More than a dozen mothers arrived at The Park at River Walk on Monday carrying framed photos and memory books containing the bright, handsome faces of sons, now gone, and the sweet, pretty faces of daughters, lost.
Carole Towery's memory book included photos of her son, Samuel, and a poem he wrote at age 10 titled "October Sunset."
"He was really smart," Towery said of Samuel, who was 24 when he died on April 23, 2013.
Any mother who must speak of her son or daughter in past tense is on a journey of grief that is barely survivable. Yet on this beautiful April afternoon, there are smiles of friendship, words of support, and a physical gathering that hasn't been possible for the better part of a year.
The women all have one thing in common. Each one is mourning the death of an adult child. And until Monday, the pandemic has kept them separate, at least physically.
"I started leading the Hoffmann Hospice Healing Hearts group in March 2020," said Patty Reis, who holds a certificate in Death and Grief Studies from the Center for Loss in Fort Collins, Colo.
"We had two meetings in person, then the lockdown started," she recalled. "We didn’t miss a beat, and have met on Zoom every single Monday since then."
The Hoffmann group is for parents who have lost young adult children. It is well attended by moms and a few dads, Reis said.
Members of another bereavement group from St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, a group Reis has also been associated with as a facilitator, also joined Monday's outdoor gathering.
"Finding a safe place to share your story of loss is so important," Reis said. "Being surrounded with people who understand the depth of our loss, and who do not make judgments about each other's grief journey helps to create the safety."
In a group setting, you learn to "tell your story," she said, to say their name, to acknowledge the reality of the death, to find a way to survive each day, to be authentic to the feelings that are so powerful in a grief journey, and finally to integrate those feelings, those memories, into your life.... and start to find meaning and purpose in life again.
"I couldn't stand another day without seeing my sisters," said group member Molly McKean Sabat, who lost her daughter Anna in 2016.
Elaine Suarez, whose 27-year-old son, Joseph, died in May 2018, brought cookies to add to the chips and homemade guacamole and salsa that made the gathering part picnic, part reunion.
"Even though we used Zoom, it's the human connection we really need," Suarez said. "These women help me grieve, they bring me hope."
Reis calls it "Borrowing hope."
"When you can't find hope, you borrow it," she said.
Reis should know.
It was New Year's Day 2012 when three Navy men wearing dress blues showed up at Reis' Bakersfield home. Her son, David, a 25-year-old U.S. naval aviator, had been shot to death early that morning at his home near San Diego. David’s sister Karen, a 24-year-old UCSD graduate, had also died in the tragedy that left two others dead, one by suicide.
The profound loss that comes with the death of a child is a tornado, an earthquake, a disaster that rearranges who you are as a person, Reis said.
"It's a redefinition of self, and that's no small task," Reis said. "It's a tender, fragile, painful journey that is constantly interrupted by tsunami-strength grief bursts, that hurl you back to that day, a day filled with disbelief, shock, despair, and tremendous sadness.
"Somehow, when we gather," Reis said, "we find a way through."