About three months after her son died, in 2004, Anne Arbelaez attended a meeting of a support group called The Compassionate Friends, an international organization most people don’t know exists until their child has passed away. Arbelaez, then in her late 30s and suddenly childless, hadn’t been taking care of herself. She ate and slept little, and seldom left the house.
At the meeting, a woman named Teresa Walker quickly approached her, took her by the hands and sat her down. “I want you to go home and just take a shower,” Teresa said. “You don’t have to do it every day. Just take a shower. Find some clean clothes.”
The instructions seemed crucial. Arbelaez repeated them. “OK, so I just have to take a shower, find some clean clothes.”
“And I just want you to put your sneakers on,” Theresa said. “You don’t have to go anywhere. I just want you to put your sneakers on.”
Now, a decade later, Arbelaez, 49, remembers the moment as a turning point in her grief, advice that could only come from “someone who has been in the depths of hell,” as Teresa has, as Arbelaez has. The help Arbelaez found at The Compassionate Friends is the reason she kept going back, and it’s the reason she joined the chapter’s leadership in 2006. When the daily pain subsided, she sought to pay it forward.
The Compassionate Friends was founded nearly 46 years ago in England, and Southwest Florida’s group became a chapter in the mid 1980s.
On March 9, 2004, David attended a party and did drugs. He died under circumstances Arbelaez never felt compelled to discover. Many parents, when their children die, join or create movements to prevent the causes of their death: drug and alcohol use, traffic hazards, cancer. But since becoming the head of The Compassionate Friends chapter, Arbelaez has remained neutral; she devotes her energy to the parents.
“For me, my thought is just to keep that door open for the newly bereaved,” she said. When they walk in, she welcomes them tenderly and says, “I just want you to take a shower.”