Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership
The musical Hamilton describes the death of a child as a “a suffering too terrible to name”. For over 40 years the Compassionate Friends Victoria (TCFV) have been confronting that suffering head on.
This article contains descriptions of child, grandchild and sibling death.
“My daughter Clara died in the year 2000,” says TCFV company secretary Theresa Yeo. “It was a freak accident at our home in Singapore. She was seven years old.
“We’d never known anyone who’d lost a child. We didn’t know what you should do in grief. So we did all the wrong things. We ran away.”
Theresa and her husband were already considering a move to Australia. Their grief accelerated the decision.
But arriving in Melbourne, a new city where they didn’t have any close support, they felt acutely the separation from their extended families and social circles.
“It hit home: We had left our whole community and support. We were now alone by ourselves.”
Fortunately for Theresa, she bonded with a teacher at her surviving daughter’s new school, who was also a bereaved parent. It was she who pointed Theresa towards TCFV.
The organisation offers a range of services for people who have experienced the death of a child, grandchild or sibling.
But each person’s healing journey is as distinctive as their individual experience of grief. For Theresa, healing has come through serving, rather than being served by, the organisation.
“I made a phone call and said I want to come in and volunteer,” she recalls. “I was looking for a refuge. I’ve now been here for 18 years.”
During that time she’s progressed from “folding paper”, as she describes her earliest role at TCFV, to duties as treasurer, secretary and, currently, de facto CEO.
“It gives a renewed purpose,” she says. “Our children who died wouldn’t want us to be miserable. When we do this work we honour them and their memory. It gives us a reason to live on.”
TCFV’s offices are in Canterbury, a leafy but busy suburb 10km east of the Melbourne CBD.
They’ve been in this area since they began, though for years they were periodically bounced from place to place at the whim of landlords and leases. Recently they raised funds to purchase a building outright, to provide members with consistency and familiarity amid the chaos of grief and loss.
The offices are warm and comfortable. There are sofas and potted plants. The walls are adorned with therapeutic artworks, and commemorative displays to lost children. A butterfly motif runs throughout, a pointed but potent symbol of death and rebirth, hope and transformation.
“People come to us with very intense grief,” says Services Development Manager Dorothy Ford. “Here they can meet with others who’ve had a similar experience. The focus is on mutual support, and over time, on healing and rebuilding their lives.”
TCFV’s services range from support groups (33 across metro and regional Victoria) to retreats, from art therapy classes to commemorative walks, and other activities designed to provide a community of solidarity and shared understanding.
Despite its extensive reach and range of services, TCFV has only one full-time and six part-time employees. This contingent of paid workers is complemented by 146 volunteers across the state, who last year contributed a monumental 26,500 hours of work.
“We’re so dependent on volunteers,” says Dorothy. “We do however aim to have better funding to afford paid positions for key roles such as the CEO position.” (Theresa and Dorothy currently share CEO duties; Theresa is pro bono while Dorothy is employed for two days work a week.)
A key feature of TCVF’s workforce is that all staff and most volunteers have lived experience of the loss of a child, grandchild or sibling.
For many of them, like Theresa, giving back to the organisation is part of their healing.
“It’s lovely to see people who are so desperately sad, over time start to break their isolation, and speak to others,” says Dorothy. “They get more confident, then realise they’ve got such an experience and support to offer.”
Theresa’s banking background and business nous are invaluable assets to TCFV’s daily operations. Dorothy on the other hand brings to the mix the “soft skills that I don’t have”, says Theresa, as well as experience with management and frontline service delivery.
“My background is in social work,” says Dorothy. “I worked at SIDS and Kids for 16 years. During that period I often worked alongside TCFV in the bereavement area.”
Like so many in TCFV’s extended family, she also brings a lived experience perspective to the role.
“My brother Russel died many years ago,” she says, “but more recently his grandchild Wally was killed in a tractor accident. He was only three. It was a very shocking thing for us all.
“At a certain point I was asked by TCFV if I would come and support the acting CEO. It’s a very tender organisation and I thought I’d like to help as much as I could. I’ve been here now 18 months.”
Her tenure has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many community organisations TCFV has had to accelerate its transition to the digital realm as a result of the pandemic and the associated public health measures.
This has included learning to use Zoom for support groups and training. It has also prompted innovations such as an online chat service for bereaved siblings and sibling memorial website. (Siblings are a relatively new emphasis for TCFV, which traditionally was focused on parents.)
Lockdowns also afforded time and space for an overall refocusing of the organisation’s mission, values and goals.
“Theresa took carriage of a major strategic review,” says Dorothy. “It was a very big process, many members were involved, and we had pro bono consultants. It was a terrific review ... Everybody’s on the same page around our direction.”
One thing that became clear was a need for more funding.
On the day MHV visited, TCFV, in partnership with Kidsafe Victoria, had just held a gala dinner at the Melbourne Town Hall attended by more than 200 people. Fundraisers like that typify the kind of tenacity and savvy that community organisations like TCFV need just to scrape by.
At TCFV, such self-supportive efforts offset a welcome but modest batch of government investment that, says Theresa, is based on an agreement that’s about 15 years old.
“We’d like to see it doubled,” she says.
In a nutshell, the organisation would like to see funding at a scale that reflects both the value of its very specific services, and the vast but “invisible” economic contribution of its volunteer workforce.
Specifically, they are seeking funding to reinstate a full-time CEO.
Also, to enhance and improve access to its bespoke training offerings aimed at the development and wellbeing of its volunteers.
Finally, additional funding would support TCFV’s key role in providing community education.
Dorothy refers in particular to TCFV’s compassionate employer guidelines and other efforts to resource employers to support the wellbeing of staff experiencing bereavement.
“The flavour of the day everywhere is wellbeing in the workplace,” says Dorothy. “We recently had a law firm approach us and say they are reviewing their policy for bereavement — ‘Do you have guidelines for us?’ The timing is right to get the message out there.”
That’s true of TCFV in general. The aforementioned Hamilton song notes a human tendency to “push away the unimaginable”. TCFV exists for when the unimaginable becomes all too real.
“We are an organisation you do not want to ever belong to,” says Theresa. “But if the time does come … people say I wish I had heard about you before.”
If you are in immediate need of grief support, call TCFV’s 24-hour hotline on 1300 064 068. Visit their website for a diverse range of programs and resources.
Pictured: Team members Jenny Galati, Dorothy Ford, Joanna Durst, Jane Moschetti and Theresa Yeo gather beside an artwork that hangs permanently in the TCFV offices. The plaque beside it reads:
In memory of Simon Joel 20.8.1974 – 28.9.1993
This artwork is dedicated to all parents and siblings who have suffered the challenge of recreating a life for themselves after the death of a child, brother or sister.
It was created by textile artists, Rhonda Nirens, at the request of Judy and David Joel (David died 20 August 2008 on what would have been Simon’s birthday) and their children Adam and Karyn following the death of their eldest son and brother Simon, who was killed as a passenger in a car accident on 28 August 1993 just after his 19th birthday.
Simon was an inspiration to all who knew him. He was actively committed to creating a more peaceful world. He was loved and respected by his family, friends and people in countries around the world.
At his school, he was a popular high achieving student often elected to leadership roles. Simon was on the school committee, captained the volleyball team, was on the editorial committee of the school magazine, in the cast of five school productions, sang in both the campus and combined school choir, mentored younger students and received several awards for his leadership.
Following his death, a courtyard was built at the Wheelers Hill Campus to honour the contribution Simon made to his school and several awards were also created including an annual Speech Night prize for year 12 students, “The Simon Joel Prize for Service, Citizenship and Leadership”.
In year 11, Simon was the Managing Director of a Young Achievers Company that won several awards including Best Company of the Year, 1991.
Sion continued his involvement in the school, umpiring football and tutoring after he began tertiary studies at Monash University in 1993. At university he immersed himself in several clubs and was a valued member of the Monash debating team. He also managed to fit two part-time jobs around his studies and volunteer work.
When Simon was 11 years old he represented Australia in Brazil at a village organised by Children’s International Summer Villages, a United Nations World Peace organisation. He became committed to promoting world peace and travelled to Argentina on his own as a Junior Leader at the age of 17. Villages were named in his honour in countries around the world as a tribute to Simon and his ideals.
Family and friends were constantly amazed at how much living this young man fitted into his short life of 19 years. Following is death David and I were overwhelmed and very proud to learn from his friends of the positive impact he had made on so many lives in so many countries.
Judy Joel — Proud Mother of Simon (19), TCFV