Sunday, September 28, 2008

Condolence letters

Whether you are a bereaved parent or just know of someone else who has lost a child, the most challenging letter an individual is ever called upon to write is a letter of condolence, particularly one about a child. The written word can bring much comfort when coping with a loss. We want to convey so much to these bereaved parents, particularly if we are close to them, but how should we do it?

A few tips follow. First, acknowledge the loss and how shocked and dismayed you were to hear about the child dying. Then express your sympathy and let the grieving person know how much you care or perhaps you can relate to the anguish of their loss if you, too, have been there. Talk about the child and some personality traits, qualities or an anecdote that evoked a smile, a laugh and a fond memory. Perhaps that child influenced your life in some way or did something with you you’ll never forget. Offer to help with the little things the parents find difficult at the beginning, like shopping, running errands, answering the phone and taking care of the other children. Finally, close with a caring thought, like “My thoughts are with you at this time,” “You are in my thoughts and prayers” or “We share in your grief and send you our love.”

I have had to write many of these letters over the years and can sometimes be at a loss for what to say. No two children are alike; no two deaths are alike. But the words do come, sometimes spilling out as my heart goes out to these parents. I feel good when I am done and send the note. I always have to hope, though, that these parents understand my words and wishes and that I have not waited too long or written it too soon. Bereaved parents also have to understand that a condolence letter to them is done out of caring and love and should be accepted as one way for others to express how much the child also meant to them.

On a personal note, I received and cherished many beautiful letters when Marcy died and even learned a lot about my daughter through these condolence thoughts that I never knew before. I was told about how much Marcy cared for others, how she always went out of her way to help others, what a good friend she was and how much she was loved by her friends and family. I have kept them all. I could actually say these letters changed my life. They gave me the impetus for putting together a small booklet of these letters to give to people who I knew would appreciate receiving them. Their gracious comments led me on a long road to finally write my book, including thoughts and some of those letters in the book and wanting to share additional stories of hope from others across the U.S.

This was not my plan. My plan was to be a part of my daughter’s new married life, see her accomplish her career goals, be a part of the family she would have, be a grandmother. But that was not to be. One never knows where life may lead you, but in doing what comes from the heart, only good can come of it. My plan is now to help others as best I can and live my life to the fullest, always keeping Marcy close to me, in my heart and in everything I do. And if writing a condolence letter can help a grieving parent in some way to know their child’s life was important to others like me, then I have accomplished something very meaningful for myself and the bereaved parent.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sharing my daughter with the world

As a bereaved parent, we always want to keep our child’s memory alive and in front of people so they are not forgotten. We constantly think of ways to do this. Here are a few ideas of things I do that you may find interesting.

I took a color (or you can use black and white) picture of my daughter to a Penny’s store jewelry department (other stores may do it also), chose a gold oval pendant (I liked the oval best but there are also round, square and heart-shaped ones), and then the store sends it to a company that embosses the picture directly onto the pendant. It takes approximately six weeks. I don’t know the process, but the results are beautiful. It is something I always wear to keep my daughter close to my heart. People do notice and comment on how nice it looks. Those who don’t know me ask who it is; others ask, “Is it you?” I smile. I guess Marcy did look a little like me. I then have a chance to talk about her to others.

When I hear about a child dying, whether I knew that child or not, I have on occasion sent letters or cards to those grieving parents. I start by saying that I’m sorry for their loss. I tell them my story as a qualifier for writing to them and it gives me one more opportunity to talk about Marcy. I give them suggestions of what organizations they can contact or grief groups they can join to help them through the difficult times. I tell them surviving grief is a lifelong process, one they will have to go through, but eventually, they will move forward with their lives and find joy again. I feel good writing these parents and find it helps me in my journey also.

I have put together a photo/music presentation of my daughter from her birth picture through her last days. I tried to choose ones where her personality clearly showed through. The instrumental music chosen was upbeat and light. I have it on my computer and can go to it whenever I feel her presence and need more of her. I also have a DVD copy of the pictures to show friends who knew her and even those who didn’t know her. I also find that because I do talk about her, it is important for my special friends to see and hear her on tape. Fortunately, a friend of hers, a videographer, put together for me a 15 minutes tape of her life as he knew her in her adult years. She radiates throughout the tape as a fun-loving, beautiful soul. There is never a dry eye in the room of people watching it.

Along the same lines, I happened to have saved all Marcy’s school photos and took a large frame, dividing it into 16 wallet size spaces and placed a picture from birth to 16 years in it. Not only is it a wonderful conversation piece when I am showing people around my home, but it is also a wonderful representation of how much a child changes in 16 years!

When I speak at national bereavement conferences, I can tell Marcy stories and feel comfortable knowing I am in a safe environment where parents want to hear other’s stories because only ‘they’ truly understand. I speak at university grief classes held during the year (more about that later in another blog), at local bereavement groups, and at organizations that want to know more about how to relate to bereaved parents.

When I have to give a birthday or anniversary gift to a friend (particularly one who has everything imaginable) or I go to a luncheon and need a gift, I donate money to my favorite charity, the endowment fund I recently set up in Marcy’s memory! In that way, people learn about the fund and about Marcy. I have given them something worthwhile to think about donating to, since it is for students who need monetary help to pursue their careers in communications or theater. This fund will be around long after I am gone, and I hope others will continue to support it.

In each case I come away with a good feeling that on any particular day I am able to share my Marcy with the world.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A moment in time...

We remember moments in our lives that had profound affects on us…and there is probably not a person in America that can not tell you where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, the day our world changed forever. Not only can I tell you where I was, but how in my own way, my involvement in that day will stay with me always.

My book had been out for about 5 months at the time, and I was doing some book tours around the U.S. I enjoyed speaking to groups at bookstores and to bereavement groups on surviving grief in addition to meeting all the parents I was to eventually see again many years later when speaking at national bereavement conferences. This specific book tour took me to New Jersey bookstores and support groups in the area. I was to be there 3-4 days. As it turned out I was there 10 days before I could get a plane to return home. I met many people who had lost love ones or friends at the World Trade Center while I was doing my book tour.

Because of a mechanical problem with the aircraft I was on to Newark, instead of landing at 9 p.m. on September 10, 2001, I landed on September 11 at 3 a.m. and went directly to the Days Inn at the airport for the night. The next morning I was to appear on a daily TV news show and talk about my book. Well, needless to say, that didn’t happen for another 6 months, when I returned to New Jersey for another tour with my book.

I woke up to the total destruction of the World Trade Center and for days from across the river, could see the smoke-filled air for 50 miles wide, causing coughing and breathing problem for many. My book signings went on as scheduled, with few people showing up. Most were glued to their TV sets or mourning those who lost their lives. I kept thinking…how could my book be more timely then at this moment. I had just written about surviving grief and the families of these thousands of people were just starting their grief journey. If I could help just one person with my book, it would be comforting to me personally.

Of those who did come to the book signings or bereavement group meetings, one woman had a friend whose son had still not been heard from 5 days later. The mother still hoped. Another had just spoken to her cousin whose son had been pulled out of the building alive. Still another lost her husband when his fire unit went into the building to help survivors. Many from his unit had also perished. Being at a bereavement group meeting was comforting for these people. There were so many stories, so many people, so much sadness.

Even though my daughter had been dead for seven years by then, I knew what these people were feeling. I understood their tears, their heartache, their overwhelming sense of loss. It would be a long time before they could get on with their lives, but I knew they eventually would. What choice did they have? That week was a moment in time that to this day, I still remember and think about as the start of my own personal journey with my book that opened up a whole new world to me.

As a side note: a few months after returning home I was called and questioned by the FBI. Coincidence can play a large part in our lives. I was asked if I had seen anything out of the ordinary in the hotel late that night or early morning of September 11. “No, I hadn’t,” I said. As it turned out, I was told that some of the hijackers who flew the planes that fateful morning were in that same hotel and sleeping on the 5th floor right next door to me.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Birthday thoughts

Today, September 7, I celebrate yet another birthday of mine (the years go by so quickly...too quickly), and once again my thoughts turn to my daughter, Marcy, who loved birthday celebrations. My eyes tear up and the same continuous though runs through my mind as it always does, “Her death was a waste, what a waste of a beautiful person.”

I remember she died the year she was planning a big surprise birthday party for my 50th. I was told after the accident. I know it would have been great. She was a great planner in all she did. And everything always had to be perfect in what she would do. Very much like her mother, a perfectionist.

She did give me one surprise birthday party when I was 36 years old, planning and executing it all herself. She was barely a teenager at the time. I remember having to act very surprised when I walked into the house, since one of my friends let it slip out accidentally. The house was decorated beautifully with balloons and birthday paraphernalia. She had baked her own cake, and of course, made sure everyone brought a card and little gift. I remember being surprised at the time that she knew exactly who to ask to the small party and how to make sure I was out of the house for the preparations. Even at that young age, she knew what to do.

Now, many years later, I still think of all the very cute cards she sent me each year. Most of them were very funny and clever. If she lived away from home, I always got a call. She also always made sure her dad bought me something. He used to laugh at how persistent she was that it had to be a special, thoughtful gift. She didn’t always succeed, since his thoughts always ran towards kitchenware items. (I didn’t have that much time to cook since I was teaching full time, so kitchenware was not my favorite. Maybe it was a hint!) She, in turn, always bought her own gift for me; she didn’t always like what her dad chose.

And if her dad wanted to give me a gift a few days early, it was absolutely forbidden by Marcy. “No,” she used to tell him. “The gift must be given on the exact date to be meaningful.”

I smile when I think of her legacy to me. I always make sure any gifts I give are done properly on the exact date. I try to choose a gift I know the person needs or wants, and I never, never buy kitchenware items!

Thanks, Marcy. You will always be by my side guiding me as I hope I always was for you. I know that somewhere up there you are still wishing me a happy birthday as I do every year for you. I miss you terribly, think of you every day and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.