Nobody understands it like they do.
These women know what it's like to fall into the fog. They ride the roller coaster of grief, reaching for few good moments and plunging down into too many bad ones. They live to remember someone who's gone.
They share this: the death of a child killed while serving in the military. This kind of tragedy can feel so isolating, they say, but they want others like them — known as "Gold Star" mothers — to know they're not alone.
"There are a lot of questions," said Oldsmar resident Toni Gross, whose son was killed in Afghanistan last year, "and often they're questions that only Gold Star mothers can respond and answer with each other."
Florida chapters of the American Gold Star Mothers Inc. plan to come together in Ruskin on Saturday. The event aims to establish an annual gathering for families of fallen warriors.
Several support groups will provide information on available resources, such as peer mentoring and nonprofit efforts. Families will mingle over lunch, and then take a boat trip to a quiet, nearby island to get a respite from the stress of losing a loved one.
Gross, 56, leads a new local chapter of American Gold Star Mothers. She says many families don't know where to turn for help when relatives die in combat.
"Because of the grief and the confusion and the sense of loss and really the desperation, often we just don't hear it," she said. "It does not compute."
It took her several months to become involved in American Gold Star Mothers after the death of her 25-year-old son, Army Cpl. Frank Robert Gross.
Casualty assistance officers aid families immediately after a military death. But support organizations can build lasting bonds and fill in where government liaisons can't.
Challenges include deciphering military paperwork and acronyms. Death reports can come back with classified information censored, leaving gaps instead of closure. And personal belongings have to be tracked down, sometimes from overseas or wherever they were stored before deployment.
Many mothers say they find a form of therapy in working with others in similar situations.
"It's a comfort," said Donna Hernandez, 58, of Spring Hill. "It really helps you work through your grief in a positive way."
Her son, 27-year-old Army Sgt. Derek P. Schicchi, died in Killeen, Texas, while stationed at Fort Hood in 2010.
In Apollo Beach, Kelly Kowall, 54, says she drew strength from talking to other Gold Star mothers.
"It's not a club that any mother wants to join," Kowall said, "but we're glad that it's there for us when we have to join it."
The mother of Army Spc. Corey Kowall, killed in Afghanistan at age 20, she also started her own nonprofits to ease the burden for others.
One program, FAVE Boating Expeditions, will guide Saturday's expedition of grieving Gold Star families.
"It's real important that you have the ability to reach out and talk to others who have already walked in your footsteps," Kowall said. "They can help you on your journey to avoid the pitfalls. They can make your journey a little easier to bear."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.