Friday, July 25, 2003

Moving On: In the Words of Parents Who Lost Kids
By Jeffrey Zaslow
13 June 2002
(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

WHEN PEOPLE ASK BARRY KLUGER of Scottsdale, Ariz., if he has any children, he replies, "Yes, I have a daughter. She died in a car accident last year. She was 18."

His word choice startles people, he says, but it's deliberate. He won't say he "had" a daughter. "I have a daughter. Erica still lives in my heart."

Reggie Peppers of Houston keeps a photo of his daughter, Morgan, on his office desk. In the picture, she's two years old, her age in 2000, the year she died choking on a grape. Whenever passersby notice the photo, Mr. Peppers has to explain her death. It's painful for him, but he says removing the photo would be "cheating her memory."

Thomas Meehan of Carteret, N.J., always wears a photo of his 26-year-old daughter, Colleen, on his belt. She died on Sept. 11 in the World Trade Center. Because "no words exist" to describe his anguish, he says, he displays her smiling face as "a silent way to make people aware of our loss."

Last week, this column focused on the language of grief -- and how there is no word to describe parents who have lost children. In response, these three dads, and 256 other bereaved parents, wrote to share their thoughts about how our culture talks about death. In heartbreaking e-mails, they told of words that buoy them, and words best left unsaid.

Dads wrote of how they'll struggle on Father's Day, hoping friends offer a few kind words. Mr. Kluger lost his only child, but on Sunday, "I'll still be a father."

Many bereaved parents wish people would acknowledge their loss with a simple "I'm sorry." Last year, Alexandra Smallberger of Blue Bell, Pa., gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Many of her co-workers never said a word about it. On her computer, she displays the baby's footprints in a frame. "Only one person has commented on it," she says.

Janice Schacter's son died during delivery. "He never took a breath, so most people don't consider him a child," she says. But because he was Jewish, he was named and circumcised before burial. "Am I supposed to pretend that a child in his grave doesn't exist?" Ms. Schacter asks.

Trudy Pierallini's 26-year-old son died last year in a motorcycle accident. She says most of her friends now avoid her and her husband. "They think we're contagious. Just when we need them the most, they're gone, too."

Many parents told horror stories about insensitive comments. Rosita Kintz of Lansing, Mich., lost a child to leukemia and two children to cystic fibrosis. A friend, trying to explain why so much tragedy visited one person, said: "In a former life, you must have been one of the people who nailed Jesus to the cross." After Jacquelin Payne's six-year-old son drowned, a relative said to her: "It's just as well. He might have gone bad when he grew up."

As grieving parents struggle to talk about their children, others often respond with oblivious disregard. Lisa Austin of Dillon, Colo., was recently interviewed by a career counselor. Asked how many children she has, Ms. Austin said, "Three. One is 13, one is 11, and one is in heaven." The career counselor replied, "So you have two."

"If people could visually see our wounds, they'd see we've been opened from neck to pelvis, with all our insides hanging out," says Ms. Austin.

Other parents also wrote of feeling "mutilated." "Part of us has been amputated," says Ted d'Afflisio of Lincroft, N.J., whose 18-year-old daughter, Michaela, died in March. "We continue to function, but the stump will always be there."

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