Grieving Mothers Turn To Each Other To Find Strength, Community

In metro Atlanta, some bereaved mothers turn to each other to find support and community in the wake of their loss. They lean on each other on Mother’s Day, birthdays and anniversaries. But also in all the ordinary moments when the grief is heavy.

: Illustration by Laura Mitchell

Patti Phillips remembers feeling like she had lost her purpose.

After six years of pouring everything she had into caring for her youngest daughter Stephanie, the quiet, 18-year-old softball star died from the bone cancer she’d been fighting.

But the first Thursday of every month, Phillips finds a renewed sense of purpose.

Fourteen years after the death of her own daughter, Phillips sees it as her role to help those for whom the loss of a child is fresh. She knows how it feels in that moment and how important it was to have a place to turn.

“I was angry,” she recalls. “Very angry. I could just be angry and somebody would listen to me and tell me it’s going to be OK.”

While every bereaved mother grieves differently, many turn to each other to find support from people who know what they’re going through. To find somewhere to talk about and share memories of their child. Especially when it seems other people in their lives have stopped asking — a silence that can add to the pain.

So, they form clubs that they wish they never had to join.

They lean on each other on Mother’s Day, birthdays and anniversaries. But also in all the ordinary moments when the grief is heavy.

Phillips finds that fellowship at the bereaved parents support group at the “Camp Sunshine House” on Decatur’s Clairmont Road. She and her husband, Steve, regularly attend the monthly meetings.

There are a number of such support groups in metro Atlanta. Some are specifically religious, for mothers who turn to their faith. But many are not.

For Phillips, Camp Sunshine is a safe haven of sorts, where memories of their daughter are very much alive.

Patti Phillips said this is one of her favorite pictures of her daughter, Stephanie, noting her smile and the “sparkle in her eye.” In the aftermath of Stephanie’s death in 2005, Patti and her family have found comfort in the community at Camp Sunshine, a nonprofit that provides support for children with cancer and their families. (Courtesy of Patti Phillips)

Despite sitting on a busy thoroughfare, there’s something undeniably calm inside the doors. It’s the headquarters of the nonprofit Camp Sunshine, which provides programming and support for children with cancer and their families.

Their main event is a summer camp, which Stephanie attended, but they also hold a variety of other programs, like the support group for bereaved parents.

The group gathers first to break bread in the large dining room. Then they meet for an hour, with a social worker as their guide, in the homey library nestled at the front of the house.

It’s an inviting room, with over-sized couches and large black and white photos of former campers on the walls.

For Phillips, the support and solidarity she has found here has been invaluable.

“Unless you’re a part of it you just don’t understand how close these people are. You get to know all of them and their stories and what they’re going through,” Phillips said. “And you pray with them, you cry with them, you hope with them, you celebrate with them.”

While the grief never goes away and life is never “normal” again, Phillips knows what can only be learned with time: it’s OK to laugh again or to cry at inopportune times.

“We’re all there for each other, no matter how long it’s been, whether it’s been a few weeks or whether it’s been 20 years, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Fourteen years after the death of her daughter, Stephanie, Patti Phillips (far right) and her family continue to attend programming put on by the nonprofit Camp Sunshine. Its one of the way they honor Stephanie’s memory and find support from families who know what they are going through. (Courtesy of Patti Phillips)

Irene McClatchey, who teaches death and bereavement courses at Kennesaw State University, said it’s important that bereaved mothers be given the space to grieve.

“Everyone grieves differently. And in their own way,” she said. “I tell my students, when I meet a grieving parent, they are allowed to grieve in any way they want to. Because I cannot imagine what they are going through and what they need to do. I’m just going to let them do it.”

Finding A Voice

Nichole Villafane remembers feeling ready to raise her voice.

Her son, X’avier Arnold, was killed the day after Christmas in 2013 in an armed robbery attempt on a bike trail in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood.

He’d been walking with his friend and girlfriend when two young men came up behind them, demanded their belongings and eventually pulled out a gun.

“I was so angry and I was hurt and I was mad with God,” she said.

X’avier, also known as “X,” was 21 at the time. After he was shot, first respondents rushed him to Grady Hospital, where Villafane said doctors tried everything but were unable to save her son.

“Day by day I thought I was going to die,” Villafane said of her grief. Slowly, she began to see the influence her son had in the world. She received letters from people whose lives he touched.

He was a National Guardsman, an art school student and a little bit of a goofball who liked to have a good time, according to his mother.

Nichole Villafane and her son, X’avier, loved taking selfies together. “He got me better than anyone else in the world,” she recalled recently. X’avier was killed in 2013 in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood. In the aftermath of his death, Villafane has joined Moms Demand Action, in hopes of implementing reform. (Courtesy of Nichole Villafane)

As Villafane scrolls through selfies and videos of the two of them on her phone, she also speaks adamantly about change. She’s a part of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, an organizing group focused on changing gun laws.

Aside from joining the politics, Villafane said it has also given her a network.

“I went to a meeting and I was like, ‘OK, I’m with my tribe now. These women understand me,” she said. “But then I was very saddened because I’m with a club of women and fathers who did not ask to be in this club.”

One of the people in that “club” is Sharmaine Brown. Her son, Jared was killed by a stray bullet in 2015. It was two weeks before his 24th birthday.

In the aftermath of his death, Brown has tried to stop their circle from expanding further.

Her work with Moms Demand Action and the affiliated group Everytown has led her to the halls of the U.S. Capitol, lobbying lawmakers.

“I just felt like I needed to be in that and advocate alongside them in this movement, so that another mother would not have to lose their child,” she said.

After her son, Jared, was killed by a stray bullet in 2015, Sharmaine Brown turned to advocacy work. She’s pictured here talking to her fellow members of Moms Demand Action ahead of an advocacy day in February at the Georgia Capitol. (Courtesy of Sharmaine Brown)

‘Wounded Healers’

Lori Kingery remembers wanting to hear every story about her son Ryan even the “obnoxious” ones.

He died two years ago of an overdose. But any story is a little piece of him.

Kingery is the co-leader of the Atlanta chapter of Helping Parents Heal, an organization that she says is for bereaved parents who “continue their relationship with their child, just in a different way.”

After Kingery’s son died, she started seeing dimes everywhere. To a degree, that led her to believe it was a sign from Ryan.

We really believe that our children do reach out to us and our love for them reaches out to them,” Kingery said.

“So we just offer a space that is free for them to talk about things like that.”

Now, Kingery keeps the dimes in a jar at her home. It’s a small way of coping with her own grief. Something being a part of Helping Parents Heal has also aided with. She says it’s a place where you don’t have to preface everything with, “this might sound crazy.”

It’s something a lot of bereaved parents struggle with. Grief is often isolating. But by finding a community, some of the weight can be shared.

At least that’s the hope of Maureen Beamer, who helps lead the Tucker chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a national grief nonprofit.

Rain or shine, they gather on the second Tuesday of the month at a local church.

“I want to show people that you can survive. You can laugh again. It’s devastating, but we like to call ourselves ‘wounded healers,’” Beamer said.

Beamer, who speaks from experience, always tells new members the same thing.

“We’re sorry you have to be here, but we’re glad you found us.”

Some resources available for grieving parents:

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HELP to 741741.