How do you say goodbye to a child—to your child? How do you tell your son goodbye for the last time? I am left with only questions and memories. Questions with no answers and memories that are malleable. Things that pose questions of what is real and what is imaginary.
There was so much left to do. And now you have gone. I hope you found your peace. I hope you found the respite you were so desperately seeking.
Rest now sweet child. Rest now. Lay your burden down and rest in the knowing that you are loved and always were.
– A Parent’s Lament
How, indeed? This, the first of so many laments I penned, now seems prophetic as I think back on the common rhetorical question I was asked innumerable times:
I can’t imagine. How do you do it?
Quite simply, it is love.
You love your children who were not taken. You love your wife who sits with you on birthdays and anniversaries while you hold your head in your hands. You love the friend who reached out to you week-in and week-out without fail and reminded you to take walks in the sunshine. You love the friend who raises a toast to him with you on his birthday.
These people become the pale surrogate of the person you lost. In loving them you develop a sense that you are loving your lost child, or parent, or sibling, or friend, and the love is deep and abiding. And you express your love to them in part because they shared the experience of your loss and in part because you are unable to have a reciprocal expression of love toward your lost one. And in the expression there is a fitting reality.
It takes so many people to act as the proxy for that lost individual because the void in your life is so great that a single person cannot fill the vacuum. Yet they receive the benefit of the love you would have directed to him or to her. You are instead channeling it to many rather than one, which is to say that the one you lost is loving those still in your life from beyond the grave through you, if you will allow it.
As a person of faith I believe that God is Love, and as such expresses his love to each of us through one another. And through our loss we have the opportunity to do God’s bidding of loving others not only as we love ourselves but also as we loved those we have lost.
In this way, the pain of loss spawns the joy of love.
Many do not stop at loving only those who remain living among them, but instead create an outreach to love those they do not know and might never meet.
On May 3rd, 1980, 13 year-old Cari Lightner lost her life after being struck by a drunken hit-and-run driver at Sunset and New York Avenues in Fair Oaks, California. The 46-year-old driver, who had recently been arrested for another DUI hit-and-run, left Cari’s body at the scene. In response, Cari’s mother, Candace, founded the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which some would argue has saved countless lives through awareness.
On October 26th, 1985, Christi Lanahan also lost her life at age 20 to the actions of a drunk driver. Two years later her mother and stepfather, Susan and Don Cox, founded The Christi Center, an organization dedicated to assisting bereaved parents and siblings.
On June 14th, 2008, Colin Holst drowned in a baby pool at just four years of age. His father, Jeff, founded Colin’s Hope, an organization dedicated to drowning prevention.
On April 5th, 2013, Matthew Warren died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 27 after struggling most of his life with mental illness. His mother, Kay, responded by forming Hope for Mental Health, a clearinghouse that provides resources for the mentally ill and their families.
In each case, these parents took an unthinkable tragedy, and transformed it into a way to love others, either through support networks for grieving individuals or through preventive efforts so that others might not experience the loss at all. In my estimation, this is the work of God. This is what we are commanded to do each and every day, whether it is those we know who are actively in our lives, or by reaching out to strangers.
We are called to acts of love and kindness, which is not a revelation to most of us. Yet we too often forget the calling and, sadly, it is the tragic events we encounter in life that remind us, motivate us, and return us to our given purpose.
I chose to write a book, a book I have been giving away a little at a time, hoping that it would reach someone and in so doing that my son’s life will not have been lived in vain. That whether chains of addiction, a desperate life of crime, the inhumanity of prison, or the cruel teeth of loss-induced grief, someone will find hope that life is still worth living.
And when the story is told and the tale is complete, I hope only to touch a life. Your life. This is my gift of love to you. That because my son, for all his missteps, was here and walked this planet you can know that you have value, that your addict friend matters, that your incarcerated family member has not yet been discarded, or that your deceased loved one made a difference in the world you might have overlooked when he or she was still alive.
The reason that person mattered and still does is because of the bond of love you shared with him or her, because it is ultimately the love bond between and among people that makes life worth living at all. Whether we are nothing more than a series of chemical reactions brought about by a series of random events, or we are created in the image of God with intention matters not.
We live and we are sentient, and we are directed, by whom or what we can’t be certain, but nevertheless directed to love each other in whatever way we are able—and love is not an ethereal concept devoid of physical substance.
It is what you do with your time here in the present physical realm that is the measure of your love, and the measure of your love is the measure of your existence.
Your life is a wonderful gift. What will you do with it?