Extraordinary!

Mommy, mommy!! I want to show you something!!

With a devious smirk, my six-year old glanced quickly at my parents sitting on the couch across the living room, straight faces, belying her intent. Oh boy, I thought, what’s next? Proceed with caution. Her spirit exudes, the energy that has forced me to put one foot in front of the other, since July 7th.

EXTRAORDINARY!!!! She screams, laughing, as she and my parents immediately place their index finger in the air next to their faces. My teacher told us you have to put your finger up when you hear someone say a big word. The word is extraordinary!! And extraordinarILY gets two fingers!!!

Her cackles fill the room, she lies on her back, gangly legs kicking in the air. I laugh. We all laugh.

The journey through grief and beyond, it has to occur. It is dirty and rough. On our darkest days, I have yelled at God that I feel like a prisoner of war. I have stood by Ben’s grave, sobbing just to find air, talking to him, a request that he give me the strength to survive. The incessant waves batter our already-exhausted bodies. One after another, as if a form of water boarding. Breaths are intermittent, shallow.

But, to survive, we know we cannot avoid the waves – we have to meet them at their core, feel them, dive to their depths as they crest. Hold our breath and listen for the sound of their power breaking against the shore in their tumultuous descent. We must gasp and swim, some days sinking a bit lower, others floating on the surface of much calmer waters.

Grief is the journey from brokenness back to life. By surviving another wave, we come closer to finding our “new normal.”

That new life may be imperfect, a jigsaw of shattered pieces. But, we swim. And with each passing wave, we inhale the pain and exhale hope, as a piece falls into place. And, as the days pass, moments of sunlight shimmer on the surface of the water, with ever increasing frequency.

A smile, a laugh, a dance, a joke. A hug.

Those glimmers catch me off-guard. The reality of the loss of Ben is constant, like a separate, parallel consciousness. But, in the moments, we are finding space for the loss AND the hope. I pause and realize the girls and I are singing Colder Weather (Zac Brown Band), loudly, with the windows rolled down, sun blazing, breeze blowing in the crispness of a New England fall. I find us suddenly dancing in the sunroom. Or I feel my heart bursting at the seams with pride during the girls’ soccer games, just existing as a normal “soccer mom” again for a moment. Then there is the instant when I look up from my book at our local coffee shop, and time seems to stop. If only. But, I grab the moment, as it ever too quickly passes, and watch my little mini-me’s engrossed in books of their own, sipping their mango-strawberry smoothies. 

And, then there is my husband. We find ourselves holding hands, being silly, even if just for a second. Laughing, enjoying soccer again, walks to nowhere. Like college-age kids, when we first started our journey together, innocent, with the entire world of possibility in front of us. Date nights just talking and thinking. Smiles. Tears. Smiles.

As the glimmers sneak in more often, so does the guilt. I found myself sobbing, texting a friend who lost her daughter a few years ago. Am I allowed to smile? To laugh? What if I’m not miserable all the time or realize I haven’t cried yet today? And, again, she gives me strength to continue riding the waves, replying: When you are not on your knees, broken, it is because Ben lives in you here AND in heaven above.  It's nothing we can comprehend!  We can only trust.  Trust Ben.

People have tearfully told me they worry our family will never feel true joy again. But, that can’t be true. I want to live, to feel joy, even if its different and not quite as pure or constant as before.

Ben’s joy and laughter filled a room. That’s one of the greatest thing I learned from him – love and laughter define us. With those ingredients, a true life ensues. And time is too limited and precious to allow suffering and sadness to win. Life is a gift.

Ben would want us to live, love and laugh. He’s cheering us on, I feel him each day.

So, we fight the waves of trauma and grief. We breathe and live. And through God’s love, I have faith one day we will crawl on our knees, tired and battered, out of the waves, and stand in the sunlight in our “new normal.” Maybe it will be a simple island, but it will be built on the foundation of joy, family, faith and friendship. But, mostly, it will stand strong through love. Ben’s love.

Because ultimately, God (through Ben) is teaching me that life is EXTRAORDINARY, and we need to live it EXTRAORDINARILY.

(I get three finger props for that sentence!) 

The Benefits of Stoicism

I remember the moment I was called stoic live on national television. September 2nd, CNN Legal View, Ashleigh Banfield. I sensed her going in that direction as she started the sentence, but I wasn’t sure what descriptive word she would land on, so I couldn’t prepare my response as she was speaking. “Stoic.” There was a split second where I thought “Am I really stoic?” but I didn’t have time to analyze that deep-seeded question, internally, on live television before responding - so I just rolled with it. My response came from the heart, which was the only thing I had left at that point. The truth is that no one sees me behind closed doors, in private, except my family and close friends. I feel like part of my heart has been ripped out, part of my soul. I love Ben. I miss him so much. There are no words for this.

After a few weeks of consideration, I believe she was correct. Soon after Ben’s death, a therapist told us that the human brain can only handle so much trauma at once. To survive, it compartmentalizes before catatonia takes over, moments where the brain shuts down. I’ve come to realize that I have what I call “buckets.” Many buckets. And, I put them on shelves in my brain, take some down at points, keep others stored away – as they are all so very heavy, filled with the emotions of July 7th and the aftermath, that I would surely succumb to their weight bearing down on me all at once. The public sees me when I’ve taken my advocacy bucket off the shelf, supported by stoicism, and briefly when my grief bucket tips over a bit. But, most of the buckets are privately mine, and I spend the better part of every day pushing them back in their place on the shelf in my brain, as they teeter-totter under the vibrations of our sorrow and pain and exhaustion, until I can finally let them fall when I am safely behind closed doors with family and close friends.

What the public didn’t see on the Today’s Show or CNN was Kyle standing right off-camera, watching, listening, tearing up at times. Yes, I support him, but he does the same for me. The Sunday before the interviews, I’d told him I needed him to come with me. I couldn’t do it without him, in fact. And, that is also part of my truth. Our truth.

Kyle and I went for a walk together in Central Park right after the CNN interview. Our path took us past some of our favorite spots, with many memories. Past Heckscher Playground and the Sheep Meadow where we had lain with Ben and the girls several times the summer before. I took his hand, he paused, and finally talked about his emotions from the day. “I couldn’t hear what you and Ashleigh were saying but I could see the picture of Ben right behind you on the set, and I just looked up once, pointed, and the only words that could come out of my mouth were ‘That’s my son.’” His voice quivered. Then, the first tears of the day flowed freely down my face. I felt that all-to-common pain in my chest, and it took my breath away momentarily. I’d held it together far too long. The bucket was falling. I had been able to see the pictures of Ben on the camera in front of us, but compartmentalized that portion, and often avoided looking in that direction altogether because….well, because I had to remain stoic to achieve my objective that day. My mind had to remain clear, uncluttered with the pieces of my heart that, being shattered, push their way into my consciousness at inconvenient times. As we heard the happy laughter of children playing in Central Park, I responded to Kyle, my voice breaking, “Yeah, but you know, I don’t want to say ‘Look, that’s Ben on CNN.’ I want to be able to point one day and say ‘Look that’s Ben, playing soccer.’ And, I don’t get to do that. I just miss him. So much. That's why we are doing this today.” To which he responded, “I miss him too,” and we walked and cried.

It was in that moment that I realized why I have become an advocate and why I have to do it stoically. I can’t get my Benjabear back, I can’t rewind and change the events of July 7th. It is out of my control. And, that bucket, well that bucket of my loss as a mother, I have to keep on a shelf for times when I can even begin to delve into those emotions, they are so overpowering. But, I can control my life from this point forward, make choices to ensure others never have to think “I wish I could see my baby playing soccer.” And, to accomplish that, it takes a small measure of stoicism.

Reading through the Forbes article, Five Reasons Why Stoicism Matters Today, by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, I began to understand that the connotation of the term stoicism has become twisted in modern times, in an age where over-sharing and emotional displays are commonplace, accepted and, often, expected – leaving little room for an ancient philosophy built on emotional control. But, there are benefits.

Stoicism evolved in a time of turmoil, a chaotic world on the edge, “in a world falling apart” - Athens, Greece in the early 3rd century BC. Its the natural philosophical backbone for Christianity, the military (prisoners of war) and leaders. In the words of Goodman and Soni:

Stoicism tells us that no happiness can be secure if its rooted in changeable, destructible things. Our bank accounts can grow or shrink, our careers can prosper or falter, even our loved ones can be taken from us. There is only one place the world can’t touch: our inner selves, our choice at every moment to be brave, to be reasonable, to be good. The world might take everything from us; Stoicism tells us that we all have a fortress inside.

The night of July 7th, my world fell apart. It seemed to have been destroyed in an instant. In the blink of an eye. I felt like I had lost everything. Life spun out of control. As my body began to go into shock – legs too wobbly to stand, overcome with chills, shaking, an out-of-body feeling, where I could form no words to respond to questions – I found a way to survive. There was a moment when a female physician, with a nurse and therapist standing nearby, took me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes, and calmed me down by stating, very matter of fact: “Lindsey, you are in control -- of everything from this point forward. It is your decision. You. Are. In. Control.” In that instant, when my brain could not even function to imagine our life moving forward, the seeds of stoicism were planted.

Our tragedy – there are no words really. Losing my son. My joy. The complexities that will lie within us for the remainder of our lives. It was just another day, and in an instant, my world crumbled. But, that night, I had a decision to make. And, I did.

 

The Moments That Take Your Breath Away

They overcome me, and at the most unexpected times. The triggers, so minor. Yesterday, at my daughter’s first fall soccer tournament, one of our players took a ball to the stomach, wind immediately knocked out of her. As she stood in the middle of the field, bent over, trying not to cry, both teams got down on one knee as a show of concern and respect until she was able to walk off the field. The innocence of children, the respect shown to those suffering in pain, the love of friendship. It took my breath away, only quiet tears remained -- which I quickly wiped away.

The end of summer has brought another layer of grief for us. In ways, it is the end of the summer of Ben. The last memories we have of him running around with a beach ball at the summer concerts in the park, of him playing in the sand at the beach - running and screaming over and over at the cold waves touching his feet, reveling in the beauty at the shore of our local lake.

The fall ushers in our new “firsts.” Not the firsts that parents usually get – first sentence, day of preschool, then first day of kindergarten, first tee-ball game. It’s the first of my daughter’s travel soccer games without Ben accidentally toddling onto the field. Our first visit back to 850 Degrees Wood-Fired Pizza or Fifty Coins without his face at the end of the table. Our first trip to Kent Falls, or apple picking without him. The first pumpkin trip and Halloween without him dressed up as a little teddy bear. The first Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthday.

IMG_1662.jpg

 

Those are the moments that take our breath away.

The moment out to dinner with a friend, where I reminisce about rocking Ben to sleep at night – his tiny, chubby hand on my chest. The way his face looked when he was dozing off, such peace and comfort. The moment I take the girls back-to-school shopping and I glance at the boy’s clothes.

But, there are also the others. The moment at our favorite Mexican restaurant where Kyle looks down at our youngest daughter and says “Where’s your tooth?!” Look of astonishment, she frantically glances on the table – “There it is!!! Mommy, I lost my first tooth!” she screams with a new, cute toothless lisp. (I won the bet, by the way, that she’d lose it before the first day of school.) Its the moment she runs into our bedroom screaming “The tooth fairy came!” and jumps on the bed to snuggle with us.

The moment during the soccer game, where I see my daughter unrelentingly, dribbling down the field against three defenders. Where I feel a renewed energy to mirror her strength, to get through another day -- just when the forces bearing down on us seem too strong for any human to take. 

Most importantly, the moment, where my husband and I are so beaten down, that we just sink, exhausted, into each other with a strong hug and simply stand, waiting, holding onto each other until the wave of unbearable emotions pass over us and we can take another step - together.

 

Is Empathy Still Alive?

“There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us….As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier….[W]e live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained, a culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

 I hope you don’t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern…because you have an obligation to yourself because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential – and become full-grown.”

- President Barack Obama's 2006 commencement speech to Northwestern graduates

Empathy, in its most basic sense, is the ability to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. Some commentators have identified empathy as one of the most important skills of the 21st century, while it has been touted by many, including President Obama, as the key to bridging the political divide to tackle some of the most pertinent issues facing America today. Neuroscientists have identified certain regions of the brain that predispose humans, and other animals, to empathy, while philosophers, as early as David Hume and Adam Smith, have viewed a concept similar to empathy as one of the integral underpinnings of morality and ethics.

However, empathy does not always persevere. As Ute Frevert, German historian of emotions, once put it, “The fact that human beings are naturally equipped to feel what others feel does not mean they always do so. They might just turn away and act indifferent.” Or worse.

Empathy is balanced by a seeming counterforce called the ego, which allows us to understand how we are separate from the rest of the world, in other words – it is the portion of human consciousness that reflects on one's self in relation to the world and others, in terms of self-esteem, acceptance, empathy, and a coherent self-concept. This plays out in ways that can greatly affect, not only our social interactions and development as a society, but also political growth, problem-solving, collaboration and compromise. A 2011 CNN article (Is the Internet Killing Empathy?, Gary Small, M.D. and Gigi Vorgan, Special to CNN, February 18, 2011) proposed that the Internet’s “all access” (and I suggest, impersonal and detached) approach de-sensitizes individuals to life and reduces the ability to empathize. Referring to a public tragedy caught on tape, the authors noted that “[p]eople couldn’t turn away…drawn often by a subconscious fear that the same thing could happen to us. By observing it in other people, we have our own experience of it, but at an emotional distance. The more we observe terrifying events happening to other people, the more they reinforce our sense of denial and detachment: It can’t happen to us.”

After being asked to challenge the graduating class at Northwestern, even if just for 30 minutes as they entered the "real world," President Obama quoted scripture, Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.” This reminds me of something my husband, Kyle, told me yesterday while we were talking about the past week. He had said:

“The best part of my day is watching [our oldest daughter] play soccer. Watching kids play, unburdened, completely innocent of everything. They don’t see any evil or hardship or any of the worries that burden adults. I can see back to when I was that age, before I lost that innocence. At a [recent] tournament, just for a day, everything was a little bit better. You don’t think about tragedy or what is missing. You are just in that moment, the innocence of the other children. In a way, it is their gift back to us.”

I think about watching these girls playing soccer. When one falls, the other stops, reaches her hand out and lifts the other up. The innate instinct to care for one another, even at the risk of “the win.” Though different positions, they work together as a team. Their ego gives way, in the passion of life, and a common connection guides them through the game. One misguided kick, another falls, and there is a hand outstretched. “You hurt. We are one. Let me help you.” Our job as parents is to ensure that our children keep this innate beauty and innocence, empathy, as long as possible. And to mirror it in ourselves.

I think of Ben. Young babies, it is empathy at its purest. The way his chubby hand touched others, so softly, with a tentative regard, as if he understood that any touch would initiate ripples that could affect something greater than himself, another’s life, even if he could not see it at the time. Ripples, to waves, which merge into torrents, oceans that can save or destroy. Many children sense their social responsibility, before they are burdened by the demands of adult life, the pressures of the ego, of career, family, friends. As politicians, spouses, parents, friends, children, leaders, employees, it is not about the result, i.e. the “win,” but about the “how” – how one lives, setting an ethical example for those who are watching, to build bridges, to shine a light on pathways forward, together.

So, I propose - Yes, empathy is alive and well.

I see it each day in my child’s eye, in the touch of another human’s hand, a hug, phone call, support. I feel it in the possibility of politicians and regulators coming together to listen, understand, think and talk. It may be rare, and it may be hard, but it is indeed alive. 

Defining the New Conversation: Looking at the Real Numbers

Until this point, legislators, regulators, safety advocates and the general public have focused on the rate of child vehicular heatstroke fatalities each year. However, when parents are advised to place briefcases in the back of cars as reminders, or auto manufacturers add back-up cameras, lane departure warnings, forward collision warnings, and trunk latches in cars, the goal is of course to eliminate injuries and deaths but, also, to MITIGATE RISK of such injuries or deaths. It is impossible to find a solution to mitigate a risk, without first assessing the true magnitude and defining the parameters of the risk.

When most individuals speak the phrase “That would never happen to me,” they are usually right – and I say thanks in a prayer each day for this fact – that out of the many parents whose minds have admittedly tricked them into “forgetting” a child in a car, most are jolted out of their artificial reality quickly enough for no harm to have occurred. Maybe it was 10 minutes taking the groceries into the house, 5 minutes running into Starbucks for some coffee after a long night with a newborn, or 30 minutes (in winter) after turning the wrong direction while driving to daycare and instead driving to the office – but by the grace of God, there was a trigger, their artificial reality was broken – and they carried their little ones back home safely.  

According to a survey of 1,000 parents and caregivers conducted by Public Opinion Strategies of Washington, D.C., 11% of parents (based on U.S. population, that number is projected to be more than 1.5 million parents transporting more than 2.6 million children) say they have forgotten their child in a car. For those with children age 3 and under, it is nearly 25%. (See "New Study: 14% of Parents Say They Have Left A Child Alone Inside Parked Vehicle Despite the Risks of Heatstroke," Safe Kids Worldwide, April 29, 2014). 14% of parents (based on the U.S. population, that number is projected to be nearly 2 million parents) admit to intentionally leaving their child in a car. For those with children age 3 and under, the percentage increases to 23%.

From 2003-2013, KidsAndCars.org documented 5,697 children that were left alone in a vehicle or entered a vehicle on their own, but survived. It is very important to note that this is a drastic underestimate of the actual number of children that are left alone in vehicles. If the child is not seriously injured or killed, the incident is not likely to be reported in any way, which makes it very difficult to determine how often this is actually occurring.

So, THESE are the numbers, showing how often this risk is created. Nearly 25% of parents of children under age 3. Why are numbers twice as high for this age group? I surmise….it is due to rear-facing child seats.

That moment, when you realize your mind has played a trick on you. That moment when you rush out to your car and find your 5 month old sleeping soundly, unaware. Now, that can and does happen to a significant percentage of Americans, and many responsible parents. It has been proven to be the way in which the mind works. Auto manufacturers know it, and that is why technology is progressing at such a rate to mitigate risk created by the fallible human driver, as shown on the web-page titled Safety Challenge for Auto Manufacturers and Government Leaders. 

 

This I Know to Be True

Photograph by Chung Kun Shih 

Photograph by Chung Kun Shih 

A moment is as fleeting as the reflection of the heavens cast off of the icy rivers of winter. No two will ever be the same, no ripple will bend a moment at that exact angle again. Grasp it, hold it tight to your chest, never let it go. July 7th, cradled on my husband’s hip, ruffled hair, sleepy eyes, adjusting. Green alligator pajamas. I touched his soft, chubby arm. Kissed his cheek. He pulled away, in his independent Ben way, wanting daddy in that moment. My fingertips brushed his hair out of his face “You’re too pretty to be a boy.” I love you Ben, my fingers spoke. Those are the moments. That is your life.

Life is only a snapshot of existence. Love transcends, energy transforms. In the clear, starry night sky, I adjust aperture, searching for the clear brightness of his smile, click. Only darkness. I adjust shutter speed, reality blurred, in the evanescence looking for wisps of his hair, click. Only smudges of light. Where are you Ben? I can see the tiny light of your reflection, fleeting, the glint in your father's eyes, but cannot capture you. That moment, which may have been.

Time is at once both an unfailing absolute, in its passing, and a fleeting uncertainty, in its indiscriminate toll. As the hands of our lives turn, matching the beating rhythm of our heart, time may one day, in an instant, find its way full circle absent and incomplete. With part of that hour, day, year missing. And, transitory, life passes.

God is love. Both defy explanation. No words, just being. Breathing. It is. Love does not heal the broken places, but it serves as a glue of sorts, as we find beauty, once again, in the puzzle pieces that were our life. Love supports and replenishes.

Grief is primal; loss is visceral; love is physical, painful and comforting; living is spiritual.

There are very few things, in this moment, of which I am certain. But, this I know to be true.

 

Savannah Oaks

The Oak Tree

- Johnny Ray Ryder Jr.

 

A mighty wind blew night and day.

It stole the Oak Tree's leaves away.

Then snapped its boughs

and pulled its bark

until the Oak was tired and stark.

 

But still the Oak Tree held its ground

while other trees fell all around.

The weary wind gave up and spoke,

"How can you still be standing Oak?"

 

The Oak Tree said, I know that you

can break each branch of mine in two,

carry every leaf away,

shake my limbs and make me sway.

 

But I have roots stretched in the earth,

growing stronger since my birth.

You'll never touch them, for you see

they are the deepest part of me.

 

Until today, I wasn't sure

of just how much I could endure.

But now I've found with thanks to you,

I'm stronger than I ever knew.

 

Our family dream vacation, when Ben was old enough to understand its beauty, was to visit Africa together. Not Disney World, not the Bahamas, but to go on an African safari. The girls had it planned out, maps drawn, they were researching all of the African mammals we were to see. 

We had just recently taken Ben to the Bronx zoo – he was so enthralled with animals...and the dinosaurs on the new Dinosaur Safari exhibit. The look on his face below – that was my baby boy’s look of amazement that I would have seen on our African safari one day  But, it was not to be…at least not as we had planned. I think of Anita Moorjani’s theory from her near death experience chronicled in Dying to Be Me: that we, in our human form, spend too much time in a doing mode, a planning mode, instead of a being mode in which we give up control and allow our lives to “unfold before [us].”

Yesterday, I arrived at an isolated ranch outside San Antonio, Texas, where an angel of a friend welcomed us into his home to host us for a week. He explained that, one day, sitting on his back terrace, he had realized he was viewing an African savanna but unique in the miraculous splattering of oak trees in the deep yet powdery sand of the Texan landscape before him. And, his haven became “Savannah Oaks.” Not like I had planned, but we had arrived on our little piece of Africa, right here before us.

As I lay on the rooftop patio last night, I could touch the stars. My gaze scanned through the constellations in search of you, Ben. As I yearned to see your smile and hear your giggles again, I only heard the buzz of airplanes hidden in the darkness above. I wanted more, I needed to hear the word you said the Saturday before you left us…”Mommy.” But, there was just space, stars, and silence....

I realized the hardest part of this journey is not that we believe we cannot live without you, Ben. It is that we know and feel we have a long life ahead of us, and we must Live it without you physically in our arms. Right now, that is simply a deep pain ingrained in our chest, but we have hope that one day the pain can turn into a celebration of the 15 months we had, and the gift of your life will shine through, in the sunrise and sunsets, as we continue to live on to follow the path you are laying out before us.

Like the deeply rooted oak tree, which can withstand the fiercest of winds, we will remain strong so we can continue to grow and show your beauty. It is said that an oak tree’s roots mirror its branches above the ground and that the root system of a mature oak tree can total miles, serving as an anchor to the life branches above.

Being in the early stages of our difficult journey to find you again, Ben, last night my logical brain just saw the stars and heard the man-made airplanes buzzing in the Heavens, but my heart and soul are fighting to feel the energy and love that is You and that remains with us, yet unseen, only felt.

As I look toward the mighty oak trees growing on the horizon, I know that there is so much more to this physical life that is beyond our limited, human senses. Like its roots spreading their tentacles below the earth, there is so much more for me to explore and sense as I find my way back to you. Patience, time, and I listen to the wind churning quietly across the plains, the loud chirp of a bird in the night sky, the echo of my voice as I yell “I love you” across the Colorado canyon – and I will find you, my love.

We miss and cherish you Benjamin. 

In Search of A Sunset

“For a second I was almost jealous of the clouds. Why was he looking to them for an escape when I was right here beside him?” - Kamile Shamsie, Kartography

 

Ben, there was not one cloud in the sky yesterday that could keep your rays from touching our skin. We felt you all day. As your love poured over my body, I had sat speaking with a trusted advisor who told me that the only way to get through the physical pain of missing you was to reaffirm my decision to move forward and fight, minute by minute, hour by hour….and in those tough minutes where my heart’s pain was unbearable, to talk to you and ask you to help me through. Your sister, the soul of my trinity, is helping you to be my salvation, since she can still touch me physically. She reaffirms our love and life when it is needed, as you would if you were here.

We spent hours upon hours together yesterday, laughing, smiling, hiking, climbing on rocks, her hugging me when I cried. She willingly helped share the weight of my burden, as we travelled on our journey in search of your sunset one last night. In her own way, she was as determined as me to tell you goodnight and see your sleepy eyes close just one more time, as you snuggled into the chest of the hillside. 

As we neared our vantage point, our gaze lifted to see the clouds descending – a 360 view of our horizon showed clear skies – except for the one spot in the West where we were to tell you goodnight. As if God were telling us, “No, you cannot say goodbye to him, as he is here with you forever, until you meet again.” 

“Thirty-nine years of my life had passed before I understood that clouds were not my enemy; that they were beautiful, and that I needed them. I suppose this, for me, marked the beginning of wisdom. Life is short.” - Iimani David

“Thirty-nine years of my life had passed before I understood that clouds were not my enemy; that they were beautiful, and that I needed them. I suppose this, for me, marked the beginning of wisdom. Life is short.” - Iimani David

Undeterred, we continued our journey. I felt her excitement and determination as she bounded in front of me with her endless energy, up the trail to the rocks where we would lay our blanket and look to find you, once again. She carried pieces of my heart with her, just as I carry yours. As she crouched at the top of our summit, amongst the Gods, she leaned forward, feeling your love (just as you used to crawl up her legs to lay on her)….I sensed she needed to touch you, just one more time. 

“To make myself understood and to diminish the distance between us, I called out: 'I am an evening cloud too.' They stopped still, evidently taking a good look at me. Then they stretched towards me their fine, transparent, rosy wings. That is how evening clouds greet each other. They had recognized me.” - Rainer Maria Rilke, Stories of God: A New Translation

“To make myself understood and to diminish the distance between us, I called out: 'I am an evening cloud too.' They stopped still, evidently taking a good look at me. Then they stretched towards me their fine, transparent, rosy wings. That is how evening clouds greet each other. They had recognized me.” - Rainer Maria Rilke, Stories of God: A New Translation

In that moment, I felt you, through her – your energy in my present earthly life – in her love, my husband’s strength, my oldest daughter’s tender kindness and wisdom, my friends' invaluable support. And, for that minute, you sent me a reaffirmation. The clouds of our God hid your descent, as we are not supposed to say goodbye to you and, as I whispered through my heart’s aching, “I love you Ben,” I realized we were only meant to say good morning to you, each day as we edge closer to your spirit. As I turned my eyes from the clouds back to our earth, I saw your sister's hand reach out and we both verbally confirmed our love for one another, and, in that moment, my love for you was transformed.

A Mother's Journey

Sunrise, Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Sunrise, Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado

If our souls are pure energy, then, Benjamin, you are my sun. Kissing the hilltops of my face each morning, you rise. After the darkest nights, where I miss you so profoundly, I awaken to feel the promise of your touch, again, and again. Magnetically pulling to your ascent and, thereby, allowing me to rise – as if this day, I will get to see your face again. And, I do.  Your rays light the earth’s path, out of the depths we crawl to see your brilliance, a promise of you and what you see now that we cannot possibly imagine. Dear Ben, I will forever journey...days, years to be closer to the purity of your soul's rays, as the earth welcomes you each day. My hand outstretches, reaches, upward and each day, just misses your touch, the softness of your skin, the twinkle in your eye, the dimples of your smile – they are too evanescent, and my fingers find only empty space. So, I will follow, forever, until one day, I know, my hand will caress your face again, and I will be home. 

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado

“The brain itself does not produce consciousness. That it is, instead, a kind of reducing valve or filter, shifting the larger, nonphysical consciousness that we possess in the non physical worlds down into a more limited capacity for the duration of our mortal lives.” Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife

 

In the immediate aftermath of Ben’s death, I felt an urgent need to know that there was something more than our earthly lives, some version of a Heaven or spiritual life that continued. The reason I yearned for this understanding is because my heart was not ready to let go of Ben, almost as if my heart needed to know one day it would be complete again. So, I spoke with our pastor, read Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife and Anita Moorjani’s Dying to Be Me  - two eerily similar accounts of near death experiences and what God, spirituality and Heaven may really be. I also spoke to friends with different views on the afterlife and spirituality. Being a lifelong Christian (raised Southern Baptist), some of their thoughts didn’t make sense to me at first, but the more I explored over the next few weeks, the more I felt like my heart was able to feel Ben again.

During those first few days, one friend who had previously lost her young daughter told me that the grief was a marathon that I would need to finish in order to get back to Ben, and she made a comment that caused my heart to pause: “It is a time to be close to Ben. He is all around you, wanting to help you. Nothing can break your bond. Talk to him! He hears your voice.” My brain, restricted by consciousness and thinking in "human mind" terms, didn’t understand her words at that time. Others talked of the fact that the energy of our souls remains all around after our physical bodies fell away. They told me to be open to the energy and signs as Ben tried to show me he was happy and okay. My mind couldn't comprehend those notions, I was utterly lost.

But, over the next two weeks, as I read and pondered, I started comparing their thoughts and experiences to some inexplicable feelings I was experiencing. To boil down (and attempt to paraphrase) Alexander and Moorjani’s experiences – as humans, we are limited by our physical bodies and minds, as we attempt to conceptualize the metaphysical and spiritual truths that cannot be understood or verbalized in human terms or words --  it is just too Great. That our spirit, soul or “energy” is simply bottled in human form for a short time (though time really has no meaning in the spiritual world – it is non-linear), until it is released into its fullest form. This form of true spiritual existence or metaphysical world is around us all the time, not just after death, there are no demarcations between the two. In that form, souls are encompassed by unconditional love, “God’s love” (as humans put it), and that comfort and form of existence is beyond human imagination.

Alexander writes, “Love is, without a doubt, the basis of everything. Not some abstract, hard-to-fathom kind of love but the day-to-day kind that everyone knows—the kind of love we feel when we look at our spouse and our children…. In its purest and most powerful form, this love is not jealous or selfish, but unconditional. This is the reality of realities, the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or that ever will exist, and no remotely accurate understanding of who and what we are can be achieved by anyone who does not know it, and embody it in all of their actions.”

The more I read and talked to others, the more I began to understand more of my own truth. As friends spoke of taking spiritual journeys into nature to “find” their loved ones that had passed…I began to put some pieces of the puzzle together, though it is still an on-going process. The closer I am to places that are unencumbered by “human” complexities – the closer I am to nature, spirituality, beauty – the more I can experience pure love, of my family, friends, and yes, Ben – and honestly feel his spirit. I realized this week, though, that as I get closer to that purist of places and feel his love surrounding me, the more my human mind and heart misses his human form, in the quiet at the end of the day. Because, even as I revel in the beauty of his spirit, I grieve my inability to feel his human form, see his beautiful smile. The deep, soul-piercing love of a mother.

My comfort yesterday was my 5 year old, once again. How can a young, innocent child so comfort an adult’s pain? I am beginning to wonder if it is because, like nature, children are closer to the purity of God’s unconditional love. They are not as limited by the human mind as we are as adults. Watching the sun set, the tears came for the first time that day. Moments later, my 5 year old touched my leg and asked if she could hug me. I kneeled down and hugged her, crying, and said “I just miss Ben so much sometimes.” She said, “Me too mommy.” I asked how do I get through? Her response, as she placed her forehead against mine and grabbed the sides of my head: “Just stay calm. And, stay with me, let me love you. Because I am your sidekick.” And, that night, as I cried myself to sleep in her arms and she rubbed my face with her tiny hand, saying "Its okay mommy...accident's happen" – I found unconditional love and took a step closer to finding Ben.

Connecticut Makes a Move to Enhance Public Awareness

First, I want to acknowledge the steps that our state officials and national Congressmen are taking to enhance NHTSA's public awareness campaign locally, due to the multiple incidents that have occurred in Connecticut this summer. On July 11th, Senators Blumenthal and Murphy spoke out in a letter to NHTSA asking for the agency to focus more resources geared toward public awareness in our state (see Sen. Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Murphy (D-Conn.) Letter to Acting Administrator of NHTSA). 

During a press conference yesterday, Senators Blumenthal and Murphy, along with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, announced that the state DOT is providing a $100,000 grant to fund the new NHTSA "Where's Baby? Look Before You Lock" campaign in Connecticut. See "After Toddler's Death, Connecticut Effort Aims to Prevent Leaving Children in Hot Cars" (New Haven Register) and "Hospital Launches Campaign to Prevent Hot Car Deaths" (NBC Connecticut).

Congratulations for a successful launch and THANK YOU!!!

After sitting down over the past few days with some wonderful, respectful news anchors in order to raise public awareness, I've realized that it is this part of the aftermath -- the tid-bits of joy and hope -- the small successes throughout the week that keep us going. I remember today, when I saw their SUV pull into our driveway, I hoped they weren't nervous or wondering "How will the family be? Will this be a horribly difficult interview?" And, after the interview, I mentioned that thought -- receiving in response, the natural insight that "Well, its just such a tragic story. It could happen to anyone." So, I smiled and we chatted and I responded "We'll be okay." 

But, later today, the epiphany hit me. It was just yesterday that I found myself pulling by Ben's grave site, standing there just talking to him...saying how much I loved and missed him, and that I honestly didn't think I could do "this." Now what "this" is, I'm not sure of yet. In that moment, I think "this" was...to live without him, to move forward with our new and different life. But, I think the "this" was also...holding it together for others. Knowing how unimaginable and tragic this is to other parents (your worst nightmare, in ways) -- I sometimes (well, often) find myself feeling the need to hold it together in front of others to prove "We'll be okay." 

As dusk arrived, my youngest daughter and I were chatting away about the future -- school, vacations, time alone, etc. She was very excited and life seemed....well, "okay." But, out of nowhere, her lips parted and this thought slipped out: "Mommy, I wish Ben could go on vacations with us. He never really got a vacation. Because, he only lived about a year." Again, it took my breath away, it was like a knife in my heart -- maybe it was the unexpected nature of her comment. In that one moment, the floodgate opened and in rushed a torrent of dozens of emotions...washing over me for the remainder of the day -- back to shock, anger, profound grief, disbelief, etc. 

A close friend sat with Kyle and me on the porch tonight -- we discussed the "reality" of that day and what happened. I ran through our options: (1) we just don't go on -- which isn't an option; (2) we go on, but never really live again, we allow the grief and trauma to swallow us whole; or (3) we go on, different, hold on to each other, and struggle through. The only option for us is #3...and, to answer the most common question from reporters, friends and even strangers --  that is how we are doing. Its for the girls, really. They are the anchors allowing us to weather the storm, until we can do it on our own. We see innocence, happiness and hope in their every move and word. We ended the evening, tearfully, with our friend reminding Kyle that he's such a good father ("Mr. Mom")...with us all recognizing, though, that our family still has to work through our new reality. And, in her words, people can lie and say we will be fine eventually, but really its not just going to disappear and go away...it will always be difficult...but we just hold on and Live and grow.

So, that's a typical day about a month after losing Ben....but we make it through and hopefully end each day...well, just "okay." And, that's good enough for now.

 

On Longing, Love and Lessons

Love and Longing….it takes your breath away….in the quiet, the void left in Ben’s absence is palpable….

I’ve internally debated whether to write about the grief of tragically losing a child. Do I just stick to public awareness and facts? History? Solutions? The generic, clean parts – stay away from the messy, complicated reality? Yesterday, though, I realized that the love and longing is integral to the reason this is so important to others…to why we need to raise public awareness of the truth of these types of tragedies. This is so complex, and we want to do all that we can to ensure that other parents do not needlessly have to feel this feeling – this longing that takes your breath away. My mother paraphrased a concept from Corinthians this morning, as we were discussing the amazing things our friends were doing for us during this time…she said, “Lindsey, just accept their offers and help, they are broken and grieving too – I truly believe by comforting others, we ourselves are comforted.” There may be many others who, though not in the same circumstances, may have lost a child and speaking of grief and hope…it may in some way be helpful to them. And if the Gift of Ben can do that…I myself am comforted.

The weekends are hardest.  The reason? We have always valued family time. The weekends are our haven, we spend every waking minute with our children, they go with us everywhere. All of our usual family spots, just driving down certain roads. In the quiet, I feel his absence. Sitting at an often-frequented restaurant yesterday, I couldn’t stop my mind from seeing him where he used to sit at our table, his mannerisms…I began missing him physically, as if I could reach out and touch the space he used to occupy and in that way, feel his skin, see his smile, hear his laughter again. Watching a friend snuggle with her son yesterday, it took my breath away. What would that have been like with Ben? When children pass, you miss not only who they were but who they were to become. I found myself on the doorstep of a close friend’s house yesterday, not able to control the tears – the well of tears runs dry, only to be replenished time and time again. We sat and talked. The “Why?” The “What are the chances…the particulars of that day, that lead to this tragic result?”

The day after Ben’s passing, it was July 8th, I remember grappling with the shock and attempting to intellectualize something which could not be understood in human terms, saying (maybe screaming) to my parents – “Is God trying to teach us some lesson? Are we being punished? Does He think he needs to teach us to slow down, to cherish time with our children, to put them first? Because he picked the wrong family! We already do that, we’ve made those choices. Its not a lesson I need to be taught!!” Its true. When I worked as an attorney in NYC, we decided Kyle would be a stay-at-home dad (“Mr. Mom,” our friends joked)...to be there for the girls. Long before I got pregnant with Ben, I knew I wanted to change jobs – I just needed more time to be a mother, see the plays, the soccer games, snuggles at night, drop offs in the morning at school, surprise pick-ups for a “mommy-daughter date” at our local coffee shop after school on Fridays. When I was about seven weeks pregnant, I found a local job that would allow for even more work-life balance and I jumped at the opportunity and, when Ben was about 6 months old, Kyle found a local job as well. God had lead us to a peaceful place in our lives, where we could work to support our family, but 5 minutes from our home, we spent hour upon hour with our children – they were, and still are, our priority. So, on July 8th, as I struggled with the “Why?” I was simply lost…and still am.

 Yesterday, as I sat in my friend’s living room, talking, crying, we contemplated that maybe its not about “us”…me and Kyle or the girls. Maybe it was just about Ben.  She witnessed the moment at the beach (mentioned in my blog yesterday, What is Grief?) and saw my reaction to hearing Ben’s name, which caused my gut to feel for a second that he was still there with me. She said “I was across the beach, when [your friend] spoke. I saw it and felt it in my chest. It took your breath away.” We spoke of the fact that as mothers, humans, we refer to “losing” someone and the grief and longing, but, that our children are their own souls too, on their own journey, not simply something we “have” and “lose.” That we are spiritual beings in human form, as she stated, “a soul has passed through you, touched you – the longing is natural.”

In the quiet of this weekend, I have found no answers yet, but only continued my journey of longing and searching. Maybe there are no answers to be found, as the search is just an attempt to comprehend that which cannot be understood by the human mind, and quite possibly, the Gift of Ben always will be just that – an unknown surprise, waiting to be unraveled. 

What is Grief?

"But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer." - Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

There are many theories of grief. You may be most familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Other grief experts refer to seven stages: shock or disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, acceptance/hope. They say it can last from months to years...or longer. Many describe it as the normal, internal emotional response to the loss of a loved one that can have other physical, social and religious symptoms. For traumatic losses (sudden, unexpected or brought on by extreme circumstances), individuals can develop PTSD symptoms (this is true). Other more recent grief theorists believe "stages" are incapable of capturing the complexities of the process, and they have moved away from the concept that grief ends in a "letting go" of sorts. Instead, they posit that there is an ability to maintain healthy bonds with the loved one (i.e. understanding death ends a physical life, but not the relationship). The postmodern social constructionist approach sees grieving as a process of reconstructing a world of meaning that has been challenged by a loss. For me, grieving is not a stage - its a mixture of all stages/emotions at once, a continuing process of attempting to heal in small ways.

In "Man's Search for Meaning," Viktor Frankl (Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor), explores the way in which humans can find meaning in life, even in the depths of extreme suffering. Now, nothing we go through compares to Frankl's experiences, but it lends insight into the resiliency of the human spirit and heart -- for which we can daily strive. He states, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude to any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." He continues to state that we must not ask and seek to find the "meaning to life" but recognize that we ourselves are being asked that vey question, through our experiences, even suffering and, yes, grief. In his words I find some truth...an understanding that an individual facing extreme loss, suffering or grief, when he or she feels like nothing meaningful is left -- he "still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved." 

For me, grief is so complex, so personal and unique. I am often asked whether my effort to raise awareness helps with the grief. My best answer is that it gives us pockets of "hope" throughout the day. I remember the specific moment, that night of July 7th, where I was faced with a decision (I remember it clearly, right after the doctors told me in the back room what had happened, right after the initial shock and inability to breathe) -- the decision to quit living and hide in the depths of sorrow and hysterics or to find a way to continue to live, to provide strength in the midst of the unimaginable grief that we would all experience, especially my husband. As Frankl put it, "between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom." I chose the latter. It was natural, instantaneous -- there was no other option for me....we had to accept our new reality, grieve and come to terms with a new version of our lives moving forward.

The grief of that night and the next two weeks (the shock, denial, guilt, bargaining, anger, sorrow)...I still can't speak of yet. But, I can address what grief is for me now. The best way to describe it is as a "longing." We function day-by-day -- sometimes just that is tiring -- and we let the waves of emotions (that can vary by the minute) wash over us. We use each other as a life raft in that ocean of emotions. Last week I described the grief as "profound"...something that permeates through every muscle, bone, nerve of my body, my mind, heart and soul. Its the moments in our house where I "feel" Ben all around me -- like a comforting blanket -- or times at our favorite family spots where there is a noticeable void -- as if I could reach my hand out and feel an empty spot on that canvas before me. But, this week -- its a "longing" for Ben, when I see pictures or videos or even hear the name "Ben." On July 31st, a busy one for National Heatstroke Prevention Day, we joined friends and family at the beach of our local lake. I'd had more moments of "hope" that day. The girls were kayaking in the shallow end, and a friend said "Hey, Lindsey, Ben wants to take the kayak out after the girls." I stopped breathing, put my hands over my mouth and responded frantically "You said Ben." I'd thought she had misspoke, but she was referring to my other friend's son. And, the tears flowed. I often say grief takes your breath away, such that the only way you can breathe is by sobbing, just so you can gulp air.  Its also a physical pain in my chest -- right in my heart -- where I believe Ben took a piece with him. Those moments during each day -- I long to see him again, his soft skin, his smile, his belly laugh, to hold him and call him my little "buoy" -- my Benjabear -- and to wipe his long curly hair out of his face and say, softly, "You're too pretty to be a boy," then to kiss his cheek. Just one more time. I wasn't ready to let go. 

That's my grief - its personal to each individual. But, it is a testament to healing and living. We move forward with our wonderful two girls, together, to define our new future. 

Today for National Heatstroke Prevention Day

Please see my story and thoughts in the following news media outlets below. These are tentative plans, schedules - if anything changes I will let you know: 

- CBS National Morning Show (around 7:40 am)

- The Weather Channel AMHQ with Sam Champion (begins airing in segments around 9:10 am)

- CNN - digital story by Kelly Wallace "Grieving Mother's Mission to Stop Hot Car Deaths."

*Huge thank you to all interviewers and networks involved with this tragic yet politically important issue.*

Also, in sad news, the 19th child heatstroke death of 2014 occurred in Los Angeles California yesterday.  We have to act NOW.

Role of Journalists in Deciding "The Story"

On July 29th, my husband and I made a unified decision to share Ben's story with others and to speak out to raise awareness about the grave dangers of child heatstroke in cars and bolster the intellectual discussion around ways these risks can be mitigated in the future, whether through public awareness campaigns, legislation, funding for device research and development, etc. We of course knew this may ignite some new discussion about the "Ridgefield events" -- what has happened, what will - and we were willing to live with it to help shed light on a bigger issue to society, for what we think is right -- telling Ben's story and raising awareness, working with government officials to make things happen and find solutions.

Lying in bed last night, I began realizing what an integral role the press has in deciding what "the story" will be. The truth is that there is a bigger picture out there - an ongoing, political and intellectual debate about the history of these efforts to elicit change and how to go about it in the future - and I would hope that citizens would be just as interested in that as the local, sensationalized story. It saddens me that local media outlets are still stuck on "Ridgefield details" - is that story divisive (do we really need that type of thing now - it still hurts my heart)? Does it stir the pot enough to sell papers or website clicks? Maybe. But, I ask that we move beyond the sensationalization of the events of July 7th to deal with the real issues at hand - that will continue to affect hundreds of more children in the future if nothing is done. Did I forgive Kyle? Yes. Was it a horrible, traumatic day? Yes. We will always grieve that day...but we need to move forward to the bigger discussion right now. No discussion of his actions that day - its not about that. And, we have a working relationship with all local and state officials involved - and I will continue to give deference and respect to the privacy of the processes they are going through right now. I refuse to discuss the big sensationalization of the day - charges or statistics? That's not the point. This isn't about that - if it were, we surely would have remained quiet and holed up in our house.

In an interview yesterday, I talked ad nauseam about why we were speaking and pubic awareness: I got one sentence at the end - 

"Since that time, Rogers-Seitz has kept her silence to maintain a point of privacy during the mourning period, but she chose to speak Tuesday because Thursday is National Heat Stroke Prevention Day."

I've maintained my silence because for three weeks my mind couldn't form words for these events or our emotions but also to respect the state processes going on at this time. The title "Mother Mourns Child, Defends Husband." I am not discussing my husband's ongoing state issues in the media, nor did I. If by saying I love him and forgive him and that we are a healthy family unit moving forward and that he is a wonderful father - then I guess I did defend him. But, I did not defend or discuss any events of July 7th related to him, nor will I...at this time. One day, but we respect all parties involved right now. My grieving as a mother - what that is like - yes, this can reach others to make them see how quickly the unimaginable happens and why they should care about this issue - but nothing else. Not now.

Where is mention of the Petition or letters from our state Senators asking NHTSA to enhance their pubic awareness campaign, or comments from experts about how to solve this problem? Absent.

I look forward to speaking to sophisticated media outlets for National Heatstroke Prevention Day that realize what the true story is -- an intellectual and political discussion around ways to alleviate the grave public policy concern that the nation is facing right now.

The rest, that's for later. I challenge the media to understand what "the story" really is this week. People's lives and emotions are still involved now -- not that much time has passed since July 7th. Do comments that journalists still think its appropriate to put in the paper hurt - yes, they sure do. But, we have a goal...and we are marching forward. Together.