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Compassionate Friends of Ocean County, Toms River, New Jersey

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Starting the Ocean County Chapter

Billy Henderson

The Compassionate Friends was founded in Coventry, England, in 1969, following the deaths of two young boys, Billy Henderson and Kenneth Lawley, the previous spring. Billy and Kenneth had died just three days apart in the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital where Rev. Simon Stephens was Assistant to the Chaplain. Simon mentioned Billy's death to Iris and Joe Lawley, and the Lawleys decided to send flowers to Billy's funeral. They signed the card simply, "Kenneth's parents," realizing that the Hendersons would know who they were.

Kenneth Lawley

Bill and Joan Henderson then invited the Lawleys over for tea, and an immediate bond was formed as the two couples spoke freely about their boys, sharing their memories and the dreams that had died with Billy and Kenneth. They continued to get together regularly, and young Rev. Stephens, then only 23, encouraged them to invite other newly bereaved parents to join them. In 1969, another grieving mother accepted their invitation to meet with Simon and the two couples. They decided to organize as a self-help group and actively begin reaching out to newly bereaved parents in their community. Because the word "compassionate" kept coming up, this new organization was called "The Society of the Compassionate Friends."

Simon became a chaplain in the British Royal Navy in the 70's. He was met by bereaved parents at ports around the world, and he helped them to develop their own chapters. TCF had become well-known through U.K. and U.S.A. editions of such magazines as Time and Good Housekeeping. Paula and Arnold Shamres of Florida read Simon's interview in Time Magazine and invited him to visit them in Florida and speak to bereaved parents there. He did, and the Shamres subsequently founded the first U.S. chapter in 1972. Word of the organization spread rapidly through interest generated by the Phil Donahue Show and the columns of Dear Abby and Ann Landers. 

Rev Simon Stevens

The Compassionate Friends was incorporated in the United States as a non-profit organization in 1978.

In 1989, The Compassionate Friends of Great Britain dedicated a plaque commemorating the founding of the organization, at the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital where TCF had begun. The plaque was unveiled by their patron, Countess Mountbatten, herself a bereaved parent.

Then in November, 1994, Queen Elizabeth presented Iris Lawley with a medal, The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her work on behalf of TCF.

There are now Compassionate Friends chapters in every state in the United States—almost 600 altogether—and hundreds of chapters in Canada, Great Britain and other countries throughout the world. In the United States, chapters are open to all bereaved parents, siblings, grandparents and other family members who are grieving the death of a child of any age, from any cause.

The founders

Let me introduce my wife, Iris and myself, Joe.
 We are two of the original Compassionate Friends and,
 for my sins, I was the Founder Chairman…

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, Bill 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 Bill, 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 the Intensive 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 Bill 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. Bill 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, are 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 29, 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 organization 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.


 Coventry and Warwickshire Pediatric Hospital.


 I’ve often said in my writings over the years that, of course, grief is a very powerful emotion in our lives. Grief is the price we pay for love. I love my family dearly and always will, they always play a major role in our life but I believe that if we can exorcize from our hearts, anger and guilt, then the crown thorns, which is unresolved grief, becomes the victor’s laurels. The loveliest people I’ve ever met have been men and women who have been to Hell and back again because they have buried their dearly love children and have found comfort and strength in TCF. They have been able to put their hands out in the darkness to others who are lost in the deep darkness of that valley.

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