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‘A parent’s worst nightmare’

Group offers support to bereaved parents, grandparents, siblings

OREGON – Ring, ring, ring.

Pound, pound, pound.

Cherie Parker still can hear the sounds that woke her at 2 a.m. July 29, 2007. They are forever burned into her memory.

Her husband, Gaylen, opens the front door for the police and coroner, and tells his wife to get dressed.

“A parent’s worst nightmare,” Cherie said.

Before the car accident, Colton Parker, 18, graduated from Oregon High School and planned to study engineering at Northern Illinois University.

Today – because of the death of her son – Cherie, 48, of Oregon, devotes her life to helping other grieving parents, siblings and grandparents.

She leads the Lee/Ogle Area Chapter of The Compassionate Friends, one of 630 free support groups in the U.S. Members meet monthly to honor loved ones, build friendships, and remember they are not alone.

The Compassionate Friends welcome those who have lost a child at any age, at any time, and for any reason, including miscarriages.

At meetings, members light candles for loved ones, look at pictures, learn coping skills, share ideas for getting through birthdays and holidays, and occasionally listen to speakers. Guests are not expected to talk, but they are welcome to share their experiences.

“What is said at the meeting stays at the meeting,” Cherie said.

Susan Atchley, 61, of Sterling, is a member of the group’s steering committee. She lost her 10-month-old son, Joshua Shepherd, July 23, 1979, after a battle with retinoblastoma – eye cancer.

“Even though my loss has been 30 years ago, I still needed help with that process,” she said. “... It doesn’t matter how much time has gone by. ... It’s with you forever.”

Atchley and Cherie agree that the hurt never completely goes away, but support reduces the frequency of “the terrible days.”

“It’s not one of these wimpy groups where we get around and just feel sorry for ourselves,” Cherie said. “We’re getting together to be strong and to help each other. ...

“I think people’s misunderstanding about these types of groups is, ‘Well, they’re stuck in it; they’re not moving on.’ But, no, this is what we are doing to move on.”

The women realize some people do not feel comfortable in a group – especially right after their loss – so they are available to talk over the phone or by email, or meet for coffee.

“We are willing to do whatever that person needs,” Atchley said, “and everybody is different in what their needs are.”

The small chapter started after James and Joyce Callaway of Oregon lost their 17-year-old daughter, Sarah, in a car accident in April 2008.

Their pastor, the Rev. Michael Hoffman of Oregon Church of God, helped organize the group in 2009.

“One of the first worst fears that I think is pretty universal,” Atchley said, “is that people are going to forget your child. And I think this keeps their memory alive.”

Hoffman continues to open the church doors for group meetings. However, there is no religious affiliation.

Members laugh and enjoy many good times together.

“It’s not always sad,” Cherie said. “... We celebrate our children’s lives.”

“It’s sharing memories,” Atchley agreed. “And those memories and times can be very wonderful and joyful.”

Cherie and Atchley want to live up to their mission statement: “That everyone who needs us will find us, and everyone who finds us will be helped.”

A grieving parent, sibling or grandparent may be surrounded by caring friends and relatives, yet still feel isolated, they said, and need support from others who truly understand.

“We know we could pack an auditorium with people like us,” Cherie said. “We know we’re not alone, and we want to be there for others.”

Cherie and Atchley love to encourage and support their friends in need.

“When you can help somebody else out and reach out to them, it just makes you feel like you’re productive,” Cherie said, “and you’re turning your pain and your experience into something good. ...

“A life well lived is helping others; I really believe that. You use what you have been through to help improve others’ lives. In turn, it does improve yours.”

Need support?

Members of the Lee/Ogle Area Chapter of The Compassionate Friends typically meet at 6 p.m. on the third Sunday of every month at Oregon Church of God, 860 W. Oregon Trail Road, unless notified otherwise.

There are no dues or fees. Tax-exempt donations, however, may be made at

The group does not offer counseling, but will make referrals if someone wants professional assistance.

It is limited to parents, siblings and grandparents.

However, advice for others on how to talk to their friend or relative is available on the website or by contacting Cherie Parker at or 814-441-3710.

Contact Cherie to sign up for the chapter newsletter; and find the global organization on Facebook to connect with others.

Next meeting

The group will meet at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Church of God.

The Compassionate Friends' national conference, which ran from July 5 to 7 in Boston, will be discussed.

Call Cherie Parker, chapter leader, at 815-441-3710 for more information.

Upcoming Event

The Lee/Ogle Area Chapter of The Compassionate Friends will host a family picnic and memorial balloon release at 5 p.m. Aug. 18 at Oregon Church of God, 860 W. Oregon Trail Road.

Parents, siblings and grandparents who have experienced a loss – and everyone who supports them – are welcome.

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