Louise Cashell and Maria Doyle understand what it is to lose a child. Ms Cashell’s daughter Amanda died in a car crash, while Ms Doyle has lost two sons, Joe and Ben. The women together founded the Wagga chapter of the Compassionate Friends support group.
So, Compassionate Friends has its annual candle-lighting ceremony coming up. Tell me about that.
Maria: The candle-lighting ceremony is to have a space where we can go and honour our children. The candle represents hope to a lot of people.
Louise: It’s a worldwide thing for Compassionate Friends.
You two started Compassionate Friends in Wagga. Louise, you have said you probably wouldn’t have coped with the death of your daughter without Compassionate Friends?
Louise: Exactly. Amanda was 26. She was killed in Cairns on the Bruce Highway in June 2009. The truck veered over and she was hit head-on. For my family, life changed instantly.
To lose a child is not something anyone thinks is ever going to happen to them.Maria Doyle
How do you even begin to get through that?
Louise: I don’t know. I look back on that time and it’s just a blur. I don’t even know what the date of the funeral was. You just go straight on to automatic pilot, or I did.
Then, I was reading the Cairns Post and I saw an article on the Compassionate Friends. I put off going and I put off going and I put off going. But when I went, it was like being welcomed by long-lost friends. It was just so wonderful to be able to talk about Amanda, her life, how she died, just everything. And to know that you’re not alone.
I imagine that it’s one of those things that if you haven’t been through it, you just don’t understand?
Maria: Everyone suffers grief and different types of grief. I’ve been told that – in the help that I’ve searched for since I lost Joe and Ben – there’s an overriding trauma to child loss that overrides the grief even because it is so traumatic.
To lose a child is not something anyone thinks is ever going to happen to them.
You have to deal with the trauma before you even deal with the grief, which makes it a bit different to other types of grief. As Louise said, it’s a bit of a blur.
People want to help you, but they don’t know how and you can’t articulate how you want help.
Sometimes people have said things they think are helpful, but I have found extremely hurtful. One of the most useful expressions someone shared with me was ‘listen for the love behind’, which makes you realise these people are well intentioned and trying to help.
One of the worst things is that it’s up to the griever to educate people and you don’t have the skills to articulate what you need.
I think grief is very misunderstood. You get your six months, a year to get over it and then “everything’s fine after that’.
I think it's up to us to help educate other people: It’s a life-long thing.
The size of the grief doesn’t change. You grow around the grief. You learn how to carry it better.
It’s a balancing act of trying to relive the precious memories without overwhelming yourself.
Louise: I saw Amanda the night she died. She’d come over. She worked in aged care and we were planning to have coffee, so of course I said ‘Bye Amanda, I love you, I’ll see you tomorrow’ and of course that didn’t happen.
You never expect that.
Is Christmas a particularly difficult period?
Louise: At Christmas time, everything is around families celebrating, and it’s very hard to celebrate when someone is missing all the time.
You do try. I try because I have grandchildren.
Maria: There are little rituals you can do to include them. I’ve heard of people setting a place at the table and then leaving it empty.
We try to include the boys, but it is also a celebration for other people, so you’re very aware that you don’t want your grief intruding on their celebrating either. It’s very hard. It’s a very fine line you tread.
A big thing with losing a child is that a lot of us don’t have grandchildren, your child doesn’t have a legacy, so the candle-lighting ceremony is one way we can honour them and remember them.
I think that’s a very important part of it. We are the rememberers. We keep our child’s memory alive.
Everyone just keeps going on with their lives. It’s one of the things about grief, especially that early grief, when you look around and wonder how the world can still be turning.
The world still goes on, and you have to deal with it. You still have to pay your bills and you have to go to work.
Last year was our first candle-lighting ceremony. It was very beautiful. It was emotional.
So who is welcome at the ceremony?
Maria: Compassionate Friends is for parents, grandparents and siblings who have lost a child of any age, but the community is welcome to join us.
We will be having special candles for the lost children, but there will be candles available for anyone who wants one.
What would you say to people who have lost a child?
Louise: That you don’t have to go through the grieving process alone.
Maria: It’s not until you go to a meeting, or meet people who have lost a child, that you feel the power of ‘me too’.
The ceremony will be held in Collins Park on Sunday, December 9, from at 6.30pm to 8pm.