How One Mother’s Grief Led Her to Create a Haven for Thousands More

I hope I never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Sarah Shaw.

Sarah is the protagonist of my novel, Shelter Us. We share some demographic traits: mother of two boys, Berkeley JDs, residents of Pacific Palisades, California.

But Sarah is also the mother of an infant who died. I have not known that pain.

When I was close to finishing the manuscript, I decided I needed an expert’s advice to be sure it honored the truth of the grieving parent’s experience. As a novelist and mother, I could try to imagine what life would be like after the death of a baby. But I was terrified of misrepresenting the emotional terrain of a grieving mother and inadvertently adding insult to injury.

I reached out to Susan Whitmore – grief counselor, founder of griefHaven, and mother of Erika – who unfortunately has walked in Sarah’s shoes, asking for her feedback on Shelter Us.

Susan graciously and generously read my manuscript. She confirmed the things I’d gotten right, added nuance in places that needed it, and told me “that would never happen” in one pivotal scene. I’m eternally grateful for her openness.

Susan’s openness is what led me to be sitting in a hotel ballroom yesterday filled with Sarah Shaws – mothers, as well as fathers, grandparents, and siblings — who had experienced the death of a child.

We were there in support of griefHaven, a resource for grieving parents. Susan founded griefHaven after her daughter Erika died of a rare sinus cancer, and she became frustrated in her efforts to find help. She decided to create what she felt was missing. As she explains on the griefHaven website:

As I began my personal journey, I discovered there were many support tools, but they were scattered everywhere, and finding them was a painstakingly arduous process….I needed one place where I could learn about a variety of support tools available and, ideally, what other grieving parents and family members found helpful as well. It was then I decided I would put together that web site–a grief haven–where parents, siblings, family members, friends, and specialists could come and find all that was available…a foundation from which you may start rebuilding your life.

The luncheon was emotional. We heard from an array of griefHaven supporters and clients: We met Molly’s mom, who lost her 21-month-old daughter last year, and who bravely told us what it meant to her to see that there can be light in life after total darkness. We heard from Billy and Carol’s dad, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who lost his son to a scuba accident and his daughter to a heart attack. We heard from Jared’s cousin, now an eloquent 16-year-old, who opened a window to her then-six-year-old grieving soul upon the death of a baby cousin ten years ago.

We heard from Polly’s dad, Marc Klaas, who founded KlaasKids to prevent violence against children, and Ron’s sister, Kim Goldman, who has written a book called Can’t Forgive, about her brother’s violent murder twenty years ago. “It only takes a nano-second to be transported to a place you thought you’d never be,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy afternoon, but it was meaningful. Little Molly’s poised and sorrowful mother said that in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, she wrestles with the meaning of life. She shared with us with words Susan Whitmore had offered her that have helped:

“Maybe the meaning of life is just to grow our souls.”

With admiration, love and support for all who yearn for a haven for their grief, and for all those who provide it,

Laura

News from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?” Department (aka How to Make Jewish Grandmas Kvell)

This just in from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?!” Department.

1. Not only did I not get to “milk” the taking-my-son-to-the-orthodontist-AFTER-recess moment, but it backfired. He had to finish what he’d missed at lunchtime. (It was two minutes of lunchtime, but on principle it felt like hours.)

2. Same week, he went to Week 1 of Hebrew School, without much griping, and LIKED it.

Let me say, for a kid who lives for unstructured everything, I was certain Hebrew School on a Monday afternoon would be a non-starter. Imagine my shock when he came home reporting:

(a) I made a new friend!

(b) Teacher Lauren is awesome because she lets us talk and is “loose” [um, the good kind, I’m thinking]!

(c) When I guessed the Hebrew letters spelled “pizza” I got to dance and celebrate!

Could we ask for more in a school day?

3. And last, the spittake moment, the following declaration issued from my son’s mouth after Week 2 of Hebrew School:

“Sophie is so lucky. She always gets to hold the Torah.”

Lucky little Jews.
Lucky!!

 

I don’t know what they put in his Challah, but that, my friends, is how we roll these days. Happy New Year, and all good things.

Laura

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Swimming, Hiking, and Ducking Bombs in Israel

I didn’t notice the air raid siren. Everyone else in our tour group was evacuating the pool area and heading inside to the hotel’s bomb shelter, but I was caught up in an “ice-breaker” conversation.  My rabbi, dressed in her shorts and tank top for our first official day of a two-week tour, caught my eye, pointed to the sky, and said, “Rocket’s coming.”

Welcome, my friends, to Israel.

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Making the most of the bomb shelter.

We were in Tel Aviv, and Hamas had just fired the rockets that would set off war. Our group of 70-plus members of Kehillat Israel synagogue, including my kids, nieces, parents, and parents-in-law, had arrived the night before and our heads were still fogged by jet lag. After the “all clear” was announced, our cantor tried to reassure us by describing the Iron Dome missile defense system, and adding that the places we were visiting that day had ample bomb shelters.

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My niece, shaken but astute, asked, “What about while we’re on the bus?” Our Israeli guide answered, “If we are on the bus and there’s a siren, we get off, lie down in the road, and put our hands over our heads. Ready? Let’s go.”

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We went.

I could be blasé and tell you that we only went to bomb shelters twice, so yeah, you know, no biggie. I could tell you it was nothing to be informed where the bomb shelter was each time we checked in to a new hotel, or to download an app that alerts you when the Iron Dome intercepts rockets, and when it does not.

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On one level that would be the truth. Hamas’ daily barrage of rockets didn’t affect our trip much: We still went ziplining and rappelled down the Manara Cliff; we still swam in the Mediterranean and floated in the Dead Sea; we still prayed at the Western Wall and shopped for jewelry and Judaica in Jerusalem; we still ventured south to the Negev Desert to marvel at the geologic formation known as a “Machtesh Ramon” – a grand canyon-like wonder; we still visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust, and recalled the very reason for Israel’s existence, the constant battle to be.

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Selfies in Caesarea.


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Machtesh Ramon (and the beautiful Beresheet Hotel)

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Jerusalem
Welcome to Jerusalem

 

Boogieing on the Galilee
Boogieing on the Galilee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooling off in the Dan River, a source for the Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

But on another level, to say it was no big deal would be a lie. The rockets affected me deeply. On our last night in Tel Aviv, for example, my kids asked if they could have room service for dinner. Under other circumstances I’d have pushed them to come out, to experience a new city. But my first thought was that in the hotel they would be safer, closer to a shelter, not exposed. It was an easy yes.

We had to decide if it was too risky for us adults to go out. We had to calculate the value of enjoying a summer night in Tel Aviv and the possibility of shrapnel landing on our heads. After all, we were told the Iron Dome was 90% effective, but there was still that pesky 10%.  We had to prioritize living or fear.

You know, the usual vacation decisions.

We went out to dinner. We came back unscathed. The tone of our visit was set: Life trumps.

As we enjoyed our adventures, I felt for family back home, who only saw images of rockets raining on Israel day and night, who didn’t see that for most of Israel, life went on as usual.

I felt for the people of Gaza, who Hamas sacrificed by pushing Israel to defend its people. I felt the frustration and hopelessness of it all – never more than when listening to Israeli Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh describe the futility of a peace process where one side’s leader can’t accept any negotiated peace without facing execution.

I brought home a keepsake from this trip, a bracelet with the words of the Jewish prayer Sh’ma engraved in silver. “God is One,” the prayer says. “We are all connected, we are all part of One,” my Rabbi elaborates. That’s pretty much the heart of it, no matter what God, or no god, you believe in.

“Wear the bracelet for protection,” the saleslady had said when I tightened it around my wrist.

No prayer or band of silver can protect me. I wear it anyway. I say it anyway. I close my eyes and imagine I am wrapping it around the world’s wrist, a dome of protection over every last one of us, all children of this earth.

 

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My niece puts her prayer in the Western Wall.

Throwback Thursday: My Kid’s Words Take Me Way Back, Deep

If you’ve been on Facebook at some point in your life, you’ve seen people calling out “Throwback Thursday” and then sharing some cool photo they dug up. 

See, this one just came up while I was writing!
See, this one just came up while I was writing!

It’s odd how things catch on. Like why not Throwup Thursday, why isn’t that a thing? Why not dust off some college era shots of you and your pals tossing back tequila shots and the aftermath.

Well, I guess we know why not. You have to do more than alliterate. You have to have intrinsic value. And there’s something valuable, something that moves us when we see our loved ones as they were in times gone by. The retro shot of them their underwear on a slip ‘n’ slide, or riding a bike sans helmet, or cuddling a baby. It’s a sort of mirror. It’s nostalgia porn. We’re addicted.

Since I’m about more about words than images, I enter the throwback craze with a quote from my kid that I wrote down two years ago, age 7. I found it by accident just now. I never would have remembered it, my memory becoming increasingly unsticky and riddled with holes. I tell you, it’s worth writing down the things they say, even if like me you have no system for finding or saving them. Because, like me, you may happen upon one while looking through worn yellow legal pads for something else that you can’t find but need right away, and you will be taken to another place, by something you thought noteworthy enough at the time to pause, find a pen, and record.

“I believe in two things that are probably impossible…”

That caught my attention. That must have been when I grabbed for the pen.

“…The Loch Ness monster, and when I die I’ll come back in other lives.”

 

(Hope ol' Lochy isn't in here!)
(Hope ol’ Lochy isn’t in here!)

 

To believe in something that you simultaneously deem to be “probably impossible.” Is that the definition of faith? I said I believed in them both, too. No one’s proved us wrong yet.