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Compassion, when parents need it most

(ran PC edition of PASCO TIMES)

Michelle O'Connor went into premature labor. Jacob, born in New Port Richey more than two months early, weighed 1 pound, 6 ounces.

"He was born alive," said his mother. "He just could not survive. . . . He never made it out of the hospital. When you didn't get to bring your baby home, it's hard to deal with."

O'Connor said she has dealt with eight years of grief the best way she knows how.

"I went to the support groups, to hospice. I was able to talk about him," she said. "The more you talk about it, the more it heals you."

Since she and her husband, Don, moved to Spring Hill, she has attended meetings of the Brooksville-Spring Hill chapter of Compassionate Friends. The mission of the group, one of some 600 chapters nationwide and others in 28 countries around the world, is "to assist families in the positive resolution of grief and to provide information and education to help others be supportive."

Many in the monthly meetings of 10 to 20 grievers are suffering the deaths of children _ sometimes grandchildren or great-grandchildren _ who lived far beyond infancy, even to adulthood. Those mourners have years of memories.

Parents who have experienced a miscarriage or stillborn or infant death often feel intimidated by the group, said Micki Morena, chapter leader.

"They don't have any memories of baby, no hopes, no dreams, when others are talking about an 18-year-old or a 30-year-old," Morena said.

O'Connor said it is difficult for her to relate to those parents. "We didn't have those (memories)," she said.

So, O'Connor is launching a subgroup of the chapter to support parents of miscarriages and infant loss. The first meeting will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Spring Hill Regional Hospital Enrichment Center, 1244 Mariner Blvd. Future sessions will be on the second Friday of each month. There are no membership dues or fees.

O'Connor, 35, has experienced the deaths of her newborn and her younger brother, 29-year-old Michael Joworski, who died of a burst artery in his brain.

"When I lost my son, it totally devastated me," she said. " . . . I could just fall apart. When I lost my brother, I had to be strong for my mother and father. I had memories of my brother; I didn't have memories of my son."

Compassion Friends "is primarily talking," she said. "It's not like people giving advice. It's, like, this is what I tried, and this helped me."

Some meetings will have designated topics _ perhaps anger or guilt, Morena suggested _ and speakers will be invited.

But it is the opportunity to talk with others who have trod the same tragic path that helps heal, O'Connor said.

She recalls telling a support group, "My arms are aching. I want to hold him again. Am I crazy?"

Another mother replied, "That's exactly what I wanted."

Hearing those words made O'Connor feel better.

Creating memories also eases grief, O'Connor has learned.

The O'Connors perpetuated Jacob's name. Their 6-year-old son's name is Nicholas Jacob O'Connor; their daughter, 4, carries the female derivative, Danielle Jacqueline.

O'Connor also sought out "the perfect candle."

It's a floating candle, in glass with Jacob's name engraved on it, and the family burns it every Aug. 19, Jacob's birthday.

Morena said she is excited about the new support group because families who have suffered miscarriages and infant deaths have special needs.

"It's a great idea because everyone has a different type of grief," added Wayne Loder, public awareness coordinator for the national Compassionate Friends organization, headquartered at Oak Brook, Ill. "Those who've had miscarriages or infant deaths, they have had a hard time relating" to those who have lost family members of more advanced age.

Loder said he is not aware of any other stillborn-infant subgroups among Florida's 21 Compassionate Friends chapters.

Morena's son, whom she refers to as Johnny Boy, died in 1987 at age 31 of cardiac arrest. He was disabled from birth. At a Compassion Friends conference, as her tears streamed, a group member approached Morena, asking compassionate questions. Foremost Morena recalls, the woman asked, "Does his disability discount his death?" That's why Morena feels a definite need for more Compassionate Friends subgroups, to help heal specific losses.

"We also need a group for older siblings," she said. "I feel they're the forgotten grievers."

The need for support for families having encountered suicide is also great, she said.

The Brooksville-Spring Hill chapter of Compassionate Friends, launched in 1988, meets at 7:30 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the Spring Hill Enrichment Center. Morena has been its leader for 11 years.

The chapter maintains a Living Memories Garden at the May-Stringer Heritage Museum in Brooksville, where a ninth marble bench bearing the names of 18 deceased children will be dedicated on April 6.

About the group

The first meeting of the Compassionate Friends subgroup for parents who have been through miscarriage or lost an infant is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Spring Hill Regional Hospital Enrichment Center, 1244 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill. For information, call Michelle O'Connor at 683-2331. For information about the regular meetings of Compassionate Friends, call Micki Morena at 683-0187.

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