2016-06-30
The phone call came at 7:00 on a Sunday night. The children were eating pizza and I had just poured myself a glass of wine. "Dan has been in an accident, Deb--a very bad accident. All we know is that he fell off of his bicycle, he wasn't wearing a helmet, he has some type of head injury, and he is being MediVacked from Aspen to a trauma center in Grand Junction, Colorado."

"That's not possible," I whispered, not wanting the children to hear me and at the same time not understanding a word being said to me. "He is supposed to be on his way home, I expect to hear from him any minute as he lands at Laguardia. What do you mean, 'accident'? What kind of accident? Medivacked? That's really serious. I don't know what you mean? What are you saying to me?" Looking back on that very short phone conversation, the first of many I would have that night, I instinctively knew that my life, and the lives of my husband and two children, would never be the same.

Within 15 minutes of the first phone call, three of my closest friends materialized, called by others to get to the house to be with me. A young man named Matthew arrived to take care of the children. The children, at that time ages 6 and 4, could tell that something had happened, something that made their mommy unhappy and very scared.

I couldn't control what was happening in Colorado with my husband, but I tried my best to control what happened at home. The children and their safety became my focus. I told them almost immediately that Daddy had been in a very serious accident, and that I was going to Colorado to be with him. I promised them that I would call all the time, and that I would take their kisses and hugs and pictures to him to make him feel better. I knew that I had to appear strong and confident for them. They looked at me with such scared and worried eyes--they were so little, so needy, and yet so trusting. But with all the hope that happy children seem to have, they believed that I would come home soon with Dad.

When I left for Colorado the next morning, I was prepared to be away from home for several weeks. The doctor had left me with the impression that Dan's injuries were such that if he recovered, and there was every reason to believe that he would, the recovery would take several months. I just assumed that I would take a leave of absence from work, stay in Colorado with my husband, and commute home every couple of weeks. Such a deal was not necessary. On July 25, 1999, Dan died--within 24 hours of my arrival in Grand Junction. He was 54.

I knew that I would survive Dan's death. But I did not know if the children would.

You see, I know so many people who have suffered all their lives, having lost siblings or parents at a young age, because adults rarely know what to say to a child, how to comfort the child, how to help the child grieve because they themselves are so caught up in their own adult grief. My mother is someone who has suffered so--her brother died tragically in a car accident almost 55 years ago. Even though she was a teenager at the time, she was not allowed to attend his funeral. His name was never spoken by anyone, but a huge portrait of him hung over the fireplace. Her parents became old overnight, and for all that it mattered, her mother--destroyed by her own grief--emotionally abandoned my mother (her only living child) and everyone else. So, instinctively, the moment Dan died, I knew that I had to be there for the children. They couldn't lose both parents.

First, I had to be the one to tell the children. The earliest flight out of Colorado got me home after the children had gone to sleep. I did not sleep at all that night, as I had not slept the two nights before, but this time it was different. I knew that telling the children that their father was dead would be the hardest thing I would ever do. To help me prepare for this, my friends printed everything they could find off of the web. There wasn't much, but I was desperate for guidance. The only advice that I remember, that I used, was "be honest with the children." Don't beat around the bush, don't try to make the death into something that it isn't and can never be.

When the children woke up, the first question each asked me when they saw me was, "Is Daddy home, too? How's Daddy?" I gathered them on our bed, held them very close and told them as slowly and clearly as I could that Daddy's injuries had been very serious, the doctor tried really hard to help him, but Daddy had died. "Died?" they asked. "What do you mean, Mommy?"

As the three of us sat on the bed crying, I told them that I meant that Daddy was not coming home, ever, that his body had stopped living but that his spirit was safe in heaven with God. I told the children that it was so okay to be sad and angry and scared and confused, because I was all those things, too.

I also told them that I and their grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins and friends were all here for them, that I was going to take care of them, and that we were going to get through this together. I also told them that we were leaving for Savannah in a few hours for Daddy's funeral (in Judaism, burials take place as soon as practical); that many people would be around us for several days; that many of these people would want to be with them and talk with them, but that it was okay to set boundaries with folks. It would be okay to tell someone that you didn't want to be hugged or kissed, for example. I would help them do that. I so wanted to protect them from the masses of people who would come to visit us, people the children did not know. The children were overwhelmed as it was, and the permission to create their own boundaries somehow empowered them. For the first time in their young lives, I wasn't asking them to be charming.

I was blessed to be surrounded by family and friends the whole week. That first day, my cousin Jane, who has no children yet, fed the children oreos and Dorito chips for breakfast, hoping that such "comfort food" would ease the shock. It certainly helped. She also mastered the Pokemon phenomena, knowing that she could use Pokemon to communicate with them. My best friend Abby, who also traveled with us, has three sons, and used all of her terrific parenting skills to take over when she saw I needed a break. All of our energies were focused on the boys. On the flight to Savannah, I sat next to my 4 year old, Matthew. He asked me again where Daddy was right then, if he was still hurt, if he was scared. I told Matthew not to worry, that God was taking care of Daddy now. Matthew sat up in his seat, reached over to his brother and said in this bellowing voice, "Jonathan, we don't have to worry about Dad anymore. God is taking care of him." As much as it made the adults on the plane cringe, such a belief saved the children.

Finally, there was a funeral to contend with. I had decided on a private graveside burial in Savannah, with a memorial service to follow several days later in Washington. How would I deal with the children on this issue? Again, instinctively, I did not want the last vision that these children had of their father to be of a pine box lowered into the ground, with people, including their mother, throwing dirt on top of it. They would not attend the funeral, I declared. But that was about all I did feel certain of.

After we arrived in Savannah, I asked my friend Abby and her parents, Ernie and Mary, to drive me to the cemetery to see where Dan would be buried. I wanted to visit the site first without other people, to reacquaint myself with the most beautiful cemetery in the world. I knew that it was the perfect place for Dan to rest in peace. As I was leaving, I told the children where I was going and they begged to go with me--I had never considered taking them, but then again, I had not spent a lot of time thinking any of this through. As I told Ernie, no one had given me a road map to follow. I was trusting my instincts, and not much else.

Taking the children to the cemetery before the funeral turned out to be the right thing to do--they seemed comforted by the fact that Daddy would be resting with my grandparents, and in a beautiful spot that we would always be able to come visit. From Dan's plot, one can see the river; as he was an avid fisherman, I told the boys that Daddy would be able to watch the boats coming home after a full day's fishing. They thought he would like that. While at the cemetery, Matthew tripped and fell on an azalea bush, cutting his forehead pretty badly. He still has the scar, which I love--knowing that through the scar, he will always remember our first trip to the cemetery.

I had never thought much about God and heaven before Dan's death. While I still don't have the concepts clearly sorted out, these notions have provided the boys and me with much needed comfort and peace. Daddy is resting peacefully in heaven, watching over us and smiling upon us--and we can get on with our business of living.

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