Strengthening Kindness Through Mourning
Sometimes it takes the worst tragedies imaginable to shake people outside of themselves. Our world can seem so divided until something happens to flip an ingrained behavior or narrative on its head. We’ve all lived through 9/11 and the ups and downs of the coronavirus, but in my experience, one of the worst things someone can be forced to endure is the loss of a child. It’s a moment in time that can forever decimate life as you know it.
Once upon a time when my oldest son was in first grade, I had my first encounter with a family faced with this kind of horrific nightmare. Their 6-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor that was operable, but most likely terminal. I would never be able to describe the ashen faces that walked around our elementary school almost every single day after Katie’s diagnosis. But along with visible heartbreak came a level of compassion I was only beginning to understand. People from all walks of life learned to respect a family’s privacy while offering support and comfort through a journey that would last six years. It was a miraculous coming together that I wish could be mirrored in today’s polarized society.
That family’s life obviously never returned to normal, but things in our town most definitely did. Busy families resumed lives that were all-consumed with obligations and activities that often cloud the reality of how fragile life can be. And then it happened again. Another child in town was diagnosed with a horrible form of cancer, this one in my daughter’s grade. Ian’s battle was shorter but no less heartbreaking. He was a brilliant high school student with his whole life ahead of him, until it was stolen by a cruel disease. Once again, the town pulled together with the utmost respect for the privacy of a grieving family.
I have three children and a superstition about things happening in threes, but I never expected the events that would unfold only a few years later. Six boys who my youngest son had grown up with decided to drive around together on a rainy fall night. Wet leaves are tricky for drivers with experience, but for newly licensed 17-year-olds, they are the most unpleasant kind of surprise. These were good kids who had nothing in their systems but the desire for some innocent fun. Unfortunately, the car went into a skid and ejected one of the passengers straight into a tree, killing him instantly. The other boys sustained treatable injuries, but Nick’s passing hit the town with a magnitude that I had never seen.
"It is encouraging to see compassion is still out there wherever it might be needed. Our community does not stand alone in being full of good people who can jump into action when given the opportunity."
This time I knew the family well, but by some indescribable phenomenon, it felt like everyone in town felt just as close to them. Hundreds came to the wake whether they knew them personally or not and did not hesitate to include the other five families who would never be the same after that horrific night. The mayor organized an evening vigil on the high school football field that allowed all of the boys who were in the car to speak about losing their friend as our community embraced them in a circle of love. Visitors streamed into Nick’s home for months as it became a place for his friends and everyone else to keep his memory alive. The family never turned away any acts of kindness, leading to the start of new friendships and adding to bonds that only grew stronger. The end goal was to ease the family’s pain and loss, but deep down we all knew that this kind of broken heart is impossible to repair.
Almost five years later, we have continued to see unimaginable tragedies in our town taking children far too soon. Suicides, drug overdoses, a congenital heart defect, and even a college shooting have touched families in this town year after year. One would think we would all be numb at this point, but the response has been just the opposite. Time and time again, the outpouring of love and support is always there. It’s like the rest of the world stops so each family can receive whatever they might need to help ease their shock and pain.
The flipside to having so many parents in town who have lost children has been the opportunity to pay the experience forward. Grieving mothers can comfort other grieving mothers in ways that others could never duplicate. With that in mind, these families came together and started their own support group now known as The Mahwah Angels. Thanks to videoconferencing, they have been able to speak once a week to help each other with their own personal form of grief counseling. It’s a special community that no one would ever want an invitation to, but the fact that these moms and dads have joined together to foster even the smallest amount of healing is truly amazing.
It is encouraging to see compassion is still out there wherever it might be needed. Our community does not stand alone in being full of good people who can jump into action when given the opportunity. Most don’t need a tragedy to lead by example, but there are some circumstances that will always pull at the universal heartstrings. In this town, we have seen too many of them, but the result has been a comfort in knowing that kindness can still prevail.