To the people of Newtown, Conn., particularly the surviving children of Sandy Hook Elementary School:
I have no idea what it’s like to lose a child, and I pray to God I never will. But I’ve lost a sibling and know how that feels. So I’m hoping, nearly 30 years after my brother’s death, that some of what I’m about to say will be of some comfort to you.
We all experience the death of relatives and friends. Usually, it’s our grandparents and great-grandparents. It hurts, but it’s the normal circle of life. There are younger people in our lives who suffer and succumb to disease. That hurts, too, but there’s at least some comfort in the fact that they’re no longer suffering.
The sudden, unexpected death of a sibling is something quite different, as you’ve unfortunately discovered. My brother had asthma, a serious condition but not one we typically consider fatal. And yet just one major attack took him from us. Our family had been through the pain of divorce and dysfunction, but we had survived it. Our lives imploded with my brother’s death.
The manner in which your brothers and sisters were taken from you must feel 1,000 times worse. Though I can’t imagine how that feels, I’m hoping I can make a few points based on my own experiences.
My advice to you:
- Don’t be afraid to cry. When I was a kid I never cried in front of others unless it was family. I thought it would make me look weak and stupid. I was wrong. No one — and I mean no one — will hold your tears against you. In fact, people will be relieved that you’re able to let the tears out. When tears are suppressed, you feel worse. The longer you go without crying, the worse it gets. Let it all out.
- Remember that for every evil event in this world, there are countless good people around to help you through it. They will make sure you’re not forced to linger in the cold darkness. Mister Rogers described it this way: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” Those people won’t disappear when the TV news crews go away and the funerals are over. They will always be there, and you will never be alone. That’s why good always wins out over evil in the end. Good people never give up or give in.
- Be patient with your parents and give them all your love and help. Burying a child is the absolute worst thing a parent must do. It’s the greatest fear of every parent. After my brother died, I rebelled hard against my parents, partly because I lost patience with them as their grief made them stumble. It’s one of my big regrets. Don’t let it happen in your house. Help your parents and be very patient with them, and they will be able to function again. They’ll always carry a sadness, but they’ll also learn to experience new joys. You can be a big part of that.
- Take your greatest dreams for the future and make them come true. Your brother or sister won’t get to experience the big moments of adulthood. It hurts knowing that. But they will be watching you from Heaven. Make them proud. No dream or goal is too big for you. If you keep studying and don’t give up when the going gets tough, you’ll be able to do anything you set your sights on. If anyone tells you a certain career is too hard to get, don’t believe it. I’ve managed to make a long, satisfying career out of writing. I’m not rich, but I’m happy.
- If you find yourself laughing and smiling, don’t feel guilty about it. A few months after my brother died I went to see a movie. It was a comedy and I laughed hard. Then I felt horrible for laughing because I thought you weren’t supposed to laugh ever again. But that’s not true. It’s not only OK to laugh, it is essential to your survival. Humor will help you through all the difficult times ahead. Embrace it.
You will feel better in time. You’ll experience more difficult moments in your life, but that’s OK. We all have to go through the difficult times to truly understand and appreciate the good times. It may not make sense to you now. But in time, it will.
May God Bless you, your family and friends.