Group offers parents new way of coping with grief

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Irene Vouvalides leads a group meeting of Helping Parents Heal. PHOTO BY AMY COYNE BREDESON

Irene Vouvalides lost her 24-year-old daughter, Carly Hughes, to esophageal-gastric cancer in February 2013. But the Bluffton woman feels her daughter is never far from her side.

A special song plays on Pandora and she is reminded of her presence. A session with a medium revealed things only Vouvalides and her daughter would know.

Like probably most parents who have lost a child, Vouvalides thought she could not live without her daughter. After finding a group online called Helping Parents Heal, she realized maybe she could.

Helping Parents Heal is a nonprofit organization that gives grieving parents the opportunity to meet with other parents whose children have died. The group provides resources to help parents through the healing process and encourages them to share their spiritual experiences of their children in the afterlife.

"I truly believe that consciousness survives death of the physical body, and if consciousness survives, there must be a place that we go," Vouvalides said. "What if you thought of death, instead of being an ending, as being stepping through a doorway into the afterlife?"

Vouvalides has started her own chapter of Helping Parents Heal, which meets from 1 to 3 p.m. the second Sunday of every month in the Seaquins Ballroom in Bluffton. (Note: The next meeting will be held Feb. 7 instead of on the second Sunday.)

The group, along with this alternative way of thinking about death, has given Vouvalides peace. So has starting a foundation in her daughter's name.

During her time at Boston College, where she earned a degree in education and mathematics, Hughes led a service trip to the oldest African-American Catholic School in the country, Holy Family School in Natchez, Miss. The school was and still is struggling with finances, and Hughes was dedicated to helping the children.

After Hughes' death, her boyfriend, Mike Hughes (coincidentally, they had the same last name), and her mother started Carly's Kids - A Foundation for Education.

Carly's Kids supports Holy Family School as well as esophageal cancer research at Columbia University Medical Center.

"I'm just looking to be able to help other people, to offer hope, to say, 'Yeah, we've got dealt the worst possible deal,'" Vouvalides said. "There could be nothing worse that happens to a person than losing a child ... But maybe we can open our hearts to other people, and maybe we could help some other people."

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.

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