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,


How to Reduce Stress in a Ten Year Old (And What Does He Have to Stress About Anyway?)

Braces, Round One, were removed from my 4th grader today.



Exultation! But just for a while.

A second round is sure to come two years from now. That’s how they do it nowadays: Expand their jaw with a torture device that requires parental “cranking,” to make us complicit; smack braces on the widened mouth; remove braces; allow one week respite before a retainer that will become the subject of anxiety dreams involving naked dumpster diving (we’re always naked in anxiety dreams); after the last baby teeth fall out and adult ones grow in, apply Braces Round Two.

This is progress.

If you are my child’s grandparents or teacher please skip the next sentence. I intentionally scheduled today’s orthodontist appointment to start when recess ended. I let him miss instructional time instead of play time.

I have my reasons. One night last week, the 4th grader, lying on his bed in the honest hour, that twilight moment after lights out when truth is told to parents, said, “My body feels so much stress. My head and my heart are filled with stress. It’s not good for your heart, right?” Even his stress was stressing him.

What could a 4th grader (with one of the nicest teachers in the school, no pandering) feel stressed about?

Maybe it was transitioning from summer. Maybe it was the quizzes he had to catch up on after missing two days of school for a family Bat Mitzvah in Pennsylvania. Maybe it was missing his dogs, who live in Pennsylvania because they are actually his grandparents’ dogs. He does have a beautiful relationship with Bucket and Bumper. Like human long distance relationships, it’s all honeymoon, no day-to-day dreary logistics, like poop gathering or vomit cleaning.

So maybe he was sad or stressed by those things? I don’t know. What I do know is that he is a kid for whom “unscheduled” is the highest form of pleasure, that recess and lunch are his favorite parts of school, and that ten years old is too young to be consumed by stress. When given the option, it was an easy choice to protect recess.

Don’t think I haven’t reminded him multiple times of what I did for him. I get a lot of “meanest mom!” flung my way; I’m going to milk this as long as I can.


My cellphone’s insistent jangle burst into the splendor of the pre-school parent-teacher conference. We were in the midst of hearing about our son’s many strengths: high cognitive skills, wonderful communication, exemplary vocabulary and supreme sense of humor. Embarrassed by the interruption and not wanting to disturb the string of compliments, I found the phone and abruptly turned it off.

A moment later my brain registered concern. I had seen the identity of the caller—my friend who was picking up our older son after school. As the pre-school teacher continued his praise, a fraction of my brain ran through the possible reasons for her call. Perhaps she was reporting that she had him and all was well. Or maybe she was checking if it was okay to get ice cream, since her sugar standards are more generous than mine. I trusted that she could handle whatever might be going on, and that in fifteen minutes I would be done with the younger brother who is always shorted on attention. But part of me was already gone, wondering and hoping nothing was wrong.

The moment our conference ended I called back. I listened for a clue in the tone of her “hello.” I heard no panic, only concern. The news: my child had fallen while playing basketball, moments after he arrived at her house. He was lying down with ice on his elevated foot, which might be the tiniest bit swollen. He did not want to play; he wanted his mommy. Something was wrong.

Relief sprinkled with guilt danced down my spine. This was not an ambulance emergency, but it was a real injury and I had not answered the call. Points off for me.

We hurried over. When he saw me, his red eyes closed, his mouth twisted, and he reached for a hug. He hurt. I lifted him up and carried his 60 pounds to our waiting car.

Settled at home, I phoned the pediatrician. “Didn’t I see you five minutes ago?” she said, herself the mother of a pre-schooler. “What happened since then?”

“Slam dunk contest,” I explained. “Hmm. It could be broken,” she said, “but it’s too late in the day to get an orthopedist appointment and I don’t want you within a mile of the ER. If he can’t walk on it tomorrow morning, go get it X-ray’d.” We kept it on ice, fed him Motrin, and crossed our fingers.

The X-ray the next morning showed three broken bones, clear as the sunny day outside. The orthopedist held the film up to the sunshine streaming through the window on the eleventh floor of the medical building. Four floors below was the obstetrician whose hands guided this child’s entrance into the world, whole and perfect. I stared at the broken bones I was entrusted to safeguard and felt a momentary dizziness, a breach of duty.

The mop-haired orthopedist explained how the foot’s growth plate would create new bone cells to heal these fractures in a matter of two weeks. I wanted to know about long term consequences: “Will this be a problem for his future in the NBA?” He gave me a smile, looked back at the X-ray, and did not spoil any dreams: “No. This won’t be a factor to keep him from professional sports.” Other things may, but not this. Good enough.

From the rainbow assortment of casts, Aaron chose light blue, for the Dodgers. The doctor cautioned us not to scratch under it, warning about cuts and infections. I carried Aaron to the elevator, and his feet almost reached the floor. But he knew how to hold on, his four-foot-four frame wrapped around me. I didn’t mind; it was something I could do for him, a penance.

Downstairs, the pharmacist equipped him with crutches, and told him he was the best 8-year-old crutch-user she had ever trained. But they were no match for the three deep steps leading to our front door. Aaron handed me the crutches when we got home, and reached up for his father’s arms to carry him in.

The rest of the day brought visitors with balloons and Sharpies to sign his cast. His girl cousins drew hearts, his grandfather wrote “break a leg.” He worried aloud about how it would feel to sleep with a cast on.

At 3:00 a.m. the itching began. “Mom!” he moaned from his bed. “It itches so bad!” I thought of the doctor’s warning of infected cuts and tried to comfort him in other ways. I scratched his back. No help. I offered him mind tricks: “Try scratching the other leg and see if it helps.” Uh-uh. I tried persuasion: “An itch is just your nerves telling your brain to scratch, but there’s nothing physical there.” No! Mom, please!

Neither of us could take it any longer. I searched the darkened house for a safe scratcher. I came back to his room with a scrubbed-clean skinny paintbrush. “Use this,” I said.

He accepted the black rounded implement and gently guided it down the top of the cast toward the middle of his shin. One second later came one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard, as beautiful as the cry that followed the frightening minute of silence after he was born: “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” His face relaxed into sheer relief as he exhaled in ecstasy. I took the implement from his hand and set it on the table next to him. He rolled over, murmured “thank you, mama” and fell asleep before I could kiss his head “you’re welcome.”

He had the weekend to learn how to walk on three legs. It was hard, unsteady work. He left the crutches in the corner most of the time, opting for crawling and hopping. His good leg tired. His armpits ached. His heart dampened from missing flag football games. His mind worried about how he would fare at school, with his classroom on the second floor.

Monday came, we arrived at his school with some trepidation. In a matter of minutes he learned some good things: There is an elevator at school. He can choose a different friend to ride with him each time. He can play on the classroom computer at lunchtime with anyone he picks. As the day went on, he and I learned ever more valuable lessons: Children can be kind, patient and compassionate. He is strong. He is resilient. At his core, he has a positive outlook. He can weather this. He can meet any challenge. Nothing can stop him.