The Staggering New Stats Surrounding Kids and Gun Deaths

Fact: 1,300 American children are killed by guns each year, making firearm injuries the third leading cause of death among zero to 17-year-olds.

Fact: 1,300 American children are killed by guns each year, making firearm injuries the third leading cause of death among zero to 17-year-olds.
That grim finding is unfortunately not newsworthy. Excellent resources, like FiveThirtyEight’s Gun Deaths in America, already paint a sobering picture of the topic in the U.S. But fewer resources focus specifically on contextualizing childhood gun deaths. A new study in the July 2017 issue of “Pediatrics” identifies patterns in childhood firearm deaths and injuries in order to develop more targeted, scientific solutions.
The study suggests that some risk factors for gun death are relatively static. For example, firearm homicides for both age groups are concentrated in the South and the Midwest, while firearm suicides are more evenly distributed across the country. But many of the risk factors changed with age, prompting the researchers to split the data across two age groups.
 
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Young children (zero to 12 years) were most likely to be shot in their homes (85 percent). Half of gun-related incidents involving young children had more than one victim. The perpetrators of these shootings tended to be older; two-thirds of them were over 25 years old. Forty-two percent of the perpetrators committed suicide after shooting. The overall picture painted by shootings of children in this age group is about domestic violence and the children caught up in it.
Older children (13 to 17 years) killed by guns presented a much different picture. Children in this age group were about as likely to be shot in the streets (38 percent) as at home (39 percent). Eighty-three percent of these shootings had only one victim, and the perpetrators of homicides were much more likely to be the same age as the victims.
For this group, the rate of firearm homicides was roughly equal to the rate of firearm suicides. The overall picture of shootings in this age group is a bit murkier than that presented by the younger age group – a mix of violent crime and self-harm.
It’s reasonably simple to explain the increases in death and injury rates as children age as a result of different social and cultural factors. Violent crime, for example, is frequently identified as a main cause of firearm deaths among older children, especially older boys. The “Pediatrics” report suggests that’s not the whole story.
At all ages, boys were significantly more likely to be killed or injured by guns, representing a total of 82 percent of gun deaths and 84 percent of emergency room visits. Older boys were six times as likely to be killed by a gun than older girls. Younger boys were 4.5 times as likely to be killed by guns than younger girls. Older boys were also six times more likely to commit suicide using firearms.
Some of the most surprising findings of the study are related to unintentional firearm deaths, which represent a much lower overall proportion of deaths than is often assumed (six percent of all firearm deaths in children ages zero to 17).
Also surprising was that, contrary to popular belief, older children were twice as likely to be killed by unintentional firearm injury than younger children. The majority of unintentional gun deaths for both groups occurred in a home. About half of unintentional firearm deaths resulted from playing with a gun (60 percent for younger children, 49 percent for older children).
The authors conclude that this more patterned view of gun deaths and injuries is a “first step” in developing tailored solutions to reduce gun injuries in the pediatric population.
A second step, suggested by Eliot Nelson in a companion piece, might be for pediatricians to acknowledge imperfect adoption of their own policy that “the safest home is one without firearms.” Acknowledging that households will continue to have guns and focusing on gun storage, Nelson argues, may help prevent many of the unintentional deaths and possibly even suicides included in the Pediatrics study.

Finding Peace as the Mother of a Rainbow Baby

My experiences, even the painful ones, have brought me exactly to where I want to be in my life. I have a loving husband and three beautiful children.

I shrieked. I shrieked so loud that I startled my husband Brian, who was sitting in the next room enjoying his New Year’s tradition of watching “The Twilight Zone” marathon. I didn’t mean to be so loud, but as I stared at the stick, I could barely contain my excitement.
I exited the bathroom quickly and assured Brian all was okay. No, I didn’t spot a mouse, I reassured him. I was having a baby! We were having a baby. We waited so long for this moment.
Brian and I had been married for over three years. We didn’t want to start a family right away. At 34 and 39 years old, we weren’t exactly youngins. However, we wanted to have all of our “ducks in a row” first. Home ownership and job security were just two of the goals that we sought to accomplish. Regardless, we knew that the clock was ticking. We knew that we couldn’t wait forever. It was time.
We were blessed.
 
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I almost felt too blessed. By the time my first trimester was over, I was feeling great. Everything looked good and I had no morning sickness. What else could I really ask for? The next step in our journey was to find out the baby’s gender. I couldn’t wait.
It was April 29, 2008 – a date that will be engraved in my mind forever. For weeks and days before, I entertained myself during daily commutes with a countdown. I stared religiously at my cell phone calendar. At last, I didn’t have to wait any longer. The day was finally here.
The plan was for Brian to pick me up after work and we would go for the anatomy scan. Secretly, I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already suspected: We would be having a boy. I knew it. I could just feel it.
While on the table, I became agitated. Brian was late, as usual.
It wasn’t his fault, though. Parking in NYC is always tough. When he finally walked in, all was forgiven. He even had his lucky green tie on, which was a nice touch.
“Your baby likes to hide,” the sono tech said right before she ran right out of the room. She mentioned something about getting the doctor to “take a look at something.”
There was something wrong. I just knew.
“I think I found something wrong with the baby’s heart.”
Those words would haunt me forever.
After a visit with a pediatric cardiologist, Brian and I went home in complete and utter shock. I never in a million years thought this could happen to my baby. However, I was right about one thing.
We were having a boy.
The heart defect was called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome and it was serious. In a nutshell, our baby’s left ventricle was severely underdeveloped. There was no cure. He would need three palliative surgeries and eventually a heart transplant.
In the days that followed, I began to blame myself. The doctors didn’t know a great deal about the cause but they did know it had a genetic link. I tortured myself in trying to find out the real cause. I had many theories. One of them was the age factor. Should we have waited so long? Did our selfish decision result in a horrible birth defect?
The pre-birth guilt was nothing compared to the pain that I would feel after. On September 8, 2008, I gave birth to Liam. They took him right away to the NICU. I was absolutely shattered.
A baby full of tubes, lots of hand sanitizer, and the unnerving sound of machines. That was life in the NICU.
I kept a vigil with my baby for that first week. I couldn’t believe the nightmare I was living. Mostly, I couldn’t believe the nightmare Liam was living. My own heart felt as if it was being ripped out piece by piece.
He was doing well, they said. In a few days he would be coming home.
He never did.
The pain of losing a child is unfathomable. I felt as if I was living in my own personal hell. I didn’t think I wanted to go on.
I wanted to die.
In the months that followed, Brian and I kept vigil at the cemetery. It was the only way that we were able to spend time with our newborn baby.
We also met other bereaved parents at both support groups and the cemetery. Some of them went on to have other children. Moving on was the farthest thing on my mind. How did they?
Around the holidays, we spotted two parents at a grave. They had another child with them. Their angel had a little brother: a rainbow baby. I looked at Brian and cried. I immediately knew what our next move was to be: We would have another child.
This time, we weren’t waiting.
11 months later our tears would turn to joy upon the arrival of our baby girl. Two and a half years later, another boy would join her. We were blessed yet again.
In the age of parenting on social media, there are a few questions that seem to come up in mommy groups the most frequently:
“How old were you when you had your first?”
“How old were you when you had your last?”
“I am over 35 and pregnant, should I be worried?”
It will always be a touchy subject for some moms.
At this point in my life, I take nothing personally. I don’t question. I don’t engage in debate.
Most of all, I don’t blame myself for waiting.
The reality is that what happened was not our fault. It didn’t have anything to do with age, ethnic background, or anything else.
Brian and I just happened to get unlucky. In meeting other grieving families, we realized that we were not alone.
My experiences, even the painful ones, have brought me exactly to where I want to be in my life. I have a loving husband and three beautiful children.
I have learned to live with the heartache of a bereaved mom.
That doesn’t mean that it is easy now. At almost nine years later, it never will be.
My living children are fully aware that they have an older brother. Sometimes they get angry. Other times, they are sad. I realize that all those emotions are normal.
Not that it ever will bring my son back. However, he does live in my heart and soul.
I am so grateful that I was chosen to be his mother.

The Effects of Affection, in Four Kisses

There was never a doubt that our parents loved us. But there weren’t daily goodbye kisses or nightly goodnight kisses. There were yearly birthday kisses.

My daughter gives me four kisses. Mwah. Mwah. Mwah. Mwah. She says it’s because she’s four years old. Four quick yet purposeful kisses on my cheek. She holds my head still while she does it and counts in between kisses. One. Two. Three. Four. Four kisses when I leave for work. Four kisses when she heads into her classroom. Four kisses goodnight. Four kisses sometimes just because she feels like it.
Growing up, my family was not very physically affectionate. There was a lot of love and stability and routine. There was dinner together every night with all four kids and our parents. There was French toast with grape jelly on Saturdays and scrambled eggs with ketchup on Sundays. But I don’t remember much hugging and kissing.
There weren’t daily goodbye kisses or nightly goodnight kisses. There were yearly birthday kisses. I laughed as my mother had to chase my brother down to administer the quick kiss that I’m sure meant so much to her.
I can recall a trip to Disney World where a happy, sleepy five-year-old me laid my head on my father’s shoulder as we rode a train around the park. I also remember it feeling unnatural. But it did feel nice. It felt like what I should do.
We held our mother’s hand when we crossed the street for safety, but I don’t remember holding on for affection once we reached the sidewalk. Don’t get me wrong. My mother was incredibly loving. She always called us kids “sweetie” and “honey,” and my father was always “dear.” But the hugging, kissing, or cuddling wasn’t a normal thing in our lives.
My father was brought up in a lot of hardship – a single mother who was sick much of the time, a father who left the family when my father was just seven years old. The pains of extreme poverty fell on my father’s little shoulders, and he dropped out of school at a very young age to take care of his sister and mother. I don’t think there was much affection in that little Newark apartment.
My mother was brought up in a typical Eastern European immigrant home. My grandfather, born in Russia, told us stories about running from the Czar’s soldiers and eating raw potatoes in a field to survive. He worked hard and wasted nothing. He made hats out of paper bags and saved every rubber band he found. He lost his first wife to tuberculosis in his 20s. I think affection and what love he was capable of died with her. I imagine such sadness was hard to process for him.
My grandmother was born in a Broome Street apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City. Double digits of siblings and a mother who spent much of her life in bed after losing one of her children in an accident. My grandmother lived a life of necessity, caring for her own grieving mother and her siblings, quietly and with purpose and dedication. She embodied the word “maternal.”
There was never a doubt that our parents loved us. Never. They sacrificed and worked hard to make our lives worry free. I always felt safe. I remember being afraid of the talk that the draft would be reinstated in 1980 and my three older brothers disappearing into the army. My mother sat by my bedside, explaining calmly that even if that did happen, my brothers would be officers and safe. “There was nothing to worry about,” she assured me. Accurate or not, there was always lots of assurance, just not accompanied by Hallmark-like hugs and kisses.
Two instances of hugging my youngest brother stand out in my mind. We were born one year and two weeks apart and raised practically as twins. The first time, we were in our 20s, and he, along with my father and our older brother, were beaten badly in an armed robbery of our family business. It was surreal to see my family on the news.
The next day, when I was able to see them in person, the urge to make sure they were actually still alive manifested itself in a hug. I grabbed my brother by the shoulders and pulled him to me as I sobbed into my own sleeve.
The second time I hugged my brother was in the hospital after my two-year-old son died in a swimming pool accident. My brother had a son just two months older than mine. His son was still here. Alive. My son was not. The hug again became a way to express and ensure that this was not a dream. This was really happening.
My urge to hug and kiss my daughter is strong and complicated. It’s a way to convince myself that she is real. She is actually here. And I can love her as much as I want. I can give her a life full of love and stability and routine with splashes of adventure.
We struggled in the fertility world to have our daughter after our son died. The loss of our son felt surreal and confusing. The universe was out of order and cruel. When our daughter was born and became a real human being after years of tears and tests and needles and procedures, hugs and kisses were the only way to assure myself my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me. Grief and trauma will play with your head like nothing else in the world.
My daughter is lightness and joy, attacked with kisses and hugs morning, noon, and night. This will be her norm. These frequent hugs and kisses are as much for me as they are for her.

We Have to Dance Even When the World Is Sh*t

“Mommy,” Maria asked, leaning into me enough that her loose curls brushed into my lap, “if Nona is dead, is it okay for Gabby to keep dancing?”

Times like this I worry. I worry about you guys and about myself too: the feelers of the world, the people who take this news storm (innocent people dying senselessly, another musician gone too soon, men wearing rompers) and internalize it until out of self-defense and the need to keep doing laundry we become desensitized zombie versions of ourselves, stepping languidly through the fogs of our lives but not feeling much of it at all lest we crumble into piles of ash in the middle of the cereal aisle.
Maria was eight years old when my mother died. When I told her, she took the news on the chin as she does with everything –an almost imperceptible droop in her shoulders the only clue that she was affected by the words settling in. She stayed next to me though, sitting with me on the front steps in the showoff-y splendor of the September sunshine.
Together we watched Gabby, then three, dance in front of us, twirling circles in the lawn. “Mommy,” Maria asked, leaning into me enough that her loose curls brushed into my lap, “if Nona is dead, is it okay for Gabby to keep dancing?”
The question has stayed with me a long time. It’s not the answer to the question that I struggled with either. The assurance that it was okay – necessary even – spilled out of my mouth so quickly and with such force that one of her curls lifted in the breeze of my breath.
No, what I have turned over and over again in my head since then is the why. With all this misery in the world, why would anyone dance, ever?
Because there is just so much, isn’t there? The Buddha said that life is suffering and anyone who has lived a life at all can attest to that: we lose so much in a lifetime that it’s borderline cruel.
There’s the loss of youth and the loss of our children’s youth and the loss, eventually – if you live long enough – of the people you love the most.
There’s the loss we’re feeling right now of faith in the free world and the ability to believe in pillar principles of sanity like freedom and justice for all.
There’s the loss of these artists, one after another – the people we grew up watching make songs and movies and art that tapped into the things we felt alone in and that made us realize while pain is individual, this suffering is universal.
Then there’s that big loss we all pretend ain’t coming by losing ourselves in our phones or our beds: the great cosmic irony that to have been given this gift of life at all is also to know you will someday lose it, too.
You’d have to be ignorant, one could argue, or even insensitive, to dance in the face of such things.
Bullshit, I say.
This is precisely why we must dance, and I don’t mean in spite of the suffering, either. We have to dance ourselves through the suffering. We have to court that shit, get up close to it, extend a hand and make a dance partner out of it, twirl it around in the front lawn until we are both so dizzy that we can’t tell anymore where suffering ends and joy begins.
Because there’s a big truth and beauty in this life of suffering. And that is this:
Suffering and joy are born of the same things. Without love, there would be no loss. Without joy, no pain. Without the greatness of their art, we would have no artists to mourn. Without a country and a people we so deeply love, we would have nothing and no one to feel drawn to protect. To miss. To mourn. To lose.
There are many things I wish I had done differently in the aftermath of my mother’s death, but not the least among them is this: I wish so hard that I had just grabbed Maria’s hand and pulled her down from those steps and onto the grassy dance floor. I wish I had danced, even if it took me a while to find my rhythm. Even if what came out looked more like a convulsion at first than a celebration. Because eventually I think the three of us together could have made something quite beautiful out of that pain.
I think my mother would have liked that very much.
I know I would have.

Knewborn Lessons in Life

I knew paralyzing fear at the thought that, one day, I would not be there to protect the helpless, wiggling bundle nestled safely in my arms.

I knew unconditional love the instant his curious blue eyes found mine.

I knew paralyzing fear at the thought that, one day, I would not be there to protect the helpless, wiggling bundle nestled safely in my arms.

I knew my life had meaning the moment he stopped crying as I gently squeezed his tiny warm hand.

The mystery we had so excitedly watched twist and turn and grow for nearly a year was now a beautiful reality and, with this miracle, I realized that dreams really do come true.

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Those were the cherished memories that filled my heart as I tearfully watched a young man gently cuddle his own newborn in the quiet of a darkened hospital room nearly thirty years later. Now he will know the inner peace that comes with rocking a fussy baby to sleep in the early-morning hours as powdery, soft snow drifts upon a frosted nursery window.

He’ll learn the magical healing powers of a Flintstones Band-Aid and a kiss when applied lovingly to a barely-skinned knee.

Amidst shrill giggles and the colorful commotion of bouncing balloons and pointed paper hats, he’ll watch his daughter blow out three candles on a birthday cake and realize that it is his wish that has come true.

Of course, as a newly anointed grandpa, I also secretly reveled in knowing that the poetic justice of “What goes around comes around,” was about to pay dividends before my eyes. My own challenging little bundle of joy would now get to experience first-hand the unpredictable, bungee-jumping extremes of emotion and unfathomable (at least to adult logic), impulsive childhood idiosyncrasies that face a rookie-dad.

In addition to love, tenderness, and joy, he would experience feelings such as pain – like the pain invoked by an agitated infant-son who once pulled hair and yanked crooked eyeglasses off an unwitting father during a tantrum-tainted diaper change.

He was likely to discover spontaneous terror, the kind elicited by a bored, terrible-two-year-old who once awakened his “sleeping-on-the-sofa-nincompoop-dad” on a lazy Saturday morning just in time for said nincompoop-dad to see the looming, rectangular shape of a wooden Playskool workbench as it careened into the bridge his nose.

A euphoric state of wonder might ensue one day, like that experienced the afternoon a certain bewildered dad stood with his mouth open, mesmerized and in awe, as the garage door inexplicably rose and fell. It wasn’t until later that evening that the dad learned the baby-bopper riding in the backpack had grabbed the remote opener.

He was also likely to experience the unadulterated pride that all parents crave. The kind of self-glory one can only dream of, like when a beloved son finally shares his long-anticipated, first word with a doting-dad.

“Dah.

“C’mon pal, you can do it. Sound it out.”

“Dah. Daaah.”

“That’s right. Who am I? What’s my name?”

Dah. Duhhh….. DUMBO!”

Maybe Disney videos weren’t such a great babysitter after all.

Life is a roller-coaster, a journey shaped by chance and an infinite array of Rubik’s Cube-like choices that must ultimately be reconciled with reality. There would be two more special deliveries, and with each blessing came the dream that my son would finally find peace.

What I couldn’t know when he was born was that my baby boy would one day honor his country by serving two tours as a Navy Corpsman in Iraq, but the nightmares of war would haunt him forever. I didn’t know he would grow up and bravely tend to wounded soldiers under fire in the battlefield and give some a second chance at life. I had no idea that the visions of those he lost would be tortured memories that would never heal.

Many hearts were broken on that sunny autumn afternoon. Mine broke the instant his wife’s name appeared on my caller ID, and a neighbor’s shaky voice urged me to come home. The words CPR and Flight-For-Life offered a flicker of hope, but I knew.

Now, whenever I get the chance to tuck my grandchildren beneath a fuzzy Queen Elsa blanket, I tell them how much their dad loved them. As a sliver of silver moonlight peeks through the blinds and sleep quiets the room, I always take one last look at their angelic faces and watch tiny fingers gently squeeze love-tattered teddy bears that have been carefully crafted from his old military uniforms.

The sincerity of their spirits gives me hope. The innocence of their fathomless enthusiasm reminds me of a remarkable life lesson I learned long ago, but had almost forgotten:

Dreams really do come true.

The Baseball Bat, the Butterfly, and the Box of Teeth

Maybe, if we are lucky, we catch something and we draw it close to us, marvel at its beauty and marvel even more at the gift that is us holding it.

“I just want to hit something!” Gabby hisses at me through the space in her mouth where her first two baby teeth have recently fallen out.
She is holding the closest object she could grab – conveniently, her brother’s baseball bat – tightly in her chubby fingers, poised for the strike. Her feet are spread, belly and butt thrust out, shoulders back in righteous six-year-old indignation. Her stance is half tiny ballerina, half Athena the Warrior Goddess, and I find myself torn between scooping her up in my arms and running away.
I can remember when those teeth came in, too – the same first ones, tiny and white and precious. I have them, and all the teeth her brother and sister lost before her, in a wooden box next to my bed. It’s the same wooden box my mother kept next to her bed with our teeth in it – mine and my sister’s – one of the few relics I have from my childhood.
Now our teeth are all mixed in there together with no way to know whose is whose. Nick says I’m a little weird for keeping them like I have, but they are staying right there, thank you very much. I like the symbolism of it all, all of us jumbled up in there together in my box that was my mother’s box, once just a cheap trinket on the shelves of a souvenir shop on my first sleep-away school trip, until I bought it for her.
 
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Gabby didn’t know my mother, not in the way I would have liked her to. She wasn’t even born yet when my mother had mostly disappeared, fading into the space she spent the last few years of her life lost in.
Gabby turned three just a few weeks before my mom died. She had sworn she would show up for Gabby’s spaghetti-and-meatballs birthday dinner, and then – in a development that surprised none of us but Gabby – hadn’t.
After I tucked the freshly three-year-old girl into bed that night and kissed the cake frosting from her forehead, I’d gone back downstairs to find that she had left greasy hand prints outlined in spaghetti sauce on the front windows where she must have stood, watching for her grandmother.
That had made me that same kind of angry – the spitting fire kind, the grab a baseball bat kind – not at Gabby, of course, but at my mother. Or maybe at God, or maybe at myself for the small part of me that still (even though it was dumb) willed my mother to walk through the door, too.
As for Gabby, I’m not even sure what she’s mad about, standing there with that bat in her hands. There was a toy, or more accurately, there wasn’t. Someone had taken it from her, or she had lost it, or it hadn’t been hers in the first place and she had only wanted it to be. I’m not sure it matters.
What matters more is that, like me, she’s a feeler, with a very thin filter between her heart and her actions. She’s always a little bit on fire, like there’s a pilot light lit inside of her all the time and sometimes the wind blows just right and she flares up in a big showy rush of baseball-bat-grabbing heat.
She lets me take the bat from her though. Of course she does. And I opt for the scooping, carrying her up into her bed and then lying there with her. Neither of us really knows what to say, and it’s quiet, the only noise our rush of breath, hers ragged with the remnants of cooling anger and a little whistly as it moves through her teeth hole.
You know there are other ways, healthier ways, to deal with your anger, I tell her.
“Like what?”
“Like taking a deep breath,” I say. And we practice, the drawing in, the pause, the release. Again and again, until we are both soft and a little bit melted into each other there on the bed.
Then she asks me one of those Gabby questions, the kind that can’t be answered in any real way, but I try anyway because I am stubborn or because I love her or because I can remember what it felt like to ask someone the big questions – my mother or God or myself – and not get any real answers either.
“Why can’t we keep things?”
I don’t think she means it in any philosophical way, not on purpose anyhow. I think she means that toy, whatever trinket had been taken away from her and inspired her wrath in the first place. Or maybe she means her teeth. Maybe she means her grandmother (because, of course, that’s where my brain goes immediately), or the flare of her anger, or her babyhood. But I doubt it, mostly.
I answer Gabby with a story that bubbles up from the bowels of my memory, surprising us both. I tell her how, many years before, when her Daddy and I were new parents, we took Jack for a walk in his stroller. I tell her how it had been one of those gorgeous days in the fall where you know your communion with the sun is now on borrowed time and so everything feels a little extra bit like a gift. And while life with a new marriage and a new baby was incredibly hard a lot of the time, right then it felt full of promise.
We had hiked up the summit of the reservoir’s water tower, where you could see the whole city and also the dot of white siding that was our own little house. “Look, baby!” Nick and I had said, pointing. “It’s our house!” And Jack, being a baby, said nothing, although knowing him as well as I do now, I suspect he was thinking something snarky about how it takes a special kind of idiot to walk all this way just to look for home.
Just then a butterfly had flown by. Operating on a lark and a wish or just instinct, Nick reached out his hand.
And he caught it.
He had held his hand out to me, an expression of disbelief on his face. In his loosely clenched fingers I could see the flap of the butterfly’s wings.
“No way,” I said. “You caught it??”
“Yup,” he said, and then looked from his hand to me again. “Now what?”
“Well, now you let it go,” I said, because it was the only thing we could do. So we let it go, and it flew away, and Jack squealed, and we headed back toward the white dot that was home.
I tell Gabby how maybe it is always like that butterfly. Maybe, if we are lucky, we catch something and we draw it close to us, marvel at its beauty and marvel even more at the gift that is us holding it. But we can’t hold it forever, and not just because it would be awkward for both us and the butterfly if we did, but because, in doing so, eventually we would destroy the very thing that made the moment beautiful in the first place: its inevitable ending.
Gabby listens intently, her breath softening. “Also,” she says, “if your hands were always full of butterfly, you wouldn’t be able to hold anything else.”
And that’s kind of everything, isn’t it?
It’s the teeth, pushing up and into my baby’s mouth until they come out again and into my box. It’s me giving my mother the box in the first place, only to have the box given back to me when she died. It’s her, here, and then not. It’s having babies and then not having babies anymore, but having these children – these people who can stand on their own, feet slightly spread and fingers holding a bat in my kitchen, lit like flames with anger that is caught, held, and then released later when she surrenders into my arms.
It’s my own anger at my mother, long since burned through into peace and even something that looks a lot like love.
It, at its most basic, is just the ebb and flow of Gabby’s soft breath, the inhale of all the things we pull in and hold close flowing into the exhale of all the things we have to release and set free.
And it’s what came not long after Gabby’s spaghetti-sauced hand prints on my window, shortly after my mother died, when Gabby was still small enough to fold into my lap on the couch. We had been sitting, entwined, until she shifted somehow in my arms just right, and for a second it was there, the smell of my mother’s perfume, clear as day and unmistakably hers.
“My mother is here,” I had said before I even knew what I was saying, and Gabby had leapt up from where she was sitting in my lap and ran to the door, threw it open. “Come in, come in, come in!” she yelled, joyous. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
It was the kind of moment you wanted to hold onto for a little while, a sad moment, but also beautiful, and I was glad by then that I had let go of the butterfly enough to have some space inside my heart for it.

Six Simple Ways to Be There for a Friend Who's Grieving

When a friend is grieving, our natural inclination is to offer comfort, but often we don’t know how. Here are six things you can do that help.

One of the few certainties in life is the unfortunate pain of losing people we love. To care deeply means at some point, we will mourn. It’s the risk of being human. No matter how expected it may be, the death of someone close to us is a shock to the system. Like a physical injury, grief is acutely painful, and because we are empathetic, we feel proximal sorrow.

When a friend is grieving, our natural inclination is to offer comfort, but often we don’t know how. We don’t want to say the wrong thing or reopen the wound; we don’t want to make it worse. So we do nothing. But as anyone who has experienced grief will tell you, there is nothing you can do or say that can make it worse…except not saying or doing anything at all.

Here are six things you can do when you’re not sure what to do:

1 | Say anything

Say: I’m sorry, I’m here, I care that you’re hurting, I know how much she meant to you, I know you miss him. If you truly don’t know what to say, say exactly that: I don’t know what to say. Just say what’s in your heart. I guarantee your friend will not be upset with you for bringing up a painful subject. It’s likely the painful subject has been on her mind continuously. By acknowledging your friend’s grief, you are validating it.

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2 | Give her a hug

There is something primal about wrapping your arms around someone’s saddened frame, like the corporeal transference of a healing spirit. It’s the most instinctual form of comfort, both to give and to receive. When emotions are raw and tears are fresh, a hug says what you aren’t able to articulate. Universal and restorative, nothing beats the emotive power of an embrace.

3 | When distance prevents an in-person exchange, call on the phone

There is something uniquely soothing about hearing a familiar voice. Don’t worry, your friend won’t keep you on the line for long, but she will be very grateful that you made the effort. A text is fine, and in certain circumstances preferable, like if your friend is at work or keeping erratic hours. A quick message lets her know she’s in your thoughts.

4 | Send a card

Putting your thoughts in writing gives you the space to say exactly what you feel without the hindrance of a quavering voice. Cards or notes can be read over and again, offering comfort in the form of a keepsake.

5 | Share meaningful memories

Ask your friend about her loved one, ask about his life, his work, what he meant to her. Ask about his death, even. If you commit to being a perceptive listener and can give your friend your undivided attention, she will be therapeutically engaged. Believing her loved one mattered to the world – that his life counted and he will be missed – will give her solace in her darkest hour. Join her in expressing the depth of her loss.

6 | Be there for your friend when life returns to normal

 The Irish celebrate a loved one’s life and death by holding a wake where the family of the deceased remains at home in the presence of the body for days. To keep the family company, friends stop by bringing food, drink, music, stories, laughter, and support. The traditional condolence is not, I’m sorry for your loss, but rather, I am standing with you. They mean it quite literally, in the moment, and figuratively thereafter.

For a culture steeped in industrial widowhood, the Irish know full well that grief doesn’t subside when the funeral party ends. Your friend’s loss may dull over time and not pierce her heart so sharply, the thought of all she’s lost may not reduce her to tears every day, but she will carry it with her and won’t ever forget.

You will never regret reaching out, speaking your heart, and sharing a friend’s grief. When the roles are reversed, as they someday will be, and you receive the same outpouring, you will understand and cherish each thoughtful act sent with loving intention.   

Jimmy Kimmel Pulled at My Own Congenitally Defected Heartstrings

I can take the multiple open heart surgeries, the complications, the insurance battles, the fears, and the changed life. But you do not mess with my kids.

Jimmy Kimmel’s recent monologue about his son Billy’s heart condition and the whirlwind that was his birth, diagnosis, and surgery has struck a chord with many of us. I know that it pulled at my own congenitally defected heartstrings.

Let me explain: I was born with a bicuspid aortic valve (BAV). Basically, the aortic valve of my heart looks like a fish mouth (two leaflets) instead of a Mercedes symbol (three leaflets), which is, incidentally, a pretty good metaphor for my life. I am not all that special. An estimated one percent of the population has BAV, making it the most common congenital heart defect. Though some are diagnosed at birth, many, like me, do not find out until they experience symptoms or a catastrophic event later in adulthood.

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I found out when I took way too many decongestants my senior year in college because sometimes nurses make mistakes on prescription bottles. Sometimes mistakes result in a trip to the hospital to understand your tachycardia. Sometimes that isn’t so bad (really) because you get to leave in the middle of a final exam and by that point you had run out of things to say about Beethoven anyway. Luckily for me, a full cardiac work-up sometimes results in life-saving incidental findings.

My diagnosis is cataloged in a file in my brain where I store memories that make me want to take a time machine back to kick myself. The cardiologist who told me the news could not have been more blasé. I was twenty-one years old and alone at the appointment with no expectation of bad news, watching as he looked mindlessly at my echocardiogram report and said big powerful words in the distracted monotone of a man who could use a vacation, “You have a blah-biddy blah…in ten years get a cardiologist…it just might kill you when you’re in your 60s or 70s…oh and take antibiotics before the dentist…blah-bitty blah symptoms mean go right to the hospital…any questions?”

Naturally, in my recently college-educated empowered voice I chirped a devil-may-care, “Nope, sounds good!” 

The whole interaction took only a few minutes, and all I said was sounds good?! Time machine. Kick. Kick. Kick.

I never gave my condition too much thought, particularly after the demands of motherhood took over. Weird palpitations and periodic anxieties that my valve would someday get worse were assuaged at my yearly cardiology appointments. That is, until 2014. My first echo with a new doctor revealed an aneurysm in my ascending aorta. Like stenosis (thickening of the valve), and regurgitation (leaking), aneurysms (aortic enlargement) are among the complications of BAV along with scarier things like heart failure, endocarditis (infection of the heart), and aortic dissection (tearing of the aortic wall) or rupture.

My aneurysm became quite the a-hole in my life. It made it dangerous to pick up my snuggly four-year-old daughter or get pregnant again as we’d hoped. It had to go, and thus began our preparation for open heart surgery. Not the least of my concerns was protecting my preschooler from being traumatized by the whole thing. Having a sister and friends who are Certified Child Life Specialists® made all the difference. Together we came up with developmentally appropriate words, activities, and distractions that helped immensely.

These Child Life angels among us use evidence-based practices to help kids of all ages understand, cope, and play during difficult medical encounters. Their services are really needed, too. According to the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the federal government, nearly twenty percent of all children in the U.S. under the age of 18 have special healthcare needs. Chances are you already know at least one family whose child needs clinical supports, in some capacity or another, and most of those families are carrying much heavier loads than they let on.

Tough times have a way of highlighting all kinds of strengths. My husband is a man of many talents, not the least of which is his carnival-act ability to guess weights and measures. He can eyeball the poundage of a pumpkin from across the patch, that kind of thing. I’m not bragging, but it’s like a superpower. So after several rounds of imaging gave us the exact size of my aorta, we began playing a game I called, “Would this fit in my aneurysm?” Sure it’s morbid, but it’s a lot more fun than you would think.

For those playing at home here are some items that would have fit:

  • My lip balm
  • My daughter’s toothbrush holder (even sideways)
  • My aspirin bottle (a cardiac gal’s best friend)

My BAV and pending open heart surgery now had my full attention. It turns out doctors and researchers had been hard at work in the 15 years since my diagnosis learning all sorts of new things.

For example, it appears to be a family affair. About 30 percent of immediate family members are likely to also have BAV or other cardiac malformations (with names like aortic coarctation, ventricular or atrial septal defect, abnormal mitral valve, aortic root dilation, or hypoplastic left heart syndrome). A study published in 2009 reinforced that idea and added that immediate relatives might also develop an aneurysm in their aortic root (where the aorta connects to the heart) even if their valve has three leaflets. There is still so much to be learned.

My six siblings (yeah, six, it’s a lot, I know) were encouraged to be screened, and so far all have been negative. Then, there was my daughter. There is a famous quote attributed to Elizabeth Stone, “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Here she was twirling, skipping, and dancing outside of my body. This idea of her being my heart held new weight for me now. As a mom, I do not like anything messing with my children, especially when that anything happens to be my own genetics. Even so, I work in the field of public health where we deal with the idea of increased risk with measured caution. My little girl seemed healthy, and if she wasn’t, she would be in excellent hands.

So I didn’t panic about taking her to Boston Children’s Hospital to be checked. Thanks to the awesome staff and her spritely spirit, my daughter enjoyed getting EKG leads stuck to her little body and giggled during blood pressure hugs. She even lay perfectly still and quiet during the part the echocardiogram when they shoved the wand into her neck presumably to get a peek inside her soul. The girl was a champ! And her heart looked perfect.

Of course, it did. I knew it would. That is why the absolute relief that washed over me nearly knocked me off my feet. To say that our little girl is a better version of her parents is an understatement, and I could not be more grateful. (According to the National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs there are roughly 335,000 kids in the U.S. with cardiac conditions, and nearly half of those children experience daily limitations in their lives.)

Soon her baby brother will have to be checked too. He bounced into our family, a ball full of energy and vivaciousness, a little over a year after the open heart surgery that spared my diseased valve but replaced my ascending aorta. I hope that he too will avoid the diagnosis I may have passed along to him. If he doesn’t – if he takes after his mother – I just don’t know how my little fish-mouthed heart would bear it.

You come and mess with me, BAV! I can take the multiple open heart surgeries, the complications, the insurance battles, the silent fears, and the changed life. But you do not mess with my kids.

To all of you parents already in the fray, with your strengthened mom-armor and your sharpened swords: I am over here on the sideline with the others who are rooting for you. We are advocating for insurance coverage and research funding, hoping it will help. And if I join your ranks, I hope that dozens more spill in from every direction to take my place of support on the side, because none of us can do this alone.

Parents Who Tragically Lose Their Kid Need Love and Support, Not Criticism

When a child dies in a manner that theoretically could have been prevented, people need someone to blame. But the parents need love and support, not judgement.

On Friday, a five-year-old boy in my hometown of Atlanta was crushed to death in front of his parents in a local restaurant.
It was a terrible tragedy. When I clicked on the story under the “trending” section on Facebook, these three comments were at the very top:

  • “[Keep] your unruly wandering asshole babies out of adult restaurants…”
  • “…people have to start being held accountable for being shit parents.”
  • “…maybe they should have cared enough for the child not to let him wander away from the table.”

 
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I understand the pull to find someone to blame, especially when an innocent child loses his life in a way that theoretically could have been prevented. But here’s the thing: This is the entirely wrong way to respond. Here’s why:

These parents are going through worse than hell right now

These broken parents just lost their child. The very last thing they need to hear is how it was all their fault.

It’s already over and done

Telling these parents what they did wrong does not help them even a little bit. They’ve already lost their son. Anything other than condolences can only make things worse.

Parents are not perfect, and accidents happen

My son broke his leg when he was two, and you know what? I could have prevented it.
I was sitting on my bed with him. He was getting on the bed and sliding off, having a great time. But one time as he was sliding off the bed, his foot got caught in between the box spring and the bed frame, and as his body went downward, his foot stayed in place. The result: a broken tibia.
Had I been vigilant about him not being allowed on my bed – like I am now – I could have prevented it. But, despite trying to be the best parent I can be, I failed at implementing this safety measure at the time.
Even though I was an imperfect parent, I also know two things: I am not a “shit parent.” And I assure you that I “care enough” about my child.
Parents are not perfect, and accidents happen. It is only for those few unfortunate souls that our parenting mistakes result in the death of our children.

Showcase your decency, not your supposed parenting expertise

If your goal is to impress people, impress them with your generosity, empathy, and kindness. Everyone wants a kind friend. No one wants to be friends with someone who publically calls other parents “shit parents.”
If you think you have parenting expertise to share, don’t share even one iota of it with parents who’ve lost a child. Double down and pitch an article to Parent.co. Let’s see what you got.

Learn from these parents’ tragedy

Instead of broadcasting your opinions about the parents, learn from their tragedy. Educate yourself on how to prevent the leading causes of accidental death for your children.

These parents need your love and support

Channel your grief into love and support rather than hate and anger. Send them flowers. Donate money. Write them a note. If you’re a person of faith, pray for them. If you want to contribute a few words on social media, make them words of condolences and kindness.
If any parent in this situation has done anything criminally wrong, the authorities will take care of it, not you. In this case, a terrible accidental tragedy occurred.
These parents need every bit of kindness and love they can get right now.

The Welcome Tenderness of Do-It-Yourself Goodbyes

I’ve officiated at funerals before, but most of the life-cycle events in which I participate are joyful. Now I’m stepping up to do it for my father-in-law.

“Daddy can fix anything,” my children brag, whenever I fail to manipulate a stubborn valve on my twelve-year-old’s clarinet or silence a menacing hiss from the pump in our fish tank.
Of course they are correct. My husband and his family are proud do-it-yourself types: shoveling their own snow; filing complicated tax returns without assistance; and even lubricating the beast-like sewage ejector pumps that dwell in our basement. In a textbook case of opposites attracting, I had been raised in a family that excused ignorance in the basics of lawn mower or doorbell repair by claiming genetic links to centuries of preoccupied Talmud scholars.
At eighty-five years old, my mother-in-law refused to accept any help caring for her home or her ninety-four year old husband. Married almost fifty-two years, they tended to each like binary stars caught in each other’s gravitational pull. Each evening after dinner, they would clean their dishes, take out the garbage, and set the table once more in preparation for breakfast. In the first week of March, my father-in-law collapsed before he could sit down at the tidily set table for his morning coffee. The doctors told my mother-in-law to prepare to say goodbye. After being given this devastating news, my mother-in-law called me.
“In the event that he dies, he wanted you to give the eulogy,” my mother-in-law informed me in a strong, clear voice.
“What about the service? Have you called your rabbi?” I inquired, as my nose started to run, and my throat closed a bit.
“Our rabbi has that South American accent. Henry could never understand a word he said. You can read a few prayers, can’t you? Please.” She was asking me to lead the funeral.
Although for more than two decades my professional work has focused on Jewish education, I am an ordained reform rabbi. It’s not such a leap to think that I could officiate at my own father-in-law’s funeral. But I’ve always been rather shy, more comfortable leading a discussion in the classroom than standing in front of a congregation chanting prayers or giving a sermon.  I’ve officiated at funerals before, but most of the life-cycle events in which I participate are joyful ones. Weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and baby-naming ceremonies can be scheduled months in advance to coordinate with little league baseball playoffs or All County band. Graveside prayers often interfere with school pick-up and Hebrew school carpool. And they make me cry, even when I have not met the deceased.
“Are we really going to have a do-it-yourself funeral for Henry?” I asked my mother-in-law.
“He was a quiet man. He wouldn’t want a long service. No more than ten minutes,” she instructed me.
When one of the fish dies in that tank of ours, it takes me at least five minutes to provide a proper send off. “This purple and yellow fairy fish lived here for two years darting around the rocks and corals with the blue damsel. May she return to the large sea, and may her memory help us treasure the beauty of this world.”  Then, one of the kids flushes the toilet, and we make sure no one else is missing an eyeball due to white spot disease or “ick.”
I didn’t want to give my father-in-law any less of a tribute than I would do for a fish. Almost a generation older than my own dad, Henry was more like a grandpa. With his shock of white hair and his thick accent that made you believe that somehow you had magically learned to understand German, even though he was speaking in English, he would pat me on my head in the same way he did to our children, and say, “you’re a good girl.” Good sounded like “goot.” He had fled from Nazi Germany as a teenager and built a life here in America. A natural athlete and artist, he loved to eat, especially my mother-in-law’s plum cake, which he called Pflaumenkuchen.
I called my dad for advice. “I don’t want to cry and ruin everything,” I told him on the phone. “I know it’s not a tragic loss, but we’re so very sad.”
“It’s okay if you cry,” my dad calmed me.
“Wouldn’t you rather have someone who loved you say goodbye than a stranger?” My dad continued.
I came up with all sorts of excuses. In the end, I couldn’t disappoint my mother-in-law. I knew that she would hate for that Portuguese-speaking rabbi to drive all the way out to the frigid cemetery in New Jersey to make a few blessings for a man he barely knew.
The hardest part of the funeral happened the night before when I needed to herd my husband, his brother, and their mother to my kitchen table so I could organize the service. In any other circumstance, I would be the respected clergy person, and everyone would sit down docilely. But on this day, no one wanted to plan the details. That would mean my father-in-law was really gone, and not just slowly winding down to the end of a long life like an old Bavarian clock.
Late into the night, I typed out the eulogy. The next morning, we held the brief service, which lasted for more than ten minutes. The grandchildren read excerpts from Ecclesiastes and helped shovel clods of wet dirt onto their grandfather’s coffin. Our feet were covered in mud.
I was glad not to have subcontracted out this task. Honored to recite the prayers for my almost grandpa, my father-in-law, I said farewell to him and retold his story.  I did not carry his casket like a strong pall bearer, but I did utter the words to “El Malei Rachamim,” invoking a God we hope to be merciful who will watch over Henry’s soul, as it returns to its source and becomes one with the earth again and everything that ever lived on land or water and in our hearts.
This article was previously published on mothersalwayswrite.com