Hope and Healing

A tragedy spurred Irene Vouvalides to help other parents facing the loss of a child.

For Irene Vouvalides, the death of her only child Carly turned her world upside-down.

“The natural order of what we think life is going to be has been disrupted,” said Vouvalides. “We are living the unthinkable living with the loss of a child.”

Carly Elizabeth Hughes died at 24 after a two-month battle with an aggressive form of esophageal/stomach cancer in February 2013. A Boston College graduate with a degree in education, her future path would have likely taken her toward a promising teaching career. A natural leader, she was well liked by her friends and peers. Her future was bright.

“Carly just loved life. She loved children. She was just absolutely an incredible, incredible young woman,” said Vouvalides, who moved to Moss Creek in 2014 from New Jersey. “She was just the sweetest, sweetest soul.”

Her memory lives on through Carly’s Kids, an educational foundation that assists the underfunded Holy Family Early Learning Center in Natchez, Miss. Hughes visited Holy Family on a service trip while on break during college, and saw her future there in helping children (“She came home a changed person,” Vouvalides recalled). Using life insurances proceeds, Vouvalides, her husband Tony and Hughes’ boyfriend Michael set up the foundation, which also contributes to esophageal and stomach cancer research and treatment.

Irene experimented with other support groups initially after Carly’s death, but eventually gravitated toward the inclusiveness of Helping Parents Heal, a national organization. Vouvalides contacted the organization’s founders, who agreed that the area would be an excellent location for an affiliate chapter and offered advice and support.

Carly’s story received poignant coverage in local media outlets, and many parents subsequently expressed an interest in attending a meeting. Though hopeful, Irene kept her expectations modest for the group’s first meetings in October and November.

“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but it certainly seems like there are a lot of people out there who are mourning the loss of that child, and looking for that connection,” said Vouvalides.

Her expectations were exceeded.

“My husband and I thought that if we could have just one person come to the meeting, that would be great. It was amazing to see one after another after another come through the door.”

Helping Parents Heal is unique among bereavement groups in that it embraces a spiritual experience and the concept of an afterlife in a non-dogmatic way, according to its website.

“I’ve always been a very spiritual person. I knew that my love for my child had to still exist. It doesn’t go anywhere,” said Vouvalides. “I now choose to look at death differently. I see it as a walking through a door. My grief process is learning to love in separation, because Carly still exists. Just because her physical body died does not mean that the person does not exist.”

Vouvalides has found that like herself, many grieving families had moved to the Lowcountry following the death of a child. Originally from New Jersey, she’d spent her career as a dental hygienist, her husband Tony a recently retired school principal. Though they probably would have moved down here eventually, Irene says, getting a fresh start somewhere new probably sped up the process.

“It’s kind of nice to pick yourself up and go somewhere where no one knows you, and you can tell your story if you can, but you’re not looked at as ‘there’s that woman that lost her child,’” she added.

For those who may be nervous about being in a bereavement group, Vouvalides encourages prospective visitors to just take the first step, and attend.

“Some people are hesitant to come to a meeting. They think ‘I don’t know if this is for me. I don’t know if I am the kind of person that can talk in the group. I don’t know if I want anybody to know my story,’” she said. “And what I say is ‘Just come. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.”

She knows from her own experience.

“Just to be in the presence of other people experiencing the same thing is very powerful. It’s helped tremendously in my healing process, and I’d never thought I’d be in a place where I would think that I would be able to live my life without Carly,” said Vouvalides. “But I know now that I have to -- I have no choice. And I hope help other people find out that they can go on, and they can find meaning in their life again”

Helping Parents Heal meets monthly at the Seaquins Ballroom meeting space at 1300 Fording Island Road in Bluffton. For more information, please contact Irene Vouvalides at 201-233-6015 or irenevouvalides@gmail.com. The Helping Parents Heal website is at www.helpingparentsheal.info.