In a recent share [Gratitude-A Postscript to The Cobbler] we focused on the power of gratitude to those who have written something that moved us-touched us—inspired us. I want to go a little deeper and reflect upon those souls who are there for us in those early, darkest, hours after losing someone we deeply love.
Jeff’s and Donna’s angel. In 2013 we posted on WMSB a deeply moving story written by my friend Jeff Schwartz. In 1984, Jeff’s and Donna’s three-year-old daughter, Julie, died in a Phoenix hospital from multiple seizures caused by a whooping cough vaccine. Within the first hour of Julie’s passing, and as Donna was holding her and saying goodbye, a nurse came into the room and asked to speak with Jeff. There were some papers that needed to be signed.
As they walked to her office, she gave Jeff some advice that would end up saving his marriage.
I’m about to tell you something that you need to know. I am not telling you to scare you, but it is important for you to be aware of this fact. Within one year after the loss of a child 2/3ds of bereaved parents get divorced or are on their way to divorcing. You and Donna have just suffered a terrible loss. But you do not have to suffer a second one. You do not have to lose each other. That’s the most important thing for you to know.
There are many reasons why the death of a child leads to the breakup of so many families. But one of the most important ones is that you and Donna are likely to grieve differently. I can’t tell you exactly how, but however Donna grieves your daughter’s death, it will drive you crazy. And however, you grieve your daughter’s death will drive Donna crazy. Somehow you have to find a way not to let each other’s way of grieving drive you permanently away from one another.
Just remember, you’ve known Julie for a little over three years. But Donna has held Julie in her body for nine months more. Whatever love and connection you feel for your daughter, Donna feels it even more. And so take the love you feel for your daughter and remember to love and honor her mother during the times that Donna’s way of grieving is driving you the craziest. Allow her to do whatever it takes for her to survive this. Be as supportive and loving as you can, and then you two can make it through.
The encounter was brief, yet unforgettable. Jeff said he’d always regretted that he didn’t get a chance to thank the nurse and let her know Donna and he stayed together and had two more beautiful children. But he wasn’t even sure of her name. “Maybe it was McBroom?”
Thirty years later. As our webmaster, Keith Bennett, was getting Jeff’s story ready for publication, he put on his detective hat and was able to track down “Nurse Diana Mcbroom.” We sent Jeff her contact information, and they spoke the night before Thanksgiving in 2013. It was that important to Jeff, thirty years later, to reach out to the nurse and thank her.
Here’s Jeff’s and Donna’s story.
Our three angels. Shortly after we put up Jeff’s and Donna’s story, we shared how we were touched by three angels within the first few hours after we received the news that Jimmy had been accidentally struck and killed by a car early that Saturday morning in August of 2008: My partner and mentor, John Davies, our friend and San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, and Chaplain Joe Davis at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office.
After Chaplain Davis accompanied us to see Jimmy at the Medical Examiner’s Office in Kearny Mesa, he sat down with Hilary and me and gave us a sobering message very similar to the one given by Nurse McBroom to Jeff. He said ‘75% of marriages don’t survive the loss of a child. I pray you don’t become part of that statistic.’
In November of 2013 I sent Chaplain Davis Jeff’s story with this note.
You were the angel that appeared at our ground zero. You and Supervisor Roberts also performed a miracle allowing us to see our son, although viewings were strictly prohibited. We remain enormously grateful to you for that kindness and your comforting and also tough advice…
I wanted you to know we heard you—like it was yesterday—and in August Hilary and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary. Our daughter who was also with us that day, and heard your words, recently celebrated her 6th anniversary and has two boys, 3 and 1.
I received this message from him two days later.
I can’t put into words what your email means to me. There are many times that due to the tragic nature of what I do there is no feedback. You wrote me a letter about a year and a half after your son was killed that I have treasured. I felt your pain that day and have thought of your family over the years and wondered how you were doing. Your email and past letter are reward for me and a great motivation to move forward in trying to help people. Thank you for taking the time to write me again. Your friend Joe Davis
In our post Where Does Grief Dwell? https://www.writemesomethingbeautiful.com/2019/12/04/where-does-grief-dwell/ I included an excerpt from the letter of gratitude I sent to Joe in February 2010. I was prompted by an article I stumbled upon in the San Diego papers that explains more about Chaplain Davis’s angel work.
As we began to explore in GRATITUDE-Postscript to the Cobbler, we might assume angels like Nurse McBroom and Chaplain Davis receive heaps of thank-yous for their invaluable service and comfort.
But they don’t, and I think the reason is painfully obvious. In those first hours, days, weeks, and months of our nightmare, most of us are not in a place where we’re giving much thought to ‘Who should I send a thank-you card to today?’ We’re pretty much focused on trying to get out of bed, put one foot in front of the other and survive the day. We don’t have room to think of or thank others.
As more time goes on, and our heads begin to clear, I suspect one of the last things on our to-do lists is to go back and relive ground-zero and reflect upon those strangers who were at our sides—some miraculously—but most just doing their jobs. It’s akin to pulling off a scab.
This is not to say, we’re not grateful—we’re just not very good at expressing it.
Folks like Nurse McBroom and Joe Davis have some of the toughest jobs out there. Dealing with death at ground zero with the freshest and rawest of pain of the survivors, day-in and day-out, is just plain hard.
Joe Davis shared this admission:
There’s a pretty severe price to pay doing what we do (he said of medical examiner staff) … we’re not built in any way, shape or form to deal with what we do every day.
A few months ago, I sent around an article about the mental health issues confronted by nurses, particularly those in intensive care units. And that UCSD has expanded its suicide prevention program, HEAR, to include nurses working at their hospitals.
These jobs are not only hard—they’re life threatening.
And then there are those brave souls and angels who actually volunteer to do this work.
Kim Higgins. For several years our good friend, Kim Higgins, was a volunteer for THE TRAUMA INTERVENTION PROGRAM or “TIP.”
This is from their mission statement:
TIP is a non-profit volunteer-based program developed to provide support and assistance to im agencies such as law enforcement, fire, and hospital personnel request a TIP volunteer to be with survivors to provide much needed emotional and practical support immediately following the crisis.
TIP volunteers walk directly into ground zero.
I sometimes wonder what it must be like standing in their shoes and looking through their eyes. Kim helped me with that. She wrote an article for Western City Magazine many years ago. Here’s a link to her eye-popping story. A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TIP VOLUNTEER https://www.writemesomethingbeautiful.com/2019/12/08/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-tip-volunteer/
I asked Kim ‘How were you able to do this for so long?”
As I briefly passed through so many lives of people at such a difficult time, I truly believed then, as I do now, you have to get yourself out of the way and become a conduit for God or the Source or whatever it is that’s at the core of it all. It was truly sacred work.
Did she get any feedback from those she helped?
I had so many incredible experiences and the people I served often wrote amazingly thankful letters. I also received a few angry ones. People are so vulnerable immediately after a serious loss and, if things don’t go as they should, it is easy to add insult to injury.
That’s why TIP was started by mental health professional Wayne Fortin. He had seen so many people in his practice that held a lot of anger and grief they couldn’t work through, not just from their loss, but because they were additionally traumatized by the wrongs they felt were done in those first hours.
More angel work
Another assumption we might make is that those who are around death a lot are less affected by it—even when it strikes close to home.
We were with Kim and Steve in Mexico on December 2, 2016 when Kim’s daughter, Maggie, now married with a baby, called and broke the gut-wrenching news that Kim’s sister’s son, David, was one of the thirty-six souls who perished in the horrific Ghost Fire in Oakland. David was 24. I can never forget the agony on Kim’s face and the unrecognizable sound that came from somewhere deep in her body.
All of her training and years spent as a TIP volunteer could not prepare her for this. All she knew in that moment was they had to get back to Santa Monica as fast as possible so they could be with her sister, Kerry, and her husband, Denny.
I sent Supervisor Ron Roberts and Chaplain Joe Davis my Epilogue to Jeff’s story in May 2014 and thanked them again for the extraordinary kindness they showed to me and my family. My first angel that day, John Davies, died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. John Davies Obituary I thank him in my prayers.
Joe’s reply stopped me in my tracks.
I have studied and taught grief and thought I knew a lot about it, but came to realize I knew nothing. You see, there was a “body” found at Santee Lakes a year ago January, that was my dad. He made a terrible decision to die by suicide. In a weird way it was the most difficult, painful and yet helpful “training” I’ve ever had in my quest to serve our families. I have now been on the other side of my desk and it is beyond anything I could have ever imagined even with all the training I’ve had.
[Joe talks about his dad’s death in this article in Survivors of Suicide Loss. JOE DAVIS’ STORY]
I sent this to Joe and included the warm message I had received from Ron.
The hairs are standing up on the back of my neck. Joe, what you may not know is that Ron, you and I are members of the same shitty “fraternity.” My father died by suicide in 1970 when I was 20 years old. That was my introduction to loss and grief and all that goes along with it.
Ron’s father took his life in the late 1960s when Ron was a senior at San Diego State. His dad drove his car off a cliff. Ron found this out as he was watching the local news on TV and his dad’s death was the lead story.
I mean, really, what are the odds?
Joe summed it up pretty well.
I had no idea. It’s amazing to me how such horrible things can ever work out for any good, yet here we are years later, sharing a common bond that not many understand. I’m so glad you have kept in touch and would do anything to help you and your family. I’m touched that you would share your difficult walk with me and humbled and grateful to know you.
So… is there a Nurse Mcbroom, Kim Higgins or Chaplain Davis that showed up for you in your darkest hour? As Jeff Schwartz can attest, it’s never too late to reach out with a thank-you, and gratitude is always welcomed and appreciated.