The Compassionate Friends 2011 National Conference

written by:
Anne Castaldo
Bridgeport, CT Chapter of The Compassionate Friends

How is it possible to describe The Compassionate Friends National Conference to my friends and family?  The days leading up to the conference, those “civilians” kept asking me why I would want to submerse myself in grief. Isn’t it time I left that pain behind me and began to heal?

Heal is exactly what I did. I did not heal entirely, but continually. I was wrapped in a cocoon of love, compassion, and support, and I did not have to leave my secure environment. Even with anguish, anger, sorrow and tears invading my space, I was safe, understood, and welcomed.

The first sign I knew I made the right decision to attend was while I was in the registration line. I am certain I looked confused and honestly, it was as if they were able to read my mind. I was escorted to the front and patiently guided along the steps to collect my bag of goodies, name badge, which included Tony’s name, a red heart for the newer bereaved and a butterfly for first time conference goers, making it easy for the veterans to recognize and give hugs and advice. Included in this bag, were items such as tissues (they were everywhere you went), snacks, comb, pen, pad of paper, stickies to mark the booklet of events and workshops, information for the beautiful state, and many other unnecessary but extremely useful items; confirmed, that the compassionate friends of Minnesota knew how to make someone feel warm and welcomed.

The first order of business I was told was to stop by “the button woman” and have a photo of my child made so I could wear it proudly all weekend. There is one woman who donates the buttons and volunteers her time spending the entire weekend mass producing as many buttons as need. This year she made 2,000 and ran out of buttons. The people in attendance WANT to see and hear all about your child.

I was able to walk the halls of the conference and cry without getting any strange looks and generally being stopped and hugged by a complete stranger who would stay with me until they felt I could continue.Through out the conference, random moms, dads, siblings, and grandparents would stop me in the halls, comment on my photo of Tony and then ask about him. Can you imagine being anywhere and having anyone, even a friend, stop you and ask about your child, truly wanting to hear what you had to say? It was the closest I had felt to Tony for such an extended period since his death.

The information that is shared during workshops is vast. Although I felt like a fish out of water the first half of my first day, it settled down fairly quickly once I finished my “Worry and Grief Workshop” after lunch. It seemed to be the perfect transition for me. I made it through a complete workshop, yes with tears, but the gentleman I met, my partner for the last part of the workshop, helped me “buck up” as Minnesotans would say and face the rest of the day with enthusiasm.

I could go on and on; I could tell stories of the many children I learned about, the moms who I am eternally grateful for sharing and listening, the presenters who took time to speak individually with me, the volunteers who walked the halls seeming just to make my experience at the conference the best it could be, the reflection room, the free chair massages offered by volunteers, the beautiful candle lighting, the sibling song and dance routine, the countless hours talking and sharing with other understanding bereaved parents, the “Walk to Remember”; but no matter what I tell you, I could not convey the depth, the beauty and the compassion of the conference and those who attend.

I met lovely friends, some I know will remain in my life forever, some I am sure I will reconnect with again next year and others who touched my life so deeply, yet I did not even get their name. I feel blessed to have experienced this first hand and have already started my fund for next year. I will look forward to it as my vacation with my child, with Tony’s memories, and with anticipation of learning, sharing, growing but most importantly healing while being surrounded in the comfort of the TCF CONFERENCE cocoon.

Being immersed in such a large group of bereaved parents, all in different stages of their grief, left me with a sense of hope.  Everyone here was a survivor.  Everyone was seeking ways to heal and grow, while staying deeply routed in the memory of their child.

With hope for the future, I encourage everyone to “Take a Vacation with your Child” and join me next year at the International Conference in Costa Mesa California. No matter where you are on your journey, I am confident that you will leave with a newly found sense of peace, many new friends and beautiful memories that your child will be a part of.

I vow next year,

the foundation will help fund a bereaved parent to attend the conference,

bringing the foundation just one step closer to our ultimate goal of

healing grieving families.

Conference to be held in Costa Mesa, Ca  This will be the first INTERNATIONAL conference in five years.


  1. Barbara Lopez says:

    What a beautiful article. You put it all down in perfect words. That is exactly the way I felt, too. Thanks for looking out for me and making sure I had a friend to be with. I appreciated all of it. Hope to see you next year.

  2. Christine Schmaltz says:

    Thank you for sharing this. My 29 year old son passed away on May 26, 2010. I have been going to Compassionate Friends support group in Kansas since January 2011. Even though I haven’t shared a lot until the last month, I felt such comfort just being in a room full of people who understood how I feel. Now I look forward to the time I can attend a conference.

  3. melissa frycklund says:

    I could not make this confernece in VA. Very upset that I could not be there. I have been coresponding with a few parents via email. It has helped emtionally to tell parents about oour loving Sarah that went “home too too early: in my eyes. It is not up to us though. Every day i think about her and her loving and bubbly laugh and I miss her so so much. All who read this please visit and meet our Sarah. She is missed so much and thought of continully. We will see her again this time we will never let go . God bless all who makes these gatherings possible. Sincerly missing our “Angel by our Side”

  4. Kathleen Mussurici says:

    It’s comforting to know that you were enveloped in love and compassion by those who know this loss themselves, who know that you live with it every day and always will, as they do. I have never attended, but I read the newsletters and stories of loss, grief and hope. The grief of losing my daughter 26 years ago lives within me still and bubbles to the surface each time I read the heartbreak of a fellow survivor’s story. There is no greater loss than a child. My Jennifer will always remain 4 (almost 5!) and will forever be in my heart – my greatest love, my bestest friend. Nobody understands your tears like we do. We will always cry – for Jennifer, for Tony, but tears are drops of love from our hearts. We understand, we remember and we are here.

  5. what a beautiful gift you found at the conference – A vacation with Tony. He’ll always be in our hearts with his million dollar smile.

  6. Sue Murray says:

    I too attended the conference. I felt so welcome and yes people who saw you didn’t criticize you because you had tears in your eyes. They knew without saying a word.

    I met so many some just starting the horrific journey and some who had been on the journey longer than they had had their child. My girl was 14 and it is close to 5 years. True, the pain does lessen, but it never goes away and your heart doesn’t heal. There is always the part where only your child could fill it.

    I hope if possible to attend in 2013 in Boston. I will always be glad though that I did go and attend the conference. It makes you realize you are not “alone”.

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