In slightly more than an hour eleven years ago, nearly three thousand lives were tragically cut far too short. More than three thousand families were instantly re-directed; mourning the loss of their loved ones while wondering how they would navigate their futures without them.
The reaches of September 11th went well past the East and Hudson Rivers. The same terribly historic hour also propelled our nation’s armed forces into battle in two separate countries, causing the loss of hundreds more of this country’s youth and future leaders. Today’s eighteen-year-old servicemen were merely seven-years-old when the fate of their service was determined.
During that same summer hour, thousands of firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, correction officers and emergency personnel converged onto the World Trade Center site in order to save their fellow Americans, hoping their skills and training could save the life of even one person. Soon after, the Twin Towers collapsed. First Responders realized that they would not save their peers, but that their skills would be needed in an entirely different mission, recovery. They would be joined in this mission during the hours, days, weeks and months following the attacks by tens-of-thousands of their brothers and sisters in the construction trades, communication industry and volunteers. The goal of recovery was not limited to the recovery of the personal effects of those lost, but the recovery of this country from one of its darkest moments. Over the next year, the combined efforts of First Responders enabled families to find closure in the burials of their loved ones. They removed the debris from the World Trade Center Site and provided these services with an unmatched dignity, professionalism and heroism. Continue reading “The FealGood Foundation”→
“Each time we encounter a painful experience, we get to know ourselves a little better . . . Pain prompts us to face who we are and where we are. What we do with that experience defines who we become.” John Maxwell
“The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and He knows those who trust in Him.” (Nah. 1:7 New King James Version)
A Clear Crisp Morning in Tucson
The plan for January 8, 2011, seemed simple enough: I would get a haircut before we attended the Congress on Your Corner meet-and-greet sponsored by Representative Gabrielle Giffords in front of the Safeway grocery store, and then go to the Home Improvement Show at the Tucson Convention Center. We arrived early, met several of the congresswoman’s staff, and signed the registration list. My wife, Doris, was number two and I was number three, so we would speak with the congresswoman and then be on our way.
We had just started talking with Giffords when there were some loud bangs and a whirlwind of air. The first two shots were a blink of an eye apart, then a flurry of shots began and I found myself lying flat on my back, looking up at the roof under which we had been standing.
After hearing about our involvement at the incident, a friend of over 50 years commented by e-mail: “It is truly amazing and a miracle that at three feet away you weren’t killed. You obviously had a guardian angel standing between the shooter and you and Doris. Although from the way things turned out, it looks like he was standing a little closer to Doris.” Continue reading “Choices”→
Those of us in grief counseling find ourselves spending considerable parts of our days with people who are grieving significant losses in their lives in one way or another. Many, if not most, of our clients entered treatment, in large part, due to the fact that they felt so isolated in their grief.
For centuries, ours has been a culture that has not condoned discussion of death, loss or grief. Not so many years ago the dead were brought into the home of the family for a period of time immediately prior to the funeral. In another era, widows were not accepted and were expected to wear only black for the year following the death of their spouses. Not so terribly long ago, the public acknowledgement got even smaller in the form of a black ribbon adorning one’s clothing.
Today, most of the general population is more comfortable if we do not discuss grief or loss at all. This occurs simultaneous with a time in history where people are losing jobs they have held for twenty, thirty, forty years or more, homes are being foreclosed on, the divorce rate remains elevated, the marriage rate declines, and newscasts are full of incidents of mass casualties in our country. Continue reading “A Call to Service”→
Waiting, impatiently, for the day when she can get her driver’s license is positively unbearable for the high school sophomore. She seizes the moment, when her parents are out-of-town, to take a little test drive. She will be careful, very careful.
She follows all her parents’ rules: seat belt buckled, radio off (to avoid distraction), no passengers, no eating, look right-left-right before crossing intersections, and watch the speed limits. All the rules but one–“drive only with us until you get your license”.
The young boy on the bright blue bicycle swerves in front of her! She slams on the brake and jerks the steering wheel sharply to the right. “No, oh no.” The car starts to slide towards the curb. She jerks the wheel back to the left. “What’s the matter with this car?” She can’t believe it’s so hard to control. It whips back towards the curb.
The end of the test drive is announced by the sound of tires squealing, brakes screaming, metal crunching, glass shattering, and young wood bending (in its resilience, not breaking) as the mid-sized red, four-door car left the roadway, jumped the curb, and landed broadside coming to rest against the tree.
“911–What is the nature of your emergency?”
About the Author: Being a Licensed Professional Counselor is a later-in-life professional goal. I returned to school in 2003 and received an Associate of Arts degree in Communications in 2005; Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in Psychology in 2007; and my Master in Education in Counseling in May, 2010 from Sul Ross State University-Rio Grande College. I have recently completed a 3,000 hour internship and am awaiting receipt of my new Licensed Professional Counselor license from the State of Texas. I currently serve as President-elect for Texas Hill Country Counselor’s Association, a chapter of the Texas Counseling Association. I provide counseling services at New Hope Counseling Center, BCFS Health and Human Services, and Peterson Hospice/Bridging the Gap bereavement group for children and adults. I believe everyone has within them the knowledge and ability to make changes that will result in living a more fulfilling and satisfying life and that my role as a counselor is to help facilitate those changes.
My husband Jerry and I moved to Kerrville in July 2010. We are the parents of 9 adult children, grandparents to 24 children and young adults and great-grandparents to 15 babies and children.
None of us want to think about the issue of organ donation, the subject brings fear to our hearts. We just do not want to address the issue, procrastination is normal, but the truth is it needs to be discussed.
I wanted to share our son’s story. Deciding to give life to others while in denial that you are losing your loved one is a place I wish no family had to visit. The fact is that all too often it does happen, and to be prepared and know what your loved one would want at this stressful time is a blessing.
Our son, Scott, a bright and gifted college student, was taken from us on September 16, 2004. He was 23 years old. He was doing the right thing by offering to be the designated driver for a group of friends the night of September 10, 2004. In the early morning hours of the 11th, Scott was fulfilling his obligation; he was sober, only trying to get a friend to his car in order to take him home. When we received the call to come to the hospital and the ER Doctor said that Scott was badly hurt, it seemed unreal and totally impossible.
We have always trusted both of our sons to use sound judgment and they have never let us down. We did not ever receive calls from their schools or the police; our boy’s had always offered to help others instead of acting with aggression.
Five days we prayed and could only watch as he slipped from us. He soon became a mass of stark white head bandages, tubes, pumps and beeping monitors. The only help that we could give was to wipe morphine sweat from his brow and pray he knew his family and friends were with him. We were choking on hope and memories, unwilling to accept the fact that we might lose him. Your mind goes to a place of safety or at least tries to during a time of high emotional stress. You do not want to hear that it’s over.
On the fifth day, the doctors called the immediate family into the ICU. I can remember sitting beside my mother, Scott’s father and brother were standing directly behind me, along with Scott’s aunt and uncle. The doctor showed us the brain scans, they revealed massive swelling. Next they showed scans of his heart, which had been badly damaged because he had several strokes due to blood pressure in his brain backing up to his heart. His heart kept trying to pump blood that could not flow into the brain. The doctor explained that in most cases being physically fit would be a good thing, but, in this case, Scott’s body was struggling to repair itself.
The next question asked was how did we feel about Scott being a donor? Those words took my breath away. Everything stopped.
Until this point, I still wanted to believe that everything would be OK, that somehow Scott would live. This question forced us to see that it was over. Our son was gone. All that I can really remember was our younger son, Mark, speaking through tears into my ear., “Mom, you know that is what Scott would want”. His voice brought me back to this new horrible reality. Yes of course, what do we do, where do we sign. Shock is not even close to what we all were feeling.
We were then given a crash course about donation, skin, bones, eyes and organs could save lives and help accident victims, this information made a deep impression on us. The thought of burn victims had not even entered our minds. We signed and knew Scott would approve. He had always taken care of himself and we wanted his hard work to not end here at this hospital.
As we left the ICU and entered the hallway, we were greeted by a dozen or so of Scott’s friends. The hospital was filled with these wonderful young people. I can’t guess how many of them had camped out in the waiting rooms for five days. Taking shifts so that Scott would never be alone, they had helped us get through this horrible time.
We would never have imagined that our decision to donate would not be received as an option. Some felt that we were giving up on Scott and we were not giving him a chance to recover. Others understood. The kids had not seen the scans we had just witnessed. They did not understand that no matter what we did Scott was not going to make it. With both his heart damaged and his brain swelling it was just a matter of time, Scott was clinically brain dead. He was already gone. They spoke of miracles and how strong Scott was if given the chance.
I crumpled under their gaze. My husband, Mark, stepped forward and gripped my arm as he held me. He then spoke for both of us. The decision has been made. We are his parents and we hold this responsibility. It was Scott’s wish to be a donor and it is ours also. Mark then asked them to please understand we were looking out for our son. He moved the crowd aside to let us pass. A minister stepped forward and offered to help talk to the kids, as did our son. Scott’s girlfriend, Teresa, looked in his wallet and found that Scott had signed the donor agreement on the back of his driver’s license. They walked slowly away and asked to see Scott one last time. We agreed as did the ICU staff. The next few hours were a blur, as were the next days, weeks, and months.
I share this horrible time in our lives with you to try to help you understand the chaos surrounding a tragic event of this magnitude. Scott had signed his donor card, without it I don’t think Scott’s friends would have ever forgiven us. Over time, they have finally understood why we agreed that Scott should be an organ donor.
Life Share of Oklahoma was Scott’s organ placement service. They were in immediate contact with us. Helping us through our pain, they were fearless in their dedication to lessen our grief. Phone calls at random times as well as Mother’s and Father’s Day, Christmas and Scott’s birthday. When the pain was at its worst, they were there.
They sent us a letter explaining where Scott’s organs had been placed, their ages, health issues and state locations. They asked if we wanted to be informed if any of the recipients contacted Life Share asking to communicate with us. We agreed and could not imagine what would happen. What happened was amazing; there are no other words to express it. Now there have been bittersweet tears of joy instead of only pain. We had made the right decision.
The first letter we received was a year after Scott had passed. It was from a wonderful young lady who was thanking us for her father. She was disabled and would not have been able to live at home without her father; he also sent us a thank you letter. He had received Scott’s liver on September 18th. Her father only had a short time to live without one. He was placed on the transplant list on September 16th, the day Scott died. She used an onscreen keyboard in order to send us her letter. She told us about her dad’s farm and that her brother was in college but would be returning to the farm soon to help out. They had cows and other livestock, it sounded like a beautiful place to live. Without Scott’s gift, this young lady would have been placed in a home for the disabled. Taken from everything she knew. She would have lost her Dad and he was everything to her. Although he is in his fifties, he now has a long life ahead of him as does his family. How many lives had Scott touched and changed for the better.
We received a card from Scott’s kidney recipient with a big Thank You. That means to us that they are OK.
Then three years after Scott had passed, we got another letter, this time from our home state of Texas. The letter opens with, “You don’t know me, but I am alive, thanks to your loved one who was my pancreas donor. This makes you all a part of my family”. She continued to share that when she was diagnosed with diabetes at age thirteen she immediately became insulin dependent. At age sixteen, she lost her mother, so she became surrogate mother to her siblings. This included cleaning the house, laundry, cooking, helping everyone do their homework, plus keeping up her personal studies, and lastly, preparing the family for bed and it started all over the next day.
As the years passed her diabetes became worse. She had to have a leg amputated and was in the hospital for three months. Then dialysis three times a week due to renal failure. By the Grace of God one of her brothers was a match and he donated a kidney, but without a pancreas it too would fail. She was on the donor list for a year and five months. Then on September 18th, two days after Scott died, she received his pancreas, it was a perfect match.
It has been three years and she is still healthy. She has not experienced any type of rejection. She thanks God, her hospital and doctors, and Scott for offering her life. She, for the first time, has her own apartment, lives alone although her father checks on her every day. She loves to read, write, watch TV and enjoy Texas Sunsets. She no longer has diabetes. She wanted us to know that our son still lives through her, with her heartfelt love and gratitude for Scott’s gift. We received her letter at Thanksgiving 2007.
Then in December another recipient from Oklahoma had a gift for us. This man was not one of Scott’s recipients but someone who was saved by a wonderful donation of a heart. We received a breathtaking hand drawn picture of Scott in his pilot’s uniform. My heart stopped. I could not believe it. One thing as a parent of a lost child that we miss is new pictures, showing them as they are now. No new pictures for us… Yet this man found a way to give us a gift not only from him but from Scott. Thanking us for allowing our son to give life to others.
I feel Scott is still here on earth, still alive inside these people. Not gone, just here differently.
Please have the donor discussion with your family. Think about what you want to do now. NOT during a time of crises. What if it was your child, your wife, your husband, or your parents? What would you do in this situation?
We are not asking you to decide to be a donor, we are simply asking you to really think about it and then have that talk. This is not a comfortable subject, but it is a discussion that could save lives.
We watch TV reports and read every day about the deaths on our streets; these things make us feel helpless as though we alone cannot make a difference. It seems overwhelming and the problems are larger than we can fix or change. So we do nothing. Organ donation is one issue you may be faced with in the future. I pray that you never have to make this decision but if it happens, will you be prepared? Please consider the discussion.
About the Author:Both Debbie and her husband, Mark, were born and raised in Southern Indiana. They moved to Texas in 1985 to offer their sons, Scott and Mark, a better education and career opportunity. They currently live in Argyle, Texas.
Debbie has worked at Premiere Laser Centre since 2001. She and Mark are active in their local church, Cross Timbers, Argyle campus. After the loss of both Debbie’s parents and her oldest son, Scott, she had to make a decision. Should she stay angry and let it rule her life or be part of the solution.
Debbie and Mark work consistently toward changing state laws. Debbie is a member of Denton County CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) including ongoing monthly classes as well as attending storm spotter training classes. Both she and her husband are grief group facilitators at Cross Timbers Church’s Journey Toward Joy bereavement program. At this time, Debbie is considering several new areas of service.
Whether or not we share a specific belief system there is a sense of solidarity when it comes to dying. Dr. Albert Schweitzer said that he found there was “a fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain,” and that “sensitivity to human suffering does not stand alone and rootless.” We have all stood over different graves and have had different beliefs as to the fate of our loved ones, but our tears remain a universal constant and need no translation.
There was a recent article by Kimberly Winston from the Religion News Service entitled, Grief without God, wherein she discusses the challenges for an atheist who grieves without a specific belief system. She writes of parents who chose to leave support groups because they didn’t share the views of other participants who spoke hopefully of “holding their children again” in an afterlife.
One anguished mother commented in the piece that her loss was so absolute that to suggest otherwise was to dismiss its magnitude. So how do non-theists cope without the “trappings” or support of religious ritual and belief? Where is there a space for them in what is essentially a theistic culture? One place to look is at the Facebook page entitled, “Grief Beyond Belief,” where one of the tenets of the Bill of Rights for the Grieving is, “You have the right not to be grateful, reasonable, inspired or inspiring.” Another would be the book “Godless Grief” by Cathe Jones whose work has generated an online community of like-minded grievers.
Creating rituals for non-theists would also seem to be of importance. Rituals have been with us over many millennia. Flower pollen has been traced back over forty-thousand years in caves in Scandinavia, placed on the bodies buried deep within their caverns by mourning loved ones. Rituals not only link us to our past but provide a way to cope with everyday life. They acknowledge the trauma, but also the survival of the living. The community has been damaged as well as the individual. It matters that we were here. It matters that we are no more, and it surely matters that someone cares enough to notice. Rituals affirm who we are and where we fit in to the universe. No one wants to slip into oblivion. Being erased from memory may, in the end, constitute one of our deepest fears.
So what might be some options? When the deceased has specified no service and no obituary, there are still ways to fill in the gaps.
You can write a letter to the deceased and leave it with the body for cremation or burial.
You can put a notice in the paper on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, a birthday or other anniversary.
You can donate your body to science, thus bringing hope that what is learned may yet help the living.
There can be a public gathering in a secular setting at a later date.
When a colleague of mine died who had done pioneering work in the AIDS community and later succumbed to the disease himself, a gathering was held in his memory. Three months later in a concert hall, several people spoke, and a chamber orchestra played a number of his favorite Mozart works. I like to think that he would have been pleased.
Bearing witness is also a way to bring comfort to the living. A recent article in the New York Times by Hiroko Tabuchi recalled the first anniversary of the tsunami in Japan. He spoke of a retired undertaker, a Mr. Atsushi Chita, who had spent countless hours cleaning the faces of identified victims as best he could so that the grieving family members would know that cultural rituals had been observed and that their loved ones had not been alone in death. My sister-in-law, who is Japanese, impressed upon me at the time how vital it was that even in catastrophic circumstances the body be treated with respect and dignity.
I am thinking of all who bore witness at the makeshift morgue in lower Manhattan after 9/11. Some were clergy, many were not, yet there was a common sense of humanity that united them in their goal of showing dignity and respect, knowing that loved ones could not, and also understanding that the fragmented remains might never be identified.
Perhaps the ultimate secular memorial in America is simply known as “The Wall.” When twenty-one-year old Maya Lin proposed the architectural plan for the Vietnam Memorial in our nation’s capital, there was much opposition, some of it quite brutal as I recall. Now, thirty years later, it is universally acknowledged to be part of our national psyche. To be there, to see the endless blocks of thousands of names carved into the smooth stone, to have to walk down, only to walk back up to re-emerge into the world gives not only the sense of the enormity of our losses, but speaks with quiet dignity and respect. People leave toys, flowers, photos, letters and military mementos to such an extent that a museum has been set up to hold them all. It is the most visited secular site in the country.
Over twenty years ago when what was known as the Quilt Project in memory of AIDS victims was touring the country it came to Phoenix where I was living at the time. It took over the Phoenix Civic Center and there were literally thousands of quilts…on the floor, on the wall and hanging from the ceiling. As a volunteer it was my job to find the names on a computer printout that matched a specific quilt. Never will I forget the older couple who approached me for assistance. They were in their seventies I would guess and the woman was pulling a small oxygen tank behind her. We walked quite a distance until the quilt they were searching for was located. I found two chairs and left them to their grief and their thoughts.
Later as I was helping them to find the exit back into the hot July desert sun they told me that the quilt had been made in honor of their grandson who had died with AIDS. His sister, their granddaughter, had made it in secret. The man’s parents had been so ashamed that they had refused to hold a funeral for him. This quilt had been his sister’s memorial to him. Looking back on it now I realize that in those few minutes spent in tears and quiet contemplation sitting in front of that quilt, this young man’s grandparents were in fact making a cemetery visit. It was as close as they were going to get to memorializing him. It was a completely secular moment, but none the less powerful, and I’ll never forget it.
The needs of our communities are changing. There must be room for all who grieve…for those who rely on age-old structures and beliefs as well as for those who do not share in those traditions. Let us never say that we are not up to the task. We owe it to one another to bear witness to the pain of our neighbors, wherever that may lead.
About the Author: Mrs. Felton is a dynamic and inspiring international speaker and presents seminars throughout the United States on current grief issues. Prior to establishing her consulting business, Deirdre worked in the bereavement field for over twelve years in various professional capacities. She was formerly the Bereavement Counseling Coordinator for the Hospice of Stamford, Connecticut, pro-bono counselor on the oncology service at Morristown Hospital in New Jersey and a Bereavement Counselor at St. Barnabas on the Desert Episcopal Church in Phoenix, Arizona. She has been a faculty member of the American Academy of Bereavementsince 1993. She is currently contributing editor for the American Academy of Bereavement’s quarterly newsletter. Her audiotape series on “Compassion & Bereavement” has received critical acclaim.