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Gone but never forgotten: local group helps parents continue to treasure their children

Jason Paris
Debbie Shaw
Tommy Hester
Carter Hester



H&T Correspondent

Zel Hester and Sandi Miles, organizers of a new group at the Jonesborough Senior Center, share a pain not everyone can understand: the loss of a child. But the group they have organized, Celebrating Your Child’s Life, will not dwell on the loss. Instead, it will offer an open, welcoming environment for celebrating the life that occurred “in the dash between the years.”

“This is what we’re dwelling on,” Hester said. “Not their births and not their deaths, but what they lived and celebrated.”

Hester has lost two children, Carter Hester and Tommy Hester. 16-year-old Carter died in 1983 in an automobile accident on his way to school, and Tommy, Hester’s elder son, died of AIDS at age 29.

“It was 1993 when he died,” Hester said, “so I also had that stigma to work through. And we were really good friends. I mean really good friends, so I not only lost my son, I lost my friend.”

After working through the losses, Hester said she struggled with mentioning her children in everyday conversation. For example, she said, her youngest son’s fiftieth birthday would have been in July.

“If he was still alive, I would’ve been able to walk into the office and say ‘Gosh, I can’t believe it. My son is 50-years-old.’ But because my son is dead, I didn’t have the comfort zone to feel like I could say that.”

Miles, who has lost two children herself, agreed. Miles moved to Jonesborough from Texas two years ago, and she said the loss of her children can be a difficult subject to broach when getting to know new people.

“You know the minute you tell them that, they’re going to be very uncomfortable,” Miles said, “but if you don’t tell them that you have children or that you had children and they passed away, then you’re denying that your children exist, and they were wonderful people while they were here and there’s still wonderful memories.”

Miles lost her 34-year-old daughter, Debbie Shaw, to breast cancer 15 years ago.

“When you lose a child, it doesn’t matter if it was today, yesterday, or 10 years ago,” Miles said, “that loss never goes away. That hole never leaves your heart.”

Miles has also lost her 43-year-old son, Jason Paris, who died 20 years after a diving accident left him a quadriplegic.

It was refreshing to be able to talk to Hester while volunteering at the Senior Center, Miles said, because Hester truly understood her feelings and experiences. That understanding led to the pair organizing the group so they could provide others with an opportunity to feel that same connection.

“This is not a grief or support group, though,” Hester stressed. “There’s already a grief and support group here in town for the newly bereaved called The Compassionate Friends.”

Instead, she and Miles wanted to organize a group focused on providing parents a place to celebrate the lives their children led, including the remembrance of birthdays, anniversaries, and accomplishments.

“We didn’t want it to be sad. We’re not necessarily going to sit around a table and talk,” Hester said. “We want to be able to come in and mention hard times, but we don’t want to dwell.”

Hester and Miles have come up with ideas for meetings that will bring people together over the good memories of their children. Future meetings may include a luncheon where everyone brings their child’s favorite food, a Christmas tree to which everyone contributes an ornament that reminds them of their child, and a picture day where attendees bring a favorite photograph of their child.

“I think everybody has a story to tell and I think they want to tell their story. Not the sad parts, not the losing parts, but the life that was there,” Miles said. “Everybody wants to share those good memories.

The Celebrating Your Child’s Life group is not restricted to Senior Center members. The public is welcome to attend.

“I can’t stress enough how supportive the Senior Center is in allowing us to have any kind of a group … that they feel would support the seniors here,” Miles said, “and also in reaching out to the community. There are a lot of members of the community who have gone through this who aren’t members of the Senior Center.”

Meetings will take place on the third Tuesday of every month at 11 a.m. at the Senior Center. The next meeting will be on Tuesday, September 19.

The Jonesborough Senior Center is located at 307 E Main St. For more information, you can contact the Senior Center at (423) 753-4781.