved parents fear that their children will be forgotten, said Marge Hazlett, the group's newsletter editor.
"ONE OF THE greatest gifts you can give a bereaved parent is to mention their child," she said.
McCarthy said she joined the group because she wanted to be able to bond with people who understood her grief.
"You can cry. You can be sad. You can do whatever you want to," she said. "This is our private time to let out all our emotions."
For Hazlett, the group provides a place to bare her soul, to cry, to laugh, to say things she knows the other group members will understand but other people might think are crazy.
"You realize that you all are experiencing very similar things and that's very comforting rather than trying to do it all on your own," she said. "It's helpful. And it's somewhere you can speak your child's name and not make anybody feel uncomfortable. . . . It's a good release."
HAZLETT FIRST attended a Compassionate Friends meeting in Topeka after the death of her daughter, Mindy Hazlett Dunlap, on Dec. 7, 1978. Mindy, who was 22, died of leukemia. Hazlett helped found the Lawrence group.
Ginger Hamm, who also helped establish the Lawrence chapter, said group meetings aren't always sad. They provide a place where bereaved parents can feel comfortable sharing funny memories and stories about their children. Friends of bereaved parents may not know what to say about a dead child, so for many members the group is the only forum they have for discussing their children.
Hamm's son, Larry Roth, died in 1974 from a rare form of cancer. He was 17. Hamm said she learned the Christmas after Larry's death that Christmas isn't a happy time for everyone. The group might help make Christmas more bearable for bereaved parents, she said.
"Sometimes it's helpful during the holidays to be able to go," she said. "It's there for people that need it."