FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. --
Losing a child is one of the most devastating experiences a parent can face. Parents may feel they’ve lost a piece of themselves, and their future has been changed forever.
When Staff Sgt. Ara Abbott met Senior Airman Mary in early 2016, she knew something was wrong. Mary, a language analyst with the 41st Intelligence Squadron, had stopped by the education office to learn about a program offered to enlisted members. Abbott, an education services counselor assigned to the 707th Communication Squadron, sat Mary down to assist her with her questions and education request.
Up to that point, it had already been a stressful day for Mary and she didn’t feel like beating around the bush, so she flat out told Abbott, “I lost my son, and I needed to get back in to school.” Mary knew she wasn’t ready to jump into all of the necessary courses. She wanted to take it slow, one class at a time.
Abbott stared at Mary for a second, then asked if she would mind waiting so they could speak privately. A few minutes later, Abbott called Mary into her office and teared up when she started to tell Mary about the daughter she had just lost.
Back in August, Abbott, her husband, Master Sgt. Brandon Abbott, and Mary started talking about forming the group, Bereaved Parents of Fort Meade.
“In talking to each other, we all found out we lost a child recently, and found comfort in being able to talk to someone who had gone through a similar tragedy,” Master Sgt. Abbott said. “We were able to relate to each other’s experiences, share in each other’s grief, and support each other.”
Knowing there were other families and parents who had gone through similar situations, the three started asking around to see if there were any support groups for bereaved families at Fort Meade – there were none.
In September, the three parents coordinated with the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing chaplain, the wing psychologist, Airman and Family Readiness Center and other base resources to seek direction and support in forming the group.
“Losing a child is a horrifying experience that can make you feel alone and isolated,” said Master Sergeant Abbott. “When you put your uniform on to come to work, your co-workers may not know the burden and pain you carry and the loss you feel. Having a network of people who have similar experiences opens a door to sharing that loss and pain in a safe environment around people who don’t have to worry about ‘feeling sorry for you’. It is a chance to support each other and share experiences in how to overcome challenges, negative emotions, and how to even better look out for our fellow Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and civilian co-workers who may be facing a loss and not knowing how to deal with it.”
Everyone deals with loss in different ways, but it doesn’t mean others care less if they mourn differently than you do. While some losses may be less visible, such as miscarriages, others experience of loss may be more painful, such as an accident, illness, murder or death during war.
“My son’s name is Ryland Alexander and I was blessed to have held him and raised him for 16 months before he was suddenly gone,” Mary said. “My loss is just as unique as the next person’s, but one thing I’ve learned through this group (Bereaved Parents of Fort Meade) is that no one understands this type of grief better than those who are struggling though it every day. Sixteen minutes or 16 months, our children leave more than just empty cradles, and the Bereaved Parents of Fort Meade is an opportunity to express that in a safe environment.”
The group’s first meeting was held earlier this month, and they plan to hold meetings monthly and involve guest speakers. Eventually, the Abbott family and Mary plan for the group to grow into more than just a network, but become a resources for those who need help with medical, funeral and a few other expenses that tend to pile up, Mary said.
“I know that prior to our first meeting, I was expecting awkward pauses and few people willing to open up, but that couldn’t be further from the case,” Mary said. “Everyone bared their souls and had the security of an empathic group of people. To say I am nothing but humbled by the strength of the people I met at the first meeting is an understatement.”
Parents can feel alone and isolated in their grief, as friends and relatives are often at a loss as to what to say, but it is important for grieving parents to talk to people who understand their loss. That is exactly why the Bereaved Parents of Fort Meade group exists.
“I would hope that the need for a group like this wouldn’t exist and never hope for new members, but I want to be there for that person who needs someone to lean on during what might be the most difficult time of their life,” Master Sgt. Abbott said.
The group’s formation did not go unnoticed by leadership in the 70th ISRW.
“My heart goes out to anyone that has suffered a loss,” said Chief Master Sgt. Benjamin Higginbotham, command chief, 70th ISRW. “I applaud the effort Senior Airman Mary and the Abbott family are doing to help those going through these circumstances. It speaks volumes of their character. This kind of assistance, help and wingmanship is exactly what the Air Force is all about.”
There is more help coming for the members of the group.
“The Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) advocates were established on base this year to find a venue for Airmen to support fellow Airmen who are going through significant medical and mental issues,” said Chief Master Sgt. David Vasser, 34th Intelligence Squadron superintendent. “Because of the establishment of the advocates, we are able to find a way to support a specific segment of our population, the Bereaved Parents Group. Our Airmen face many challenges on a daily basis, but the loss of a child is one of the hardest events any parent can imagine. To help this group find additional resources while they continue to heal is an honor the advocates. The EFMP advocates are happy to support any group and also provide a resource for commanders, superintendents and first sergeants to reach out to as a force multiplier as we care for Airmen and their families.”
For more information about the Bereaved Parents of Fort Meade, please call 443-634-7046. To reach out to the EFMP, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.