by Howard Gelbman Key Largo, Florida
In countless ads we see this statement: One Size Fits All. Unfortunately, this expression has no meaning when it comes to the experiences of life.
We live our lives in many different ways, but one thing common to all of us is TIME.
When we are young we believe we have an inexhaustible amount of TIME . As we grow older, life’s experiences teach us differently. What my experiences have taught me is Yesterday is gone and unchangeable.
We feel that Tomorrow we can conquer the world, have a great career, make millions of dollars, travel the world, buy a car, fly a plane, write a book, or discover a cure for the ills of people. Anything the mind can imagine; tomorrow.
However, the cold reality is we do not have either Yesterday or Tomorrow…we only have Today.
Yes, we must make believe that we will have a tomorrow, to do all the things we dream of doing Tomorrow; otherwise, life would be too awful to bear and too meaningless. But all we realistically have is…Today. And I have learned that the greatest misdeed is ignoring Today by saying, “Oh, I will do it tomorrow.”
When we, as a parent, lose a child, we all wish we had done more Yesterday, which as I stated earlier is no longer available. So we as parents create various help programs, memorial programs, or foundations to support those grieving parents who have yet to need us...to, unfortunately, need us.
We all know that, when a parent loses a child of any age, life is never the same. We can’t get emotionally beyond many things, including the eternal fact that “children don’t die before their parents.”
We the parents struggle to find the path forward and naturally involve surviving siblings.
Many of these grieving siblings also have children of their own. And while they work hard to support their parents in their grief, they also have their own separate road to travel.
I have come to learn that the best lesson we can all learn is to practice our days, spending quality time with our own children, this moment, Today, and every day, as if tomorrow may never come. Living life for each day that it brings—as if it were your last—as existential as that may sound, will help us all from suffering the regrets that so many of us have “after the fact,” these regrets that are perhaps not often verbalized but so often thought, “I woulda, coulda, shoulda done this…Yesterday.”
The Sisters and Brothers That Never Were
It all started with my parents' wedding in 1991. My mother was soon pregnant, and she had a miscarriage. Then there was a second pregnancy, and she miscarried again, and on and on it went. Were any of these pregnancies twins? Sorry, but I cannot answer that they were. Finally in 1994, I came into the world.
Doctors did not give me a chance of survival. They say it was a miracle that I was born alive. I had a stroke to the brain. They did not know if they would bring me home or have to choose a coffin. They said I might have cerebral palsy. I got a serious ear infection. I was threatened with loss of hearing. I fought for 17 days in the hospital. After returning from the hospital, I began long-term rehabilitation. I had a strong curvature of the spine and foot.
When I was two years old, my mother miscarried again. I did not even know about the fact that she was pregnant or that she had many miscarriages in the past, which would have been brothers or sisters for me. When I was little I did not know I could have siblings. All the time I believed that I was an only child. But I wanted a brother or sister.
Then one day everything changed. I watched a movie with my mom, and in the movie a woman had a miscarriage. I was 11 years old and did not really understand what was going on. Then my mother told me about the children she had lost. So began my ordeal. I always wanted to have siblings and wondered why I didn’t. And now that I know about all of my mother’s losses, I wonder how my brothers and sisters would look if they were here. What would their names be? Some people do not understand that I feel this way that I feel sad for my mother and that I don’t have those others to share my life with.
Now I believe they are my brothers and sisters and that they are around me. Every day I talk to them. I believe that they are listening. Many times I have felt them help me when I have needed help. I remember when a friend and I were at summer camp in Italy in 2009. We went to the sea. The bottom was regular, but at some point we lost the ground under our feet and realized we were in trouble. We did not know what to do. Nobody helped. So I began to pray to my siblings to help us. Right then I felt as if someone pulled me by the hand and into the air. I believe it was them. Then I helped my friend, and we went back to the shore.
At home we do not talk about my siblings too often. I am trying to change that. Perhaps this will change soon, for I am making a symbolic grave for them. I want to make sure my siblings will always be remembered that because of me, their memories will never die.
I am also taking this opportunity to appeal to anyone who can give blood. Please do it as soon as you can. My mom had twice received a blood transfusion. If it was not someone who gave blood, then my mom would have died. Remember: giving blood you save not only the life of the person who will receive the blood, but also the entire family, friends, and others who would suffer without them.
Kisses and hugs, Ania
by Abby Fuller
Most of you know that I lost my 8-year-old daughter Scout to cancer on July 7, 2007. The past nine months have been by far the most painful of my entire life. I don’t know that there is anything worse than losing a child. At first, I didn’t want to live–and this is typical for parents who lose a child. In fact, many plan their suicides. For months I woke up every day wishing that the world would disappear. I tell you this not to elicit your sympathy, but so you will know that it was from the depths of this kind of pain that came the unexpected gifts I will talk about today.
I had thought that if Scout died, I would not be able to go on. And yet here I am. And not only am I here, but I have learned more in these past nine months than I ever thought possible. I feel like I have undergone the most astonishingly rapid spiritual growth spurt of my life–sort of spiritual boot camp, if you will. It’s tough going, but if makes for fast changes.
What have I learned?
1. I have learned that our culture deals very badly with death.
We ignore it, deny it, and avoid it as much as possible. This is manifested in so many ways: the positive value our culture puts on youth and looking young and feeling young (instead of valuing the wisdom that comes with age); the measures we go to, to keep people alive at the very end of their lives; the way we consign dying and death to hospitals and funeral parlors, instead of allowing these very natural and inevitable things to happen at home. Why does this matter, our culture’s denial of death? Because when death comes–and it always does–we are shocked, frightened, unprepared, at a loss. We don’t know how to sit with someone as they die, comforting them and supporting them as they make the sacred journey to the other side. A dead body seems creepy to us because we have never touched one before. We push aside grief and try to “move on” because our sadness is uncomfortable to those around us, and to ourselves. We don’t know what to say when a friend or family member loses someone close to them, and so we stay away and say nothing.
Compare our culture with this example:
Sobanfu Some is an African healer and lecturer. She speaks about the way grief is regarded in her culture. In her village, at any given time there is a grief ritual-taking place. Anyone who is grieving is welcome to come, to cry, and to feel together in a community of others as a simple matter of course. The notion of avoiding this process and these feelings is as illogical to them as avoiding a meal when feeling hungry. Holding onto grief is likened to holding onto a toxic substance. It is only through the acknowledgment and expression of the grief that the health of the organism is restored.
And our fear of death is really an aspect of a larger concern: our fear of loss. Think about this: “All relationships end.” All relationships end. I read those words recently and was struck by the paradox that while this is so obviously true, we almost never pay attention to it. It’s too frightening, I think to live daily with this realization.
In a strange way, embracing the inevitability of loss has given me comfort: what happened to Scout and to me is not out of the order of things, it is PART of the order of things. As my husband said, “Eventually, if she grew up she’d have to say goodbye to us when we died. She just happened to go first.”
I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy these past months, and a central precept of Buddhism is that the source of human suffering is an unwillingness to accept loss. But as Mary Oliver reminds us, loss is a part of life, because change is a part of life.
So if I face my mortality head one, the next question becomes, What am I going to do with this life that I do have?
The moment we fully acknowledge the inevitability of death is the moment we fully feel the preciousness of life, because it doesn’t last. So life and death are parts of a whole–one can’t exist without the other. Which brings me to the next lesson I’ve learned:
2. Happiness is overrated.
I don’t think the point of life is to be happy. I think the point of being here on earth is to grow as human beings–to gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for all that is. And guess what: we don’t grow when we are comfortable. It is when we are challenged, when we suffer, when we are uncomfortable, that we grow the most.
Now, you might argue that as we grow as human beings, we in fact become happier–yes, happy in the truest sense of the word–not fun, ha-ha, laughing at jokes happiness, but a kind of hard-earned happiness that comes from experiencing both pain and joy, both life and death. From realizing that they are parts of a whole. The happiest person I ever met was a Holocaust survivor. My senior year in college I took a course on Literature of the Holocaust, and toward the end of the semester the professor invited this woman to speak to the class. She had the most serene, genuine, warm presence I have ever seen in a person.
3. I have learned to let go of what I cannot control (and to cherish what I have).
This lesson was a gift that first came when Scout was diagnosed with cancer in January 2007. During those first days, as I sat crying in her hospital room, I realized, “I cannot control the outcome of this. But what I can do is love her with every ounce of my being for as long as she is here.” And I did that. I was also determined not to allow the terror of losing her to distract me from enormous gift of having her there right then. But the possibility that I could lose her gave me the gift of a deep, attentive love with her. I remember her asking me last spring, “Mom, why are you kissing me so much?”
Letting go what we cannot control means also letting go of the fantasy that somehow if we are good, if we are kind, if we believe in God, if we make the right choices, then nothing bad will happen to us. When Scout died, I wondered, “Why her? Why not some kid who was a bully, who didn’t have a happy life, who was dumb, whose parents didn’t care about them?”And I realized after a time that the answer to, “Why me?” is “Why not me?” Nothing makes me or my family immune from death or illness or injury. (And of course the life of a kid who is a bully or not so smart or whose parents don’t care about him are just as precious as my daughter’s life.) But I suffered a loss of innocence: I realized I am not immune from tragedy.
No, we can’t control what happens to... but we can make do with what we’ve been given. What really matters in life is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with it.
4. I have learned that when your heart breaks, it breaks open.
I think of it this way: each of us builds a hard shell around our heart to protect ourselves from deep pain. (But in my vision, the shell doesn’t keep pain from coming into your heart–because the pain is already there, it’s an unavoidable part of life, because loss is an unavoidable part of life. Rather, the shell keeps the pain in, confines it, so we don’t have to think about it or feel it.) But this same shell also keeps in feelings of deep joy and deep love and of peace, of oneness with the universe. So, since my heart was broken from losing Scout, I have experienced not only the greatest pain of my life, but also the greatest love and gratitude I have ever known.
I find I am less interested in judging people, less willing to get in the middle of conflicts, I spend less time speculating about people’s motives, more aware of and appreciative of the good qualities in people. I spend more time amazed at and grateful for what life has brought me–especially Scout. What a miracle that she was here, for eight perfect years, that I got to be her mom.
In my extended family, there has been an astonishing change since Scoutie went up. I have four sisters, and my mom and dad are still around, and we have always been close, but with conflict. But since July, each and every one of my sisters and both my parents have shown an enormous generosity of spirit, not only toward me, but toward each other. Scout’s death changed my parents’ relationship, my relationship with my husband, and more.
5. I have learned that love is the strongest force in the universe.
I told this story at the celebration of Scout’s life in September, so some of you have heard it. In late August, my friend Marcie said to me, “You are going through such an extraordinary time. What are you learning?” I told her that I didn’t know; I was too deep in grief to see that yet. Later that night I was lying in bed and suddenly the answer to her question came to me–and it was so simple that I had almost missed. The big lesson in all this, in Scout’s illness and our struggle to get her cured and our deep sadness upon losing her–the overarching theme in all this is not loss, or cancer, or how unfair the world is, but LOVE. As I lay there, I found myself actually grinning. My love for Scout, and Neil’s love and Leo’s love and my sisters’ love for Scout, Scout’s love for us, the outpouring of love that my family received from friends and colleagues and neighbors: everything else pales in comparison to that love. Most importantly, I realized when I lost Scout that nothing, but NOTHING, could take away my love for her, and so I would always be connected with her in that way. Cancer could take away her body, but it could not touch my love. Love can outlast time, distance, and even death. It is, indeed, the strongest force in the universe.
As anyone who has suffered a terrible loss will tell you, I would return all of these gifts in a second if it meant I could have Scout back. But I can’t have her back. A few months ago while I was swimming laps, I thought to myself, “My life is over.” And the universe spoke to me–or maybe it was God, depending on your beliefs–and said gently but firmly, “No, it’s not over; it’s just different.” I can’t have Scout back--and so the important question is, What do I do now with what I have? Here, now, in this life that is so very different from the one I had, and from the one I wanted–and this is where I find myself. Where do I go from here? I have these unexpected gifts to help me along the way, and I feel they are gifts from Scout.
Read Romans 8:18-28
In My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins wagers fellow linguist Colonel Pickering that he [Higgins] can teach Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl from Covent Garden, to speak properly enough to pass her off as a member of London’s elite society. Eliza learns that ‘the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain…’ but eventually becomes frustrated with the faultiness of words. In the second act Eliza laments “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words…”
With about 450,000 commonly used words in the English language, we should be able to communicate adequately. But there seem to be experiences, feelings, longings and heartaches that are beyond words. And there are common phrases that hurt more than help. Reflecting on the death of our son Mark, I’ve concluded that child-loss and sibling-loss is a grief with no name. Spouses whose partners die become widows or widowers; children whose parents die are orphans. But what do we who have lost children, whatever their age, call ourselves? What do our children – their siblings – call themselves? When asked about our family, Jodie and I have decided to say that we have two children – a daughter Heather, 27, and a son, Mark who will forever be 18. If we spoke only of our living children, our speech would essentially deny Mark’s existence.
But what words do you use when talking to a bereaved parent or sibling? Let me suggest some guidelines. First, acknowledge the loss. In a recent movie, The Midnight Mile, Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman play a couple whose daughter is murdered in a coffee shop by a would-be robber. In one scene, Sarandon’s character has been particularly testy. Her husband asks why she has been so upset all day. She replies, “It angers me when they ask about her and it angers me when they don’t! And that’s just the way it is, okay!” Whatever you say, prepare for a response from your grieving friend. It may be a polite thank you or a tearful outburst. Reframe questions. “How are you” may elicit “How do you think I am!” Try instead “What kind of day are you having?” We grieving folks appreciate someone who shows genuine concern. Encourage us to talk about our loved one. Your willingness to listen helps more than you know.
Avoid words that sting. I’m trying to eliminate ‘closure’ from my vocabulary. It suggests that we can put Mark’s death behind us and go on with our lives. True, life goes on. But living with loss is something that grieving folks get through, not over. ‘Acceptance’ stings too. The death of a child, whether through illness or accident; suddenly or slowly, is not acceptable. Children are not meant to die before their parents. Another stinging word is ‘recovery’ that suggests a resolution to child-sibling loss. Like a dissonant chord, the silence of an absent child, will never be resolved. In a real sense, there is instead, an absence that is relentlessly present.
Acceptance, closure, recovery – words that sting. May I suggest words that soothe. Extend a hand, offer a warm embrace – simply say, “I’m sorry.” Don’t say, “I know how you feel” unless you’ve experienced a similar loss. Do pray. “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express…” [Romans 8:26, NIV] Although the grief is beyond words, it is not beyond feelings.
by David J. Pollay
How often do you let other people's nonsense change your mood? Do you let a bad driver, rude waiter, upset family member, insensitive friend, or curt boss ruin your day? Unless you're the Terminator, for an instant you're probably set back on your heels. However, the mark of a successful and happy person is how quickly one can return to focusing on what is really important.
Sixteen years ago I learned this lesson. I learned it in the back of a New York City taxi cab. Here's what happened.
I hopped in a taxi, and we took off for Grand Central Station. We were driving in the right lane when, all of a sudden, a black car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us! My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car's back end by just inches!
The driver of the car who almost caused the accident, rolled down his window and whipped his head around, yelling obscenities at us! My taxi driver just calmly and cooly smiled and waved at the guy. And, I mean he was friendly. So, I said, "Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!"
And this is when my taxi driver told me what I now call, "The Law of the Garbage Truck."
Many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment, and they don’t do anything about it. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it. And, if you let them, they'll dump it on you. When someone does dump on you, don't take it personally. You just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. You'll be happy you did.
So that was it: The "Law of the Garbage Truck."
I started thinking, how often do I let Garbage Trucks run right over me? And how often do I take their garbage and spread it to other people: at work, at home, on the streets? It was that day I said, "I'm not going to do it anymore."
Well, now I see Garbage Trucks everywhere! I see the load they're carrying. I see them coming to drop it off. If I have time, I just step aside so they can’t dump their garbage on me, but that’s not always possible. So, like my Taxi Driver, I don't make it a personal thing; I just smile, wave, wish them well, and I move on.
One of my favorite football players of all time, Walter Payton, did this every day on the football field. He would jump up as quickly as he hit the ground after being tackled. He never dwelled on a hit. Payton was ready to make the next play his best. Good leaders know they have to be focused and properly unload their garbage in the correct receptacles, which is not on others. Good parents know that they have to welcome their children home with hugs and kisses and download their frustrations in constructive not destructive ways. Effective leaders and parents know that they have to be fully present and at their best for the people they care about.
The bottom line is that those who live happy, successful lives do not let Garbage Trucks take over their day. What about you? What would happen in your life, starting today, if you either stepped out of the way of Garbage Trucks or simply invoked the Law of the Garbage Truck?
Here's my bet. You'll be happier, everyone around you will be happier, and your life will be healthier. Life's too short to walk around being pulled by the waves of Garbage Trucks. Who knows, maybe just by you living the Law of the Garbage Truck, you might change someone else’s life, too. No one ever said life would be easy. They just promised it would be worth it!
By Debra Reagan
The first Mother’s Day without our son, Clint, was approaching. He had passed away the summer before, but the weight of grief was still heavy. So far we had made it through each day by taking one slow, encumbered step at a time. Each morning for several weeks prior to the upcoming holiday, I noticed a little sports-type car parked near my car in the parking garage at work. Apparently, it was parked there on a long- term basis because it started to gather dust. After a while, the thick dust became a target for graffiti- some of which was amusing and some was distasteful. One was even a negative message to a mother. Despite the fact I did not appreciate some of the comments written on the car, it reminded me of Clint and the activities of young people. The car remained there unmoved and untouched day after day. Considering the anxiety of the impending holiday, I did not give the car much thought.
When the dreaded Mother’s Day arrived, my husband, Alan and I decided a hike to the top of one of our favorite peaks in the nearby national park. We had been avid hikers, but now even the simplest activity seemed to take more effort and energy than we had. We have had some adventures on our hikes, but this time our only goal was to get past another painful holiday without our youngest son and perhaps to be tired enough to finally get a few hours of peaceful sleep that night.
Just as we arrived in the trail parking area, approximately 35 miles from our home, we decided to take a different route to the top of the trail than the one originally planned. After several hours of uphill hiking, our bodies were beginning to feel the aches and pains. We were beginning to doubt we could even make it to the top because we knew this was not an easy hike. Then we came upon the following message written in large letters in the dirt, Happy Mom’s Day, Love From Your Sons. I was taken aback and my heart began to beat a little faster. I thought, “Could this be for me?” The rest of the hike my thoughts bounced between belief and disbelief. I could not remember Clint using the words Mom’s Day instead of Mother’s Day, but it would be like him to shorten it. Another point that raised doubt in my mind was the signature of sons instead of son. Then I thought to myself, “But after all I do have two sons, perhaps Clint had included his brother in the message.” I had a point and counter-point for each thought. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to miss a message from my son. On the other hand, I don’t want to seem like a foolish old woman.” I was bombarded with many thoughts. The most reoccurring thought was, “No one had advance knowledge of the trail we were hiking that day.” We had started hiking very early and had not encountered any other hikers.
With very little discussion about the message, we continued on our way to the top. Once there, we had our lunch. Inside the fire tower, someone had left a book about the area in memory of his or her family and others had turned the book into a journal for recording messages. We left our own little message and cleaned up our lunch items. On a clear day, this hike offers some spectacular views, but this was an overcast day. A little disappointed by the lack of views, we started down the trail. Just then the clouds parted and the sun came out. For that brief time, we enjoyed God’s beautiful handiwork displayed by nature. The cloud cover returned and silently we hiked back to our car somewhat contented and exhausted. Yet, the nagging doubt of the message still remained in my mind.
When we arrived home that evening, we found a card in the mailbox from a friend of Clint’s. The sweet and thoughtful friend had written on the outside of the envelope, “Happy Mom’s Day.” This touched me deeply. I thought, “Could this be my confirmation? Was the use of Mom’s Day instead of Mother’s Day a sign?” The rest of the weekend my thoughts continued to bounce. I wanted the trail message to be for me, but how could I be sure?
Time does not stop for grief and a new workweek began. As I pulled into the parking garage and started to swipe my entry card, I had the quick thought, “If the message along the trail really was for me, the distasteful messages on the car would be gone because I shouldn’t pick and choose which messages are for me.” I park in a large multi-level parking garage, so at this point I could not see the dusty message-laden car. As I turned the corner and continued on, I chuckled to myself about my absurd thoughts. “Of course the distasteful messages would still be there and the whole weekend was just filled with coincidences,” I said to myself.
As I got closer I could see the car was still there, but to my shock all the writing on the car had been wiped cleaned. It did not appear to have been moved or washed, but it had been cleared of any writing. I had not said anything to anyone about the car or my thoughts, not even my husband. So I smiled, wiped away the tears, and enjoyed the warm feeling of connection. I joyfully thought to myself as I walked into work that morning, “Okay, I get it. The message on the trail WAS for me.” For a while that day, the burden of grief would be a little lighter.
A baby asked God, "They tell me you are sending me to earth tomorrow, but how am I going to live there being so small and helpless?" God said, "Your angel will be waiting for you and will take care of you." The child further inquired, "But tell me, here in heaven, I don't have to do anything but sing and smile to be happy." God said, "Your angel will sing for you and will also smile for you. And you will feel your angel's love and be very happy." Again the child asked, "And how am I going to be able to understand when people talk to me if I don't know the language?" God said, "Your angel will tell you the most beautiful and sweet words you will ever hear, and with much patience and care, your angel will teach you how to speak." "And what am I going to do when I want to talk to you?" God said, "Your angel will place your hands together and will teach you how to pray. "Who will protect me?" God said, "Your angel will defend you, even if it means risking its life." And the child said, "But I will always be sad because I will not see you anymore." God said, "Your angel will always talk to you about Me and will teach you the way to come back to Me, even though I will always be next to you."
At that moment there was much peace in heaven, but voices from earth could be heard, and the child hurriedly asked, "God, if I am to leave now, please tell me my angel's name." God said, "You will simply call her, 'Mom'."
by Susan E. Whitmore
for Klaas Kids Newsletter
Life is generally unpredictable and mostly out of my control. Perhaps when you read that statement, you thought to yourself, "Well of course. We all know that." I always thought I knew the truth of that statement, but not did I fully realize its truth until, one day, when I was not looking, my life was turned upside-down in such a way that it would never, ever be the same again. This loss of control drove home this bittersweet truth.
What is bittersweet about the unpredictability of life? On the one hand, the reality has given me a type of freedom I never experienced before. I have been able to truly let go of thinking I am in control of the things I am not (or even wanting to be in control), to go after what I want in life and not be concerned with unnecessary or immaterial things, and to embrace the idea that one unpredictable day I am going to die-to, in fact, look forward to that day. On the other hand, the way I came to this reality is through the worst pain, despair, and suffering I have ever experienced.
I once read a quote, and its essence was this:
I was busy living my life, working hard day and night, waiting for my real life to begin. And then, suddenly, one day, I realized that this WAS my real life.
To me, that was a profound thought, for I realized how much time I had spent waiting for the good parts of my life, as if life had some magical quality to it--as if the difficult and hard times were not the real life. In fact, that is what life is: the mundane, annoying, uplifting, joyful, painful, tearful, successful, and disappointing hits and misses in everyday life. All of it combined is what makes it life. And that includes death and dying.
But surely not the death of a child.
I have a daughter. Her name is Erika Whitmore Godwin, and she is my only child. While she was busy planning her wedding, living in Canada with Sandy Godwin, the man she loved with all her heart, and happier and more content than I had ever seen her, the headaches began. It was supposed to be a simple surgery-nothing more than cleaning out the infection that was not going away. It was cancer--in her sinuses! So rare, that only a couple hundred people had ever had it. Now the battle and terror had begun. Erika fought long and hard, but died one year later, surrounded by those she dearly loved.
Yes, the death of a child.
No parent expects to bury her child. It's out of the natural order of life. It was then I truly learned the unpredictability of life.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association states, "The loss of a child is considered a catastrophic stressor unlike any other." The experience of these words invaded my life. I wanted to die with Erika. I could not bear the pain and stress of living life without her, my meaning and purpose. I struggled to find reasons to remain on this earth. Each day was torturous, just getting through the seconds and minutes. But with the help of loved ones, friends, and even strangers, I was able to muster the hope and courage to go on and begin creating a new life without Erika in it. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
With the rebuilding of my life, I began putting together projects, reaching out to others who had lost a child, while learning, growing, and grieving. The story of how Marc and I met, why we met, and how our lives intertwined is not all that unusual. But it is a testament to the strength of the human spirit--what can happen when someone listens to his intuition and follows his heart. At the very least, it's a story of how one person's life can completely change another's.
Several months after Erika died, I had an idea-an intuition, a knowing. I envisioned a project I would create to help parents around this world with the pain and suffering of losing a child. I realized that it was hope that had gotten me through my days, and that hope needed to be given to others. The project would be a documentary video that would span the grieving process over 20 years and would include a variety of parents who had lost a child, as well as specialists who deal with the deaths of children. The parents would share their journeys with us, including specifics of how they dealt with the issues surrounding their losses. While organizing the filming of this documentary, I had another intuition: Marc Klaas had to be a part of it. I called him and left a message.
Two weeks later, Marc called me back. "This is Marc Klaas returning Susan Whitmore's call." Marc receives hundreds of phone messages every week, as well as emails, but for some reason he returned this unknown person's phone call. I told him my story about Erika. I shared with him my vision, and he simply said, "I'll be there." Four weeks later, Marc was in town sharing his incredible journey on camera for the sole purpose of helping countless parents with their tragedies and personal journeys of grief. Our documentary video, Portraits of Grief; Badges of Courage, was born.
Amazing gifts can come out of tragedy. Though all parents would rather have their children alive than realize some good from their deaths, they know that is not to be. So we live our lives, trying our darndest to create new meaning and purpose without our beloved children. I am reminded of this wonderful line I once read, "It's true that we don't know what we've got until we lose it, but it's also true that we don't know what we have been missing until it arrives." That is the hope that we hang onto-the hope that something yet to come, something yet to be created, will bring worth and meaning to our lives. We hang onto that hope with all that we have. Eventually we stop asking why and begin finding out how-how we can show the world the immense love we have for our children who have died.
Through Marc's tragic and horrific loss, the world is benefiting. His work with Klaas' Kids, his creation of new legislation, his rushing to the side of parents whose children are missing, and his presence in Portraits of Grief; Badges of Courage are only a few of the pillars that stand tall against the backdrop of grief and loss.
I miss Erika every second of every day. Marc misses Polly every second of every day. We will miss them for the rest of our lives. Their deaths taught us many lessons that we would rather not have learned-at least not in that way. One of those lessons is that life is generally unpredictable and mostly out of our control. We do know one thing that is within our control, and that is what we do with our losses. We parents find our own ways to honor our children.
Perhaps the best way we honor our children is simply to continue recognizing them as our children and us as their parents. I am forever Erika's mom, and Marc is forever Polly's dad. Those are badges we wear with great pride. It is with great respect and admiration that I call Polly's dad my friend.
Spoken by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben - at Yom Kippur Service
"It's easy to find comments and jokes and stories about death like that because it's such an everyday common part of the human condition. Throughout the world, as long as there have been human beings, we have wrestled with the issues of life and death and life after death and the questions and the wonder of what happens to us in the world to come. [Steven lost his father at the age of four.] As a young child dealing with death and loss, I have very clear memories at age 4, 5, and 6 walking outside, looking up into the Heavens, seeing the clouds, and being certain that my biological father was there--was somehow present in my life, looking down at me, was a kind of guardian angel watching out and taking care of me. Because of that experience in my childhood, it made me particularly conscious and sensitive to issues of life and death I believe ever since, particularly when they have to do with children. And then a little over a year ago, Erika Whitmore Godwin, the young daughter of two of our closest friends died from a rare olfactory tumor that she had discovered just the year before in the midst of planning her wedding. I know that that year that Didi and I spent with Erika, nearly every day, and her family as she approached her death, and certainly this past year being with her parents as they struggle to find meaning in their grief, as led me to even deeper contemplation of life and death and questions about the nature of our soul. It was a kind of profound reminder to me that perhaps the most universal experience of all human beings is learning to live with and cope with loss. It begins from the moment of our birth and then every year thereafter there are so many innumerable ways that we wrestle with and struggle with the issue of loss and what that means to us. It's not the experience of loss that becomes defining in our lives because every human being has that experience. No, it's rather how we respond to loss--to that experience--that really matters.
"It is such a burning universal question. I am sure that's why we constantly have people coming up to us asking us whether Judaism believes in life after death. I must confess that as an active reformed Jew I didn't think Judaism believed in life after death. This is what I was taught in the reformed movement: Judaism celebrates life and the living. It dwells on life here rather than on the hereafter, about which we really don't know as other religious faiths do, and encourages us to focus on what we know, mainly the opportunity to create a Heaven here, a Heaven on Earth. So as I grew up I really never knew. I never knew that in reality teachings on life after death have always been part and parcel of the Jewish spiritual legacy--for thousands of years. [Steven goes on here to talk much more about this subject, which was poignant, meaningful, and freeing for so many. Yes, Steven points out over and over again how life after death is real and embraced by him as truth and how reincarnation even has a Jewish name.] The Kaballah, the source of Jewish mysticism, is filled with reference to reincarnation. "A single soul, he writes, can be reincarnated a number of times in different bodies and in this manner it can rectify the damage done in previous incarnations. Similarly, it can also attain perfection that was not attained in its previous incarnations--our version of Jewish karma. Even the Shul Hanaru, which is 16th Century work that has since become the fundamental source of traditional, orthodox practices. It's written by Joseph Carrow, who, himself, in his private writings, said that he wrote the Shul Hanaru with the help of a spirit guide. It was also said that a soul may wait for a millenium to descend to the Earth and then wait an entire lifetime for the one moment that soul will be able to do a special mitzvah for another. What is modern, liberal, Jewish, reconstructionist thought? Here mortality takes on other meanings. We teach immortality as the lives that we lead, the children that we bear or raise, or the people whose lives we touched, the acts we performed that carry on beyond our physical form, the words that we say, the love that we share, that we place into the world. And this is sufficient for many. But I want to share with you today what I believe. And this is what I believe. I believe that we have bodies and are so much more than our bodies. I believe that every one of us knows this intuitively from our own personal experiences. You know that the relationships you have with the people that you love are not about their bodies. You know that when they leave the room if they are thousands of miles away and you don't see them, touch them, you still profoundly, intimately experience the reality of that relationship. It's not about their physical presence. I believe the same is true about our loved ones when they die. I believe that the soul is eternal, not bound by space or time. And yes that there is more than just this life and that every one of us is here for a reason or else we wouldn't be here in the first place. I believe that the most important challenge and ultimately what matters most is how our understanding of death can affect and inspire our understanding of the meaning of life.
"Here are the six most important lessons death can teach: (1) measure time not in minutes, hours or year, but measure it in lessons learned and lives touched. What matters in your life is not how long it is, but what you do every day, every hour, every breath of your life. (2) the most important challenge is not learning how to live after death, it's learning how to live after birth. This is the workshop of our souls. (3) recognize that there are two kinds of deaths. The first happens to us, and the second happens in us. We do have people in this congregation who tell me that they see the spirits of dead people. I'm not one of them. But I will tell you with absolute certainty that I see dead people every single day. I see the woman who was divorced nearly forty years ago and who every single day all she talks about is that moment, and that man, and that divorce and has never lived the rest of her life. Dead people come in many forms. (4) is to be like the character in Rent where a group of men and women deal with AIDS on a daily basis and they sing, 'There is no future, there is no past, I live each moment as my last.' What would your life be like if you lived every moment as if it were your last? Focus every day on what truly matters, what you have done, what you say, and how you act. (5) live each day as if this is the question you will be asked when you die: 'You were given life; what did you do with it?' (6) what matters most are the words of this Torah portion where Moses holds out to the people 'this challenge of God I set before you this day of good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death' and then says 'choose life.'
"The final thought before the end of your life. Will it be about things left unsaid, things left undone, people you love left untouched and know that these are not your final thoughts and leave this Yom Kippur service with yet another chance to do the things left undone and say the words left unsaid."
The time of concern is over. No longer are we asked how we're doing. Never are the names of our children mentioned to us. For most, the drama is over. There are exceptions: close and compassionate friends, sensitive and loving family. Still look, still ask, still listen. Thank God for them.
What can be said, you ask?
Please say their names to us. Love does not die. Their names are written on our lives. The sound of their voices replay within our minds. You may feel they are dead. We feel they are dead, and still they live. They ghost-walk our souls, beckoning in future welcome.
You say they were our children. We say they are. Please say their names to us. It hurts to bury their memories in silence. What they were in flesh is no longer with us. What they are in spirit stirs within us always.
Please understand we cannot forget. We would not even if we could. We know that you cannot know. Yesterday we were like you. We do not ask you to walk this road. The ascent is steep and the burden heavy. We walk it not by choice.
What we have lost you cannot feel. What we have gained, you may not see. Please say their names, for they are alive. We will meet them again, although in many ways we've never parted. Their spirits play light songs; appear in sunrises and sunsets. They are real and shadow; they were and are.
Please say their names to us, and say their names again. They are our children, and we love them as we always did. More each day. Please, say their names!