was founded in 1969 by Joe and Iris Lawley, whose son
Kenneth was killed in a road traffic accident, and Bill and Joan Henderson, whose son Billy died from cancer, both in
May 1968. The two families were made aware of each other by the then Reverend
Simon Stephens while their sons lay dying in hospital and, finding comfort and
support from sharing their grief, decided to offer this to others similarly
The family was engaged in the usual early morning hassle as we washed, dressed, ate and finally shared a moment as the children left for school. We were four—Iris and Joe, parents, Angela (the elder of our children, aged nearly fifteen) and Kenneth—the younger, nearly twelve. The youngsters departed and then, minutes later, as we prepared to leave too, the telephone rang. I picked it up, a voice said, “There’s been an accident. Kenneth has been taken to hospital by ambulance” We rushed to the hospital convincing each other that it could be nothing worse than a broken limb, but within a short time we knew that it was serious, he was unconscious; later we were told that he had suffered major head injuries, with resultant brain damage. We were face-to-face with death.
Elsewhere in the hospital was another boy, Billy Henderson, suffering from cancer. His parents had nursed him through a long illness, at his bedside day and night. We discovered later that the Henderson family (Bill and Joan, the parents, Andrew and Billy, their sons, and daughters, Shone and Susan) and ourselves were all known to the Rev. David Dale, a minister in the United Reformed Church.
Standing back from the constant group of relatives and friends round Kenneth’s bed in theIntensive Care Unit was another young man in clerical garb, the Reverend Simon Stephens. He simply said, “If I can help….I am here, all of the time.” Eventually we asked, “Will you pray for Kenneth and when he did so, he mentioned Billy Henderson. Thus we came to know somewhere in this vast hospital another boy lay dying, another family hoped and prayed.
It was not to be. Kenneth died on 23rd May 1968 — a day now indelibly stamped in our memory. Billy Henderson died a few days later.
Iris suggested that we send flowers to Joan and Bill; we did not then know the significance of that act, but looking back, it might be said that The Compassionate Friends started there. Joan and Bill telephoned their thanks and we met for a cup of tea.
Together, midst freely flowing tears, the four of us were able for the first time to speak openly of our children, without feelings of guilt that we were endlessly repeating the virtues of our children, and of our vanished hopes for the future. Together, we were all able to accept, for the first time, the words used by many well-meaning friends – rejected almost universally by parents who have lost a beloved child —“I understand”. We did understand, all four of us, and, in the immensity of our grief (and in reality is there any other tragedy of quite this enormity?), we all suffered together.
We were helping each other – a telephone call in the blackest hour brought love and help immediately to the door; the regular family visits, where the younger members reminded us constantly of their needs and dragged us back to the role of parent, and where the occasionally humorous incidents induced the first smiles, and even laughs – all these played their part in our journey through the experience of overwhelming grief. We were learning to live a little again. It did not happen overnight, nor even with years but it had started.
Simon Stephens, who had kept close contact with us, spotted it first. He said, “You are helping each other in a way which I, and virtually everyone else, am unable to do, because of your shared experience; do you think it could work with other bereaved parents?” We put it to the test. We wrote to, and subsequently visited, a West Indian family who had lost a young child in a road accident. It worked. We became friends.
Simon then suggested a meeting of a number of recently bereaved parents, and the initial coming together took place January 28, 1969, in a room at the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital, a place with poignant memories for most of us; returning to the hospital itself was, you might say, a hurdle which we needed to surmount.
In the event, six people were present — Bill and Joan Henderson, Betty Rattigan, Simon Stephens, Iris and myself. We talked about an organisation which would try to help other bereaved parents. But the number of child deaths in the UK was dauntingly large — would we be able to cope with what might become an overwhelming demand for our time. We decided to try.
What about a name? The word “compassion” had featured frequently in our conversation, and eventually ‘The Society of the Compassionate Friends’ emerged. It sounded right then, and now in a slightly shorter form, it still sounds right – perhaps even inspired.
To round off this part of the history of The Compassionate Friends, I would like to record the names of that first committee. They were: - Honorary President – Simon Stephens; Chairman – Joe Lawley; Secretary – Betty Rattigan;
Coordinator – Joan Henderson; Treasurer – Bill Henderson; Member and Visitor – Iris Lawley.
Each year thousands of parents suffer the loss of a son or a daughter. Please help us to support families in their time of greatest need.