On April 27, 2002, Michele Newton lived every parent's worst nightmare. Her 15-year-old son Branden Braddock died from a head injury he incurred after falling off his skateboard. Since that time, she has devoted her life to educating others in helmet safety (Branden wasn't wearing one) and helping other parents who have faced the loss of a child.
Michele Newton, 47, works as a full-time case manager for mentally ill adults in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a group facilitator and HOPE mentor with the Mothers in Sympathy and Support (MISS) Foundation. She has two surviving children, Bethany and Breanne, and two grandchildren, Caleb and Valerie.
LoveToKnow (LTK): Please share the circumstances surrounding the loss of your son, Branden.
Michele Newton (MN): My son, Branden, was hanging out with his friends at a picnic area, standing on his skateboard when it went out from under his feet. He hit his head on a concrete picnic table. He was taken to the hospital where they discovered the bleeder. They were going to take him to surgery, but then changed their minds. They thought that it had stopped bleeding and decided to watch it.
Three days later, he was discharged and all was supposed to be well. Twelve hours after we got home and were going to bed, Branden screamed, "Mom, my head hurts!" I asked what I should do, and he said to get him to the hospital. Another twelve hours later and I had to take him off life support. Branden's death has changed my life and the lives of my family.
I was a single mom and he was my "baby." There was nothing in my life more important than being a mother. I didn't know how to survive this tragedy and honestly didn't think I would.
Running a Grief Support Group
LTK: How did you get involved in running a grief support group?
MN: Two years after my son died, I contacted Joanne Cacciatore, the founder of MISS, trying to find support. At this time in my life, my daughters' grief was more important than my own. We talked for a very long time and I learned more about MISS. I had been longing to mother my son again and hoped that by giving back and sharing my lessons that this would be a wonderful way to honor my son's life. I was so right.
LTK: Before your loss, did you even know these types of support groups existed?
MN: No, I didn't. It wasn't that I didn't know that children died, but I couldn't imagine anything but pain and heartache. I never dreamed that a support group could be such a wonderful place to connect with others who understand your pain and be a place of hope to learn to live without your child. Something I never thought I could do.
LTK: What goes into running a grief support group?
MN: Commitment, compassion and a love for what you do. You have to make sure that the community knows about your support group. The location for the meeting is important. It has to be a safe place that your group can count on each month. There are lots of phone calls and e-mails to answer. People call looking for support; they can be distraught when they are finally reaching out. You have to be able to remove yourself from what you're doing and take the time to listen and provide the support needed.
Also, with the death of a child come moments that are hard for families to cope with. You have to be available to provide them with the compassion and respect that they need to get through those difficult times. Our work is volunteer. On the nights of group, you are usually coming from a long day of paid work to the group you are supporting. With our group, you really are on call 24/7 for your families and for new families who may need you. There are also fundraisers and other social events to attend. It is so important to love what you're doing and have a purpose that keeps you going. Mine is my love for my son, this is how I continue to mother him.
LTK: What types of costs are usually associated with running a grief support group?
MN: The cost of supplies such as paper, pens, copying costs, books and pamphlets about grief, snacks and drinks. Fundraising expenses and training. You also need unlimited phone service and Internet. You also have traveling costs. All of these expenses are paid for by the facilitator. Our work is all volunteer and all our expenses are out of our own pockets.
Supporting Others' Grief
LTK: What are the benefits and disadvantages to running a support group?MN: The benefits are that you are helping other families face the long hard journey of learning to live without their child. You're able to provide them with ways to deal and cope with this horrific challenge. The benefit is when you're able to see these families learn to live again, love again and come to accept gracefully the life they have been dealt.
The disadvantage can be that this work is draining; at times, it takes a toll. It is not easy to deal with so many negative feelings, to hear the pain that you know so well each day. My heart hurts for those families who have just learned of the death of their child. You have already traveled this road ahead of them and you know how painful the journey is, sometimes it can trigger your own grief. You have to learn how to breathe, pause and love yourself while caring for others.
Attending a Grief Support Meeting
LTK: Do members put a time limit on how long they attend meetings?
MN: Our families attend as long as they need to. There is no beginning or end. The grief of losing a child never goes away; you never "get over it." Everyone is different, but we have families who have attended for years. After a couple of years, you start to become mentors to new parents who join our support group. Parents who have traveled the road ahead of others have many lessons that they can share.
LTK: Are general grief support groups best for a bereaved individual, or should he or she find a group that specializes in a specific loss, such as child loss, loss of a spouse, etc.? Why?
MN: I believe that the death of a child is a specific loss that is not the same as the loss of someone older. Our children are not meant to die, parents are not meant to outlive their children. There are more complications with a child death than with any other loss. I believe it is important for parents to be around other parents who have experienced the most horrific loss imaginable, the loss of their child.
LTK: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
MN: At MISS we help families after the death of a child, at any age, for any reason. Our children are our babies no matter what age they died. The death of a child is the most horrible pain that any parent will ever experience. Together we support each other and continue to mother our children. All that we do, all that we learn, all that we teach is in memory of our children who died too soon.