Sunday, June 28, 2009

One Woman's Goal to Help Others

Carolyn Tarver from Sugarland, Texas, a suburb of Houston, believes that it is her mission to keep her son Stan’s memory alive through Project SMILE (Stan’s Memory Includes Loving Everyone). Thousands of children and hundreds of senior citizens continue to be blessed because of Stan.

Stan died 26 years ago at age 17 when he feel off the back of a friend’s car and severed the stem of his brain. He was, according to his mom Carolyn, a beautiful child, tall, blond, blue eyes, and a very sensitive and caring individual, from convincing his mom to help kids in a 5th grade class go to a special park for a special day of fun to making sure the man who loved his mom’s banana pudding got fed.

“Stan always said that the important things in life are relationships, not material possessions or any other thing,” Carolyn said. “He gave me more wonderful memories in his 17 years than a lot of mothers have in a whole lifetime.”

What Carolyn does is appropriate to his memory – Project SMILE. This outreach program began in 1983, the year Stan died. One month before his death, Carolyn remembers taking Easter baskets to a youth shelter for poor children. She thought about it close to Christmas, called the shelter and got information about the children and their wish list spending Christmas Eve determined to brighten their bleak holiday. She reached out to 12 impoverished families from depressed areas in Richmond, Texas. The following year she went door to door in these depressed areas and helped even more people. “I found it very heartwarming to reach out to them in their need and in my grief,” said Carolyn.

As time passed service clubs like the Sugar Land Rotary Club and the Exchange Club of Sugar heard what she was doing and began helping her with both money and volunteer work. She spoke to various other organizations about the needs of many and about poverty. She says she has received letters from children who have said how much it helped their parents. One little boy said, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. You knew just what I wanted. I really needed those socks.”

This past year 3,368 children were helped, 1,227 with school supplies and the others with Christmas gifts, now known as Santa’s Exchange. She doesn’t solicit funds and says she gets more money for Christmas gifts, but school supplies are in great demand. In addition she gets help from athletes, churches, businesses and ordinary citizens donating supplies and funds annually. When she is given leftover holiday candy, she fills her car, drives to one of the neighborhood houses, opens her trunk and says, “Kids, go get your friends and come and get the candy.” There is never anything left.

“This has been a beautiful outreach in Stan’s memory and keeps me going,” she says. It wasn’t always like this. At first Carolyn had a very hard time. She didn’t even want to wake up in the morning and face another day. But then a miracle came her way, a small grand nephew that she took care of for the mom who worked, named Cody.

“A lot of healing came those six years I kept him during the day for 8-10 hours,” said Carolyn. “I was forced to focus on something else other than Stan. We had and still have a special love for each other. Cody is now 23, and visits often. He is a caring and sensitive person, and definitely helped me survive.”

She thinks that God used Cody first and Project Smile second to get her where she is today, in addition to a loving husband Carlos, Stan’s stepdad, who begged her to make it through her grief journey. She says Stan’s death didn’t affect him as badly as it did her, but realized much later on that he was in pretty bad shape. “We would hold, cry and comfort each other.” Carlos still works during the day but is very supportive of what Carolyn does.

Carolyn also attributes her Christian faith as helping her a lot through her grief journey. “It has not erased any pain, but it has helped to make the pain bearable. Because of my faith in God, and Stan’s as well, my grief, although very intense and painful, is not without hope because I am confident that I will be with Stan for all eternity in heaven.”

Carolyn, now almost 72, depends on volunteers but is responsible for keeping up with the families and making sure the information about them is correct. From 2001 – 2006 alone, Project SMILE helped over 14,000 children, according to Carolyn’s figures. And the numbers continue to rise. Approximately 2,000 children are her Project SMILE children and the rest are from the Women’s Center and CASA.

In addition to receiving proclamations honoring her for her accomplishments, she has also been honored by various governmental bodies including the Texas State Senate as well as the highest award given by the Exchange Club, the Book of Golden Deeds.

Carolyn’s loving spirit and dedication reflects the love she had and has for Stan, who would be very proud of his mom and her accomplishments. She encourages others who have lost children to find a project that will honor the child’s memory and give a sense of purpose to the bereaved living in a world without their child.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

Father’s Day is often a forgotten holiday, overshadowed by the longer standing tribute to mothers. But for the bereaved father, it is a poignant reminder of the bittersweet memory of a loved, now lost, child; bitter for the death and pain and recognition of the inability to stop what happened. Fathers do not often have a chance to share their hurts and concerns. Oftentimes they are unable to do so.

Gerry Hunt from a Compassionate Friends chapter wrote: “Every father believes in his role as protector of his family. He has been assigned the job of fixer and problem solver. He has been told since his youngest days that he must be strong…and must not cry. But each father among us has had to face that point where no amount of fixing, problem solving, and protecting has been able to stop their child’s death.”

One bereaved father wrote this poem:

As this day approaches, I wonder how I will react.
Am I still a father?
I will sit quietly never allowing family and friends to see how I feel.
I will miss my son, but I can’t allow myself to “break.”
I must remain strong and always be the “rock.”
I wish I could just let someone know how much I miss my little angel.
How much I cry and how much I miss hearing “Dad, I love you.”
I am a father, but I wonder, will I just pretend, as usual, that it doesn’t bother me?
Remember me, for I hurt, too, on this special day.

Another father says it took him many years to accept the death of his child, but he has now moved on. “When my daughter was alive, she, with the help of my wife, made a big deal about Father’s Day, always serving me breakfast in bed, giving me a little gift and spending quality time with me. Knowing and understanding how I feel, my wife continues to make it a special day. One of the things we do is visit her grave and tell her what we did that day. At home we light a candle in her memory.

Perhaps this Father’s Day should be a time when family members, whoever they are, give Dad a hug, do something special, help with the chores, and most of all, let him know how important, needed and loved he is.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Giving Eulogies

Last year I felt a great desire to stand up at a friend’s funeral and give a eulogy about her. No one asked me to do it, but I felt a great need for everyone there to know what my friend was really like, as I saw her through my eyes. I sat down at the computer and stared at the blank page. What could I say about her that was personal for me, that made her personality stand out, and that might make people say, “I didn’t realize she was like that….”

I must have sat for almost an hour. Did I not know this person well enough? Was I being foolish trying to do something I was not capable of nor had ever done before? And then suddenly it came to me. I would tell a few anecdotes about what we enjoyed doing together, some of her quirky ideas and thoughts we would discuss, and her personality, how we met, our interactions with one another…Oh, my gosh! It all came flooding out…There were funny incidents, humorous personality traits, how weird she sometimes acted…I had more than enough to write about because it came from the heart.

I was lucky, writing about someone I knew. What if you are asked to give a eulogy about someone you didn’t know well at all…a much more difficult task indeed. Here is the way I would go about it:

I would ask friends and relatives stories about this person, some of the things they liked to do, what they were like as children, what type of education they had, what they liked to eat, drink, read, sing, who they liked to quote, and what activities they were involved in. Were they a fun person, quiet or just a character at heart? Was it a sudden death, an act of violence, suicide or a long and lingering illness that took this person away. These are all the things that should be considered when conveying your sentiments.

You may be surprised at all the information you can gather. Writing a speech about this person may not be the chore you dread, but a way to convey to those who knew this friend how much he or she will be missed. Remember, those at the funeral want to remember their friend with comforting words and the appropriate tribute they believe this person deserved. No one expects perfection at a time like this…writing from the heart will more than accomplish your goal.

Finding the right words is sometimes a chore. Books like “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep” can provide numerous suggestions, poems and quotes to use. Online sites with help include:,,,, and .

After my experience with writing my first eulogy I hope that I have done a service by honoring my friend and for those attending the funeral. I felt good about the whole experience and would probably do it again now that I understand how to go about it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"How Are You Feeling?"

When we are on a grief journey and someone asks us, “How are you feeling?” the tendency is to say, “I’m fine.” But we’re not fine and one of my friends said that to me a few months after my daughter died. She said in a rather exasperated voice, “You’re not fine and don’t say you are!” I was briefly taken aback and then realized she was right. Why say you’re ‘fine’ when you’re not. What it taught me is from that point on, I told the truth. My answer became, “I’m doing the best I can. Each day is a challenge and I try to get through it as best as I can.”

What a relief it was to tell it like it was. According to author and grief counselor, Dr. Lou LaGrand, grief is a normal human response that seeks expression when facing massive change due to the death of a loved one. If you try to pretend you are doing well when you’re not, you’ll guarantee that the pain will spill out in unexpected ways. He says, “You will not only prolong the intensity of your grief process, you will add loads of unnecessary suffering to legitimate pain and sadness.” He suggests five essentials used by millions of mourners who have found peace through expression. I paraphrase and add my own comments:

First, admit you are hurting, tell it like it is. Don’t suppress or repress the things you feel because it won’t make you look good. Suppression and repression are the two actions that often lead to reactive depression when mourning.

Second, cry when you feel like it, no matter how long it continues and no matter who is watching. You have lost something very precious to you and can’t bear the thought of never seeing them again. Crying is a good emotion that relieves pent up emotions and allows you to breathe normally and relax eventually. If you belong to a grief group, that is a good place to be yourself. If you have relatives or friends who truly understand, that might be another good place.

Third, being alone in a quiet place is good for you for short periods of time. It gives you time to reflect on the relationship you have now lost. But don’t become isolated. That is not of help in the grief process. You need to be around others to seek their advice and help. At grief group meetings hearing how others cope can help you along in your own journey.

Fourth, examine some literature about other mourners who were convinced they had a sign or message from a deceased loved one. Explore the possibility. Many do believe in life after death. At a recent Compassionate Friends National Conference where I spoke, I was fortunate to hear another speaker whose son died. He showed us proof of the fact that we get signs from our children who have left us that they will always be around for us.

And finally, there is a wide range of normalcy in grieving. Grieve at whatever pace seems right for you even if you find yourself going from a good day to a bad one. When we choose to love, we automatically choose to grieve. And although the person is no longer physically present, love never dies; it lives on forever. Follow your own agenda. The history of loss shows you will survive. “Treasure what you have—a way to peace, knowing that your loved one lives on through you and what you have learned from your experience with him or her.”