Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What You Can Do to Help a Grieving Family

Jack was the one who first taught me how to really love.

Thousands of other people are teaching me how to love someone through grief. You see, I realize now I have NEVER been good at reaching out to those who were grieving. I made a lot of excuses such as, "I don't want to intrude", "We're not that close," "I'm sure plenty of other people are doing it," and "I don't want to make them any sadder than they already are." A lot of times I think I just chose my agenda versus reaching out, and I missed many opportunities to walk beside grieving families.

My amazing friend Heidi, who writes the compelling blog Fancy Feet, recently published a great piece about What to Say when a friend has suffered from a tragedy, in Heidi's case, nearly dying in a fiery car crash.

This got me thinking about trying to sum up for you some of what has been done for us. We are truly amazed by the outpouring of love we have received upon losing Jack, and we hope some of these suggestions could help us all know how to "love on" another family in need.


2. Attend the Funeral. To attend funerals people must travel, skip work or school, arrange childcare, and figure out parking and directions. Funerals are inconvenient. The bereaved family knows this and will be blessed and lifted when people extend themselves to be there. Do not worry if you were not close to the deceased, or have been out of touch with the family for many years. Attend anyway. A funeral is a communal event; you will not be intruding. You never know if your presence, or even a glimpse of you or a hug from you will be THE ONE that provides the most comfort.

3. Cook. Have a point person arrange meal sign-up via a website such as Sign Up Genius Consider making a meal and freezing it in your own freezer for when the other meals stop coming. A small family will appreciate smaller meals so they don't feel they are wasting food. We were so grateful to have meals provided for us for almost 4 months!

4. Send a card or a handwritten note. If possible, include a personal story about the the person who died. Even the smallest anecdote is welcome. These are treasured by the family and read over and over. One friend reminded me in a card that one of Jack's first words was "Azalea." How cool is that?

If you are not able to share a personal story, don't worry. A simple, "I am so very sorry for your loss" or "My heart is breaking for you" will help. When you write your letter, consider going ahead and addressing another envelope to send 3, 6, or 9  or 18 months out. The envelope will help you remember to pray for the family, and your next letter will come when most people have stopped sending cards.

5. Flowers can be overwhelming. You may want to consider sending flowers to the home a month or two after the death so that they will not overwhelm the family. Seeing a house full of flowers, that would eventually die, was hard for me.

6. Come by to show your support. When Jack was missing, close friends and family just showed up. They stayed with us until we found out the horrible news of his death. Several sat in the dark at my kitchen table until after midnight to be there when my sister arrived. They all had other things they could have been doing that rainy night, but they showed up.

In the days following a death, a family should have a point person who feels comfortable telling people whether or not it's a good time to visit, because immediate family members may be too shocked and confused to be able to communicate this. When you drop by, be prepared for a quick hug and then to be on your way, but be flexible. If the bereaved family asks you to stay, be open to that, too. Men, don't be shy about coming by. Tim appreciated men dropping by just for him.

7. If you are a close family friend, consider taking any children out for an activity to give them a break from the home atmosphere. Kids need chances to feel "normal" in the midst of grief.

8. Give the family pet some attention. Our neighbor walked Shadow several times a day and even kept her overnight during those first crazy days.

9. Consider the physical needs of the home. Working in the yard could make a family feel too exposed or vulnerable so soon after a death. One friend mowed our grass for us. He didn't know that Jack was the grass mower in our house and that it would be so painful for us to do it ourselves, but he just thought it would be helpful and showed up. Another family raked our leaves. One friend, after asking if it was okay, came by and planted 100 tulip bulbs in our yard while I was at work! Mulching, powerwashing, or cleaning someone's gutters could be other outside jobs a grieving family might not feel able to tackle. You can include your kids in some of these tasks. I remember Tim taking Jack to spread mulch at a newly widowed friend's house and it was a meaningful experience for them both.

10. Drop a gift in the mail. We received wonderful grief books, devotionals, inspirational Cd's, fruit, sweets and more in the mail. Every day of the week I now wear special, meaningful jewelry that represents Jack and was sent to me by people all over the world. These touching gifts took time and effort and are so special to us. Margaret has received small gifts and even a care package from France! Consider mailing a gift card to a restaurant or the movies for a family to use later when they feel up to it. Sometimes a gift card provides the motivation to get out of the house.

11. Make a contribution to charity in the name of the deceased. Consider writing it on your calendar now to do annually so the family will know you have not forgotten. These donations help a family see that something positive can come out of their loss. If you feel led, spearhead a scholarship or a charitable event in the person's name.

12. Mention the deceased person's name when you see the family. It's hard. Do it anyway. The family will cry. Do it anyway.

13. Invite a family member out for coffee, a meal, a walk, or a sporting event. One on one time with a friend, sharing the story and processing it, is a valuable form of therapy. Don't worry if they say no; sometimes they are not ready, or they may need to spend time with someone else right now. Ask anyway.

14. Use texting, email, blogging or Facebook to reach out to the family. You can do this anytime of day or night. I have one friend, whom I did not know very well before the accident, who is committed to praying for us and sending us messages when her baby gets her up at night, which is often. Don't worry about saying the same thing again and again. Your friends are not looking for words of wisdom, just the reminder that you are there.

15. Do not feel offended if your phone calls go unreturned. Just leave a loving message. I have found returning phone calls, or even picking up the phone, to be daunting and difficult, but I still appreciate hearing messages.

16. Send photos or videos of the deceased. Even if you think family members might already have photos from an event, send whatever you have. A new facial expression or a different angle provides them with another glimpse of the one who is gone. The photos on today's post were sent to me by a reader I've never met who realized Jack was in the background of some of her photos from the LEGO store in 2010!

17. Use your special talents to show your love. A poem. A knitted prayer shawl or blanket. A painting. Handcrafted jewelry. We have been stunned by the way people have shared their talents by making us gifts from the heart.

18. Get creative! You have heard how our community tied royal blue bows around trees and mailboxes so that we would feel loved when we drove around town. Then our blogging friends tied ribbons at their homes around the world, and even put them on their Christmas trees. Now, we have made blue ribbon magnets with Jack's Bible verse on them for our cars. Who knew how the simple act of tying a ribbon could bring us so much comfort?

Maybe there is a special color associated with the deceased, or a symbol (dove, butterfly, rainbow) that reminds you of him or her. For Jack, friends and neighbors made LEGO crosses to wear at the funeral. These incorporated 2 of Jack's greatest loves! Maybe YOUR idea or kind gesture will be the one that will most resonate with the family, whether it is tying bows, lining their driveway with luminaria, setting up a Facebook memory page, having a card signed by a Sunday School class, or organizing a tribute such as a balloon release. If you are feeling led to commemorate the deceased in such a way, it could be a big blessing to the family.

19. Even if you didn't know the deceased, consider sharing what the deceased means to you NOW. Eternal life is, well, ETERNAL. Jack's life is affecting people in ways we could never imagined, and we are blessed that so many people are making the effort to let us know, through emails, blog comments, letters, or person. This helps ease the sting. Have you had a dream about the person who passed away? Tell the family.

20. You may want to drop by during the day, or at work. While this not be appropriate for some people, because of their job settings, it has been nice to me to be surprised by friends bearing smoothies, hugs, or a cup of tea at my tear-friendly workplace.

21. REMEMBER. Take note of the season, the day of the month, the day of the week, even the time of day that the deceased person left us. Reach out at these times as you feel led-- through a quick email, text, or note.

22. Write the person's birthday and death day on your calendar. Send a note, an email, or flowers on those days.

23. Memorialize the loved one by planting a tree, erecting a cross, making a stepping stone, donating a book to an elementary school, starting a scholarship, or installing a bench.

24. Visit the cemetery. I have only been to Jack's cemetery 2 times, but I know others have gone FOR me. Maybe a face to face at visit at the family's home isn't your thing, but saying a prayer in the quiet of a cemetery is.

25. Follow promptings. If you feel a prompting to reach out, it could very well mean that the family needs your support. Do not get bogged down thinking about how close you were or weren't before the death. A reality of death is that relationships change during difficult times. The grieving person may not have the support you think they do. YOU may be the one who can best relate, or listen, or connect with a hurting person. It may feel awkward at first, but it's worth it. I think of how blog readers have felt prompted to write to me, share their own experiences, and offer prayer. If they had gotten bogged down about our not knowing each other "in real life," they would never have reached out.

26. Find resources! We were too overwhelmed to find grief therapists, grief centers, and grief camps for our family. We needed other people to help us with this, once again NOT trying to "fix us", but pointing us toward things that could give us support. Don't assume that family can do this on their own.

Okay, so this is a VERY long list, and if it weren't after midnight, it would probably grow longer. I hope it doesn't sound entitled, or like I think other people should take care of every aspect of our family's life, just because we lost Jack. These are just some of the incredible ways people have reached out to us, and I hope by sharing them others can be helped similarly.

Of course, NO ONE can do all of these things. But someone did do EACH of these things. And more.

Love is a verb.

Please check out my NYT bestselling memoir Rare Bird and children's book A Hug from Heaven
(affiliate links)

Monday, March 26, 2012


So I was with a few other bereaved mothers last night, all who have lost sons.

They concurred with something I've read a lot lately-- that the SECOND year of grief is harder than the first.

Oh shit.

This is not something a lot of people realize. I know I never even considered it. We think about the first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first birthday. We absolutely know those are going to be brutal.

And they are.

But the second? Why would the second be worse? Apparently, the shock wears off and that coincides perfectly (!) with those around us needing to move on with their lives.


I get it. The shock thing.

I am still in shock that 3 boys went down to the creek and only 2 came back. It's like, as one of Jack's classmates said to me, "Maybe he's just hiding in a bathroom somewhere." I keep thinking somehow, some way, Margaret will not have to grow up without Jack by her side.

I try to dig deep and examine my flawed belief systems.

I never, ever would have admitted it to myself or anyone else, but I think down deep inside me there was always kernel of, "If I live a good life, make good choices, love God and my neighbor, I will be spared heartache." Not the regular-grade heartache of waking up in your forties and wondering what the hell happened to your dreams and aspirations, but the gut-wrenching heartache of losing a perfectly healthy child to a violent, senseless death.

Flawed belief, for sure.

And now, if I examine my belief systems again, perhaps way down deep you would find a kernel that says, "Maybe if I try really, really hard to lean on God and others and live out this first year without Jack in a dignified way, I'll reap some reward." Not that I think God would just plop Jack right back down here on earth right in time to go on our annual family camping trip, but NOTHING less is acceptable to me.

While I don't consider the SECOND year meltdown a sure thing, everyone I've talked to and everything I've read has backed it up.

Just thought I should let you know.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Comfort Zone Camp: Grieve. Heal. Grow

A few weeks ago Margaret attended a bereavement camp for kids aged 7-17 who have lost a sibling, parent, or primary caregiver.

Getting her there was quite a production, a story of epic proportions. If you want to hear about all of the yelling, screaming and crying (and that's just the grown-ups I'm talking about) I'll have to work up to that in another post. Let's just say I just might have yelled, "Satan, you CANNOT have this family!" as we endured the road trip from hell. Since the closest I usually come to talking about the evil one has been discussng Voldemort, I think you get the idea of just how bad things were.

The good news is that the camp was wonderful!

Comfort Zone Camp is a safe, fun place for grieving kids. Campers attend Camp for free and can go back once a year until age 17. This is especially valuable as they mature and their needs change. Each camper is assigned a "Big Buddy"-- a caring adult who will be with him or her throughout every aspect of the weekend. Kids are placed in groups (Healing Circles) according to age, and each small group is facilitated by a licensed therapist. Most of the helpers at camp have experienced a significant loss in their lives, so they can really relate to the kids' pain.

Kids discuss their individual stories, coping strategies that do and don't work for them, and they talk about their loved ones who died. They also play games, laugh, have a camp fire, and do outdoor activities like canoeing. I cannot overstate how good it is for these kids to have a place where they feel NORMAL and understood. The camp helps "break the emotional isolation grief often brings."

At the end of the weekend, the Healing Circle leaders share with the parents how the weekend went and how we can best help our kids as they grieve.

I am writing about Comfort Zone Camp today in the hope that if you know a child who would benefit from this kind of experience, even if the loss was years ago, you will pass along the info. Camps are now in 4 states, but kids travel from all over the country to attend.

And, if you feel like supporting this amazing organization either through a donation or by volunteering, you'll consider that, too.

We are so grateful Margaret had the chance to attend.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jack's Balloons

For those of you who were not able to be at Sunday's balloon launch, check out this short video lovingly put together by our friend Kim.

And yes, my nose really is that pointy in real life. Waaaah!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dog Gone-it!

When Jack was 6 he went to his friend Michael's birthday party. It was a "fishing" party where the kids pretended to fish in a baby pool and were each given a goldfish in a baggie to take home.

Except Jack didn't want one.

Upon some prodding, he agreed but said in his first-grade voice, "I'll take him, but I'm not going to grow fond of him." He did not name the fish.

Good thing, because by the time our 20 minute drive home was complete, the nameless goldfish was dead.

A year or so later, we were ready to get a dog. Everyone but Jack. He wanted a dog so badly, but upon doing the math, figured he'd be heading off to college when the dog died. He decided that loving and losing a dog would be too painful and traumatic.

So we waited.

When Shadow became available, Jack really, really wanted her. He had to revisit his fears about losing a dog and weigh whether the pain would be worth it. Before long we were heading a few hours south to pick her up.

In the last moments before our neighbors knocked on our door inviting the kids to play in the rain in early September, Jack was playing "hide and seek" with Shadow by hiding under her dog bed and making funny noises. Having been cooped up in the house all day, Shadow enjoyed getting riled up by her "brother." They had, despite Jack's fears, grown incredibly close.

A few days ago I took Shadow to the vet for her "Well Dog" appointment, because nothing says Monday morning quite like toting around a stool sample. The verdict: Shadow is the picture of health, but Jack is gone. Weird.

And now I think about what Jack worried about. About the idea of loving and then losing. Is it true "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never loved at all"? What do you think?

I am very grateful for the 12 years we had with Jack, but I wonder if I would be willing to trade the pain we're feeling now for having never seen those brown eyes, that subtle dimple, that crazy floop of his hair? To never have been given a bony hug from a too-thin boy or heard that incredible laugh?

No. No. No.

Definitely not.

But Jack, I need to tell you-- it was so terribly easy to grow fond of you.

Funny video of Shadow's antics when we first got her:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Happy Birthday, Jack! We Love You.

Thank you for all the prayers and love as we celebrated Jack's 13th birthday this weekend. If he had been alive, we would have had about 5 boys over for a sleepover, and then taken a family trip to Chevy's Mexican Restaurant.

Instead, we had a weekend-long love-fest remembering and honoring our sweet boy. Relatives came to town to support us, Facebook lit up with blue ribbons as people changed their profile pics for Jack's birthday, and sweet cards and gifts came in the mail. My sister compiled a memory book for us with letters and emails from friends and family. Flowers appeared on our doorstop, and at the cross by the side of the road.

Margaret baked a birthday cake shaped like giant Peep. She's pretty stoked about putting that on the blog in case any of you want to attempt it for Easter. Pics to follow.

Saturday was the Rock and Roll Marathon in DC, with an amazing team of Jack's Lanterns running their hearts out for Jack. Almost $20,000 has been raised for Samaritan's Purse so far! Jack's special cousin, Isaac, ran 1/2 of the 1/2 marathon as a relay with his mom, Jack's Auntie. Tim ran his first half marathon ever, with his son's photo on the back of his race jersey. One of our dear friends ended up in the ER after passing out from dehydration at mile 12, but so determined was he to finish the race, he ran the last 1.1 miles around our neighborhood on Sunday, Jack's birthday. Other friends ran different races in Jack's honor this weekend.

Saturday night, we had dinner at Chevy's, where we hadn't been since Jack's 12th birthday. Here are a few pics from one year ago:

As we returned from dinner, we looked up our hill and saw the most beautiful sight or our lives. Luminaria lined our entire driveway and the flickering candles beat back the darkness.

At church on Sunday the choir wore blue ribbons, parishioners wore ribbons or lego crosses from Jack's memorial service, and beautiful flowers adorned the church.

That afternoon, Jack's 6th grade classmates and their parents came over to reminisce and to plant a butterfly bush in our yard. We loved listening to more "Jack Stories" from these kids. Hearing how entertaining and outgoing our pensive, shy boy was made us smile and shake our heads. I have to wonder if one of the reasons Jack was so funny in school-- driving his dear teachers to distraction-- was so this group of kids would always remember him with a smile. One classmate made "picklesicles" out of pickle juice, a nod to Jack's love of dill pickles and to an experiment he and I tried a few years ago.

After this class celebration, we headed to the cul de sac. The same culdesac where Jack learned to ride a two wheeler, and where Margaret would walk down with him to try to drum up a neighborhood game of soccer, Extreme Tag, or Manhunt. The place the kids were heading the last time I saw Jack alive right before one of the neighbors said, "Hey, let's go look at the creek!"

The culdesac was filled with people who have been loving on us constantly, asking nothing in return. One friend made beautiful tags with Jack's Bible verse and a blue bird on them for people to write messages and attach to the balloons. Another set up a table with cookies and lemonade. I didn't get a chance to visit with everyone, but I saw the faces and felt the support.

We sang Happy Birthday to Jack and released the balloons. A day that had started out overcast and dreary, was sunny with a brilliant blue sky. The balloons sailed up up up over the treeline, over the stupid creek, heavenward. Other balloon launches took place in Richmond, across town, at the beach, in Indiana, and even in a Giant Food parking lot.

Tim and I have been amazed and humbled by all of the love and support we have received since Jack's accident. Time and again people have extended themselves, pushed themselves, and inconvenienced themselves, all in the hope of proving us comfort. And they have. You have. And we appreciate it so. We are learning a lot about love from you.

Speaking of love, how about watching one last Jack balloon launch? It's amazing:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Oh My

Here's what I promised you yesterday, from a reader who lives in my town. I want to preface this by saying that the day she sent this I had not been able to stop commenting on how cool the clouds were. They just seemed so clear and to have so much dimension. Later that night I got this in my inbox:

Hi Anna,

I have been very hesitant to send this to you, but I just must. I'm sure you don't remember me, but I have been following your blog since the accident and sent you some pictures of the sky from the night of the accident a few months back. I know this has been a difficult month for you and hopefully what I am about to share will be comforting for you and I pray that you don't think I'm a nut job. The last thing I want is to cause you any pain at all, but I had to tell you what happened tonight.

I was sitting at my son's lacrosse practice tonight at XYZ Elementary school, the weather was gorgeous and as the sun began to set, I was taken by another strangely beautiful sky. I was sitting on the ground at the field and decided I would take some pictures of the sunset.

I had an overwhelming urge to look for something in the sky, the feeling of "look for Jack" kept going through my head (I hope that isn't weird, but I think about all of you all the time). So I looked to the other end of the field where the clouds were totally different than the view towards the school - bright and puffy sky and clouds. I still had the feeling that I needed to look for Jack, but honestly, I wasn't seeing anything so I kind of gave up and quit taking pics and started watching practice again.

Then something told me (very strongly) to look up now. I almost fell over and quickly grabbed my phone and started taking pics again. I hope you see what I saw, I even confirmed with my 8 yr old that I wasn't making myself see something that wasn't there - he saw what I saw. I will let you decide for yourself and if it looks like nothing, I apologize for bothering you.

Wishing you peace and comfort each and every day – and especially today, for some reason it feels like a very special day. God Bless.

Wow! I have always been "cloud impaired" and have never been able to see the rabbit or the teapot or whatever in the clouds...but I definitely see this. Thank you for sharing it with us!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rare Bird: Part 1,365,212

Via email and this blog, so many people have shared neat stories about Jack and God. These stories continue to amaze me, lift me up, and convince me that while I miss him more than I could ever imagine, Jack is doing just fine. Some I have shared, and some I have put in my pocket and kept to myself to pull out when I need them the most. Maybe I worry that if I share everything you'll think I'm grasping, unstable, and losing my shit. But then I think, well, maybe some of these happenings aren't just for me, that they can have meaning for others as well.

Remember the blog reader who snapped an astounding picture featuring Jack's Bible verse in South Africa? That message surely could impact more than just my little family, right?

What about the comment Luv2Run left about praying for us as she ran on the bike path and having a bird fly right the heck into her? Sounds super scary to me, but she insists it was rather cool. I am assuming that having a bird fly into her had to have some sort of... well... impact on her...just as her story did on me.

What about the friend who felt compelled to write a poem about Jack entitled, "Rara Avis" or "Rare Bird," and another friend who had been hearing those very same words in association with Jack almost daily and was given an overwhelming sense of peace about where Jack is?

Others have shared dreams, visions, nudges, songs and other signs that point them toward God, or at the very least to a sense of "there is more, more, more going on here than we ever imagined, and it is more than okay." Coincidences, signs, "God-winks," the work of a very clever soul who knows how to delight-- they just keep coming. Whatever you want to call them, I am grateful for your taking the time to share them with me, and I hope it's beneficial for me to share some with you.

Well, I have another story for you today, sent last night by a reader:

Hi Anna,

I have been a silent reader of your blog since I was directed from "Motherhood in NYC" to visit in a time when thoughts and prayers were desperately needed. Your writing has kept me coming back to hear more about your wonderful Jack and your family (I also jumped on the Bieber bandwagon and was so happy to hear that Margaret got to see that dream come true!). Anyway, I wanted to a story with you.

My boyfriend and I went up to Door County, WI a couple of weekends ago for a short getaway. Following the advice of our waiter of must-see scenic areas, we wound up driving around a fairly secluded wooded area (Ellison Bluff County Park) and walking around the look out over the lake.

At one point while we were driving, I couldn't help but think of your family and become a little sad, as this setting was similar to pictures you've posted. Right at that moment, something caught my eye... a tree with a bright blue ribbon tied around it; it took a moment to sink in, and then it just made me smile. On our way back from the lookout, I had my boyfriend pull over so I could take a photo, in hopes that sharing this story might be one more small bit of encouragement to your family.

Maybe I'm digging here, but the story continues... I was walking back to the car after taking some pictures of the ribbon/tree when another car that had been stopped a few hundred feet behind us pulled up next to me and rolled down their window "Did you get it?!?! That was incredible!" I had no clue what they were talking about, why on earth would they be as excited about a blue ribbon as I was?

"Get what?" I asked. "The eagle! That's what we were watching, there was an eagle right above you in the tree over there" pointing to a tree about 40 feet from where I had been taking the pictures. I couldn't believe I missed it, what a great photo opportunity that would have been. We all laughed it off that I somehow missed an eagle while I was taking pictures of a tree trunk and I hopped in our car. My boyfriend asked what the couple had said to me, so I told him, and as I was recapping our conversation, it hit me... an eagle! A rare bird indeed.

I have attached a photo of the ribbon on the tree; unfortunately, I missed the eagle so I can't share that :)

I am constantly praying for you and your family. Per your last post, do what you need to do, your silence is just as powerful as your words...

Wow! I love this. Missing a "rare bird" while taking a picture for me because of my "rare bird."

And, uh, just wait until you see what I've got for you tomorrow, or later today if I just can't wait.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


I know you haven't heard from me this week. I've started a few posts, but have not finished any. You see, when I wrote a quick little post last week, to which many, many people (THANK YOU! THANK YOU!) have so generously responded by donating money to Samaritan's Purse, I went through some "Young Jack" pictures to put with it.

Among others, I posted this one:

And after I hit "publish" I let myself really look at that tummy. And those hands. And those cheeks. And those lashes. And those feet. And the book. And the train catalog on the floor. And I realized it was too hard to find any words to describe...well...anything.

So I walked away from the keyboard for a little while. And I cooked chili. And I lost more games of Words with Friends on my phone. And I read a couple more books about heaven.

And then I went to the mailbox and found a Lego Magazine addressed to Jack, and a Lego kit that he paid for with his very own money, so that he could learn to design legos like a professional, and I realized that a mom, even a mom who loves writing, and loves her son, didn't have a single word to share.

At least for a little while.