History of the Compassionate Friends

In the spring of 1968, Kenneth Lawley, 11, was struck by a car as he was riding his bike to school in Coventry, England. He was taken to Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital. His family gathered by his bedside. As they realized the extent of his injuries, they asked the Assistant Chaplin, Reverend Simon Stephens, to pray for Kenneth. As he did so, he included another boy, Billy Henderson, who lay dying from cancer in the some hospital. Kenneth died May 23, 1968. Billy died three days later. Kenneth’s parents, Iris and Joe Lawley, sent flowers to Billy’s parents, Joan and Bill. The Hendersons telephoned their thanks and invited the Lawleys to tea. They found a freedom to speak about their children and of vanquished hopes. They understood. They continued the visits and shared their grief journey. Rev. Stephens, who remained in contact with the families, took note of how they seemed to help each other in ways no one else could. He asked them, “Do you think it could work with other bereaved parents?” They tried calling on another family. It worked. They became friends. Simon suggested a meeting with a number of recently bereaved parents. The first meeting was January 28, 1969, at Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital. They decided the name of the group would be “The Society of the Compassionate Friends”.

On October 8, 1970, car-train accident caused the death of 10 year old Gabrielle Shamres. Her parents, Arnold and Paula, were plunged into overwhelming grief, guilt, and anger. In 1971 they read an article about the British Society of the Compassionate Friends. They sent a letter to Coventry. Simon came to Florida to meet with them. This meeting was publicized on the “Today Show”. Under the leadership of the Shamreses, approximately 40 branches of the Compassionate Friends developed between 1972 and 1977 in the US. One of the first, and most active branches, was in Hinsdale , IL, organized and led by Reverend Don and Marian Balster. Simon Stephens visited this chapter in 1977, and suggested they form a national committee to unite the chapters into a single organization. Publicity on the “Phil Donahue Show” and Ann Landers helped fuel this fledgling group that was incorporated in 1978. Today there are more than 640 chapters in the US, as well as many worldwide. Their first and most important work is to be there, one on one, for bereaved parents, siblings, and grandparents. But they were also instrumental in establishing a National Children’s Memorial Day, as well as the Worldwide Candlelighting.