Now We Are Alone: Living On Without Our Sons A year ago, the author and his wife were part of a happy family with a bright future. Then their two sons were killed in a car crash. Now they feel a certain bond with other parents who understand that children die a second time "when no one speaks their name."

Now We Are Alone: Living On Without Our Sons

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer. For many parents, it's a time full of hope as their children march back to school or off to college.

NPR's Linton Weeks knows all too well that for some couples, that's not the case.

LINTON WEEKS: My wife, Jan, and I did not celebrate a damn thing this summer. We didn't take a family vacation or invite friends to our backyard for a picnic. Instead, we got in the car one morning and drove to the national conference of the Compassionate Friends.

Unidentified Woman: As we reach out to each other in love and share a pain as well as the joy...

WEEKS: The Compassionate Friends is a support organization for parents who have lost a child or, in our case, children - all our children.

Let me tell you why we ended up at the convention. Just a year earlier, Jan and I were happy and lighthearted. We were content in our work and our marriage, and we had two beautiful, amazing sons: Stone, who was 24, and Holt, who was 20.

We spent several wonderful days with them at a family reunion in Nashville on that July weekend in 2009. Stone and Holt had each worked so hard to be at a glorious point in their lives, and they were delighted to be living in the same city after spending several years apart.

The four of us laughed so much. And we had serious discussions, talking history and politics. We listened to music and danced and told stories. As Jan and I said goodbye to Stone and Holt, we gave them big hugs. It was the last time we ever saw them.

Less than two weeks later, on July 23rd, 2009, as they were driving home to be with us, Stone and Holt were killed by a massive tractor-trailer truck. It plowed into their car while they were stopped in traffic on a Virginia highway.

We received the heart-smashing news on an early Friday morning. Ever since that instant, we have been wandering through a painful, meaningless, surreal world - and feeling very alone.

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WEEKS: So now, a year after the double-tragedy, Jan and I were joining with others who know some of what we're feeling. The conference was at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia. It brought us together with more than 1,400 other people who also have lost a child.

We were at the 33rd annual gathering of the Compassionate Friends, an organization to which none of its members want to belong. And yet for many, many people we have run into at the conference, the Compassionate Friends is a lifesaver.

We were all drawn to the group's overarching message: Losing a child is an alienating experience. You are alienated from everything you knew before the event - your friends, your family, yourself. By gathering together and sharing experiences with others who are also alienated, you just may be able to go on living.

The conference was organized by Chuck and Kathy Collins of Fairfax, Virginia, whose daughter Tiffanie died in 1996. On the first morning, Kathy led us in the group's credo.

Ms. KATHY COLLINS: Share the anger as well as the peace. Share the faith as well as the doubts. And help each other to grieve as well as to grow. We need not walk alone. We are the Compassionate Friends.

WEEKS: The keynote speaker was former Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, whose son Garrett committed suicide in 2003 at age 22. Smith told the audience that he learned the terrible news from police officers.

Mr. GORDON SMITH (Former Senator, Oregon): As the door closed, shock and numbness held me for a moment above what looked like the blackest depths of sorrow and failure. Joy vanished. Years of striving and achieving now appeared as ashes to me. Success in business, service in church, even election to the United States Senate, in an instant it all seemed meaningless, even vain. I had failed to save my own son, and I felt I had failed at my most important and lasting responsibility: that of family, that of fatherhood.

WEEKS: No matter how your child dies, there is an undeniable sense of failure among bereaved parents. Jan and I are haunted by regrets that we could not save Stone and Holt from their violent, senseless deaths. We should have been the ones who died first, not our precious boys.

We will carry that guilt in our already shattered hearts for the rest of our lives. And we relearn every morning when we wake up, the loss of our children is something we will never get over or past or through.

At the conference luncheon, Maria Housden, whose daughter Hannah died of cancer at age 3 - nearly 16 years ago - spoke of the challenges.

Ms. MARIA HOUSDEN: Grief has no rules, no timeline, no expiration date. Time passes, and the loss remains. I am profoundly grateful for gatherings like this one, where we can be together, share our stories, our loved ones' names, our memories, our grief. We need to come together to support one another because our culture does so little to prepare us for death, especially the death of a child.

WEEKS: Here was a vast collection of painful, tragic stories. Every person there was there because of unspeakable sorrow. Yet the protocol of the gathering is to speak of that sorrow when you meet someone.

The Compassionate Friends embraces us all. With more than 600 local chapters and regular chapter meetings, it's several support groups rolled into one: a suicide prevention hotline, a forum for patients with incurable heart disease, and a rehab opportunity for people who are likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Jan and I had been in deep grief for slightly less than a year, but we were struck that many conference-goers have been coming back year after year - some for more than 20 years.

We were especially interested in several panel discussions, including "Sudden Death - Vehicular" and "Multiple Losses." I attended a session titled "Hope for Bereaved Parents with No Surviving Children." Jan sat in on a seminar called "Whispers of Love: Signs from Our Children," led by Mitch Carmody of Minnesota.

His 9-year-old son Kelly died of cancer in 1987. Mitch said he felt burdened for 10 years by the constant pressure from friends and family to get over the death of his son - until one day, he looked at a photo of Kelly, and fell to his knees and wept.

Mr. MITCH CARMODY: And that was the beginning of my grief journey, and trying to understand grief. I did it like my parents did, my mother did: You don't talk about it. That's another Minnesota nice, but you're also good Nordic stock. I'm Minnesotan. You don't talk about that stuff. You move on, you move forward; you get over it.

And I couldn't do that. Our child died a second time when no one speaks their name, and I just - I find that I can't live with that.

WEEKS: At the end of the first day, Jan and I were exhausted. We didn't have the stamina to stay for the evening sharing sessions. We heard that they often can go on for hours. Instead, we drove home and went to bed, not really sure if we had the energy to go through another day of workshops and panel discussions.

But the next morning, for more than one reason, we were in the car again, two sorrow-filled parents driving through Washington to go back to the conference for another day, in a place where we did not feel quite so all alone.

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SIEGEL: NPR's Linton Weeks, who lost his two sons a little over a year ago.

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SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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