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Conference aims to ease the pain for parents who have lost children

MIDDLEBURY — Suzanne Sawyer of Middlebury was staring into the abyss after her only child, James Forrest, died in 2007 following a lengthy battle with drug addiction.
“As a mother, I thought, ‘How do you go on living when your child is no longer physically here?’” Sawyer said.
Sawyer has spent the past four years looking for answers to that question, one that has proved elusive for many thousands of other parents nationwide who have had to do the unthinkable — bury one of their children.
Sawyer and other grieving parents from throughout the region can get some more guidance this Saturday, June 18, through a conference for bereaved parents and their families called “Transforming Loss Into Hope.”
The day-long conference at Middlebury Union High School is being hosted by Hospice Volunteer Services of Addison County and is inspired by Luther and Rosemary Smith of Kentucky, whose teenage sons Drew and Jeremiah both died in a car accident in July of 1992. The Smiths have since channeled their grief into outreach efforts designed to help soothe the souls of other parents who have tragically outlived their offspring. Rosemary Smith is the writer/director of the documentary “Space Between Breaths,” an inspirational film that follows 12 families who learned to live with the catharsis of losing their children and have used their experiences to inspire others.
Smith will be on hand at Saturday’s conference for a showing of her documentary, noted event co-organizer Patricia Dunn, executive director of Hospice Volunteer Services. Smith is also scheduled to lead a workshop titled “The Real Person Behind the Mask,” which explores the grieving process. Other workshops will focus on the emotions that siblings experience when a brother or sister dies, how to connect with a lost loved one through spirit, how to maintain hope in the face of grieving and suffering, and how recovery from tragic loss is different for fathers and grandfathers.
The event will also feature a musical performance by two-time Grammy-nominated recording artist Cindy Bullens, a bereaved parent who wrote and recorded the CD “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth” and the score of the film “Space Between Breaths.”
Participants will be invited at the end of the day (4:15 to 5 p.m.) to gather and light a candle in memory of their loved ones.
Around 40 people had registered for the conference as of Monday, and Dunn anticipates another 15 or 20 people will sign up just before the event. Registration costs $25 per person, a fee designed to cover food and refreshments. Dunn noted MUHS has waived the fee for use of its space — partly in recognition of the fact that James Forrest was an alum.
Sawyer hopes the conference will help others cope with loss as she has learned to do following her son’s passing. She knows that some of the attending parents will have lost their children in tragic accidents. Sawyer said her son’s death in California came after several years of drug abuse that began while he was in secondary school in Middlebury.
“My grief started on the day I found out that he was addicted to drugs,” Sawyer said.
She flew out to California when she learned her son was in a coma. She made the gut wrenching decision to remove his life support when it was clear he would never regain consciousness. She was with him when he died.
“I met hundreds of his friends who came out and said ‘good-bye,’” Sawyer recalled.
She found comfort in friends, family and Hospice Volunteer Services following Forrest’s death.
“A huge part of my healing journey was reaching out to other parents who had lost children,” Sawyer said.
She said she also found, with the help of others, a spiritual kinship with her son even though she could no longer enjoy his physical presence.
“The secret to my healing was to realize that he was still with me in spirit,” she said.
Other parents have not felt such solace.
“A lot of parents don’t get over this, which is very sad for me to see parents who remain angry, bitter, devastated or vengeful, if their child was killed by a drunk driver,” Sawyer said. “They can carry that with them to the grave. I have seen parents die of a broken heart.”
SUPPORT MEETINGS
Dunn noted there is ongoing help for grieving parents beyond the conference. Hospice Volunteer Services on Maple Street hosts monthly support meetings for parents called “Sharing Our Heart Songs.” The meetings run from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on the last Tuesday of each month and have been drawing around nine people, according to Dunn.
Thankfully, more people are finding that being stoic and compartmentalizing one’s grief are not the best ways of handling tragedy, noted Dunn.
“I’ve really discovered that the messages we get and that we have internalized in our culture say, ‘Move on, make yourself busy, push it aside and get over it,’” Dunn said. “But what we have discovered is that when you move with it and go through it, when you actually delve into the pain, that’s when it transforms you and changes you.”
People wanting to register for Saturday’s conference should call Sawyer at 388-3850. For more information about Hospice Volunteer Services, including how to contribute, call 388-4111, or log on to www.hospicevs.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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