Children’s Memorial Day Speech
Arcadia, California
December 10, 2000

By Gary W. Reece, Ph.D
Founder of the Stepcare Institute

We come from all walks of life, we are all at different stages on life’s journey, diverse, perhaps strangers to each other, yet, we are all here now at this same time, in this same place.

We are drawn to this moment in time by a common experience. The death of a child.

It is not right that children die!! Yet they do. Some by disease, others by accident, violence, homicide, suicide, drug overdoses, miscarriage, allergic reactions, and unbilical cord accidents, the causes are too numerous to name. My daughter Therese Nicole died at the age of 6 months. The cause of death, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. A ubiquitous diagnosis that essentially says, we don’t know why a healthy baby dies suddenly. Yet they do, thousands of infants die a year from SIDS, a 100, 000 children die annually of all the causes I just named. Though strangers now, we share a common bond. BEREAVEMENT! THIS BOND MAKES US NO LONGER STRANGERS. THE DEATH OF A CHILD INDUCTS US INTO A COMMUNITY OF SHARED EXPERIENCES, FEELINGS, AND LOSSES. THE BIBLICAL JOB give us his perspective poetically:

My worst fears have happened;
my nightmares have come to life
Silence and peace have abandoned me
and anguish camps in my heart.

At the moment of our child’s death, the direction and course of our lives changed forever. We now travel a new path, the path that takes us through the valley of the shadow of death, we have pierced the veil of sorrow. We now know suffering, we know vulnerability, we know fragility, terror, horror, emptiness, helplessness, rage, and confusion. We have had our illusions shattered, our dreams smashed, and hope vanquished. We have known despair, futility, and the finality of death.

We have had to provide funerals for our children. We have incessantly asked why and why me. We have sought answers to questions that have no answers. This is the legacy of the death of a child. There is no pain quite like the loss of a child. When you lose a child you lose your hopes, dreams, fantasies, and innocence. You lose memories and experiences that other parents take for granted. Some of us did not get to see our children walk, hear them talk, see them ride their first bicycle with training wheels. We did not get to take them to their first day of school. We did not help them with their homework. We did not get to help them through the passages of adolescence into adulthood. We did not cheer them on in their athletic endeavors-----participate and share joys of accomplishment and the joy, agony, travails, uncetainty, failure and embarrassment of dating and first love. I did not get to walk my daughter down the isle and participate in her wedding as I did with my two surviving children. When you lose a child, it is not a momentary loss of a life! The losses are significant, considerable and continue throughout the life span. In that moment you discovered your dead child or heard the terrible news you became a victim.-----You have your story, and I have mine. But there is also a common story a story which transcends being a victim. The story of survival.

We have survived the shattering news. We have survived the shattering of our beliefs and illusions. We have survived the numbness and seemingly bottomless emptiness of despair. We have survived the incessant crazy making If only’s, Should haves, and whys of our ceaseless attempts to make sense of the senseless. We have felt set apart in our grief while others led their seemingly happy normal lives. We have wept the tears of anger, sorrow, and depression. Some of us have not been able to weep at all. We have thought we were doing just fine until we get blind sided by a memory, or the sight of a mother with a newborn in a stroller in the park. We ache, we weep, we can’t sleep, we rage, we pace, we distract ourselves, we throw ourselves into compulsive activity, work, saving the world, and relationships. It seems as if it will never end, that we will never feel joy again. All this because we do not know how to deal with the death of a child, we have never been taught how to deal with life changing events. And yet here we are. Some of us are newly bereaved, some of us have very old wounds we are still learning how to heal. To those of you who are newly bereaved I say this, There is hope, you can survive. Look around you. Just look at all the survivors. Yes we are wounded, yes we have known the depths of despair.

But also know this, You will reap unexpected gifts from this experience. You will face your own mortality. You will come to cherish and savor each moment. You will come to appreciate the small gifts and moments of being alive. You will come to cherish the children you do have. You will develop a wisdom and philosophy of life. You will find new depths and inner strength that you didn’t know you had. Perhaps you will also be touched by the kindnesses of friends and strangers. And I know this to be true, the death of a child can become the vehicle for spiritual transformation. As you struggle to put your life back on track, to find significance and purpose in what has happened. You struggle for Connection--Control--And Meaning. This becomes the very process which leads to spiritual transformation.

Know also this: You must mourn your losses. As much as you want to get your life going again. As much as you want to stop feeling the grief. As much as you want to run away and hide, you must mourn, you must grieve or you will never grow beyond this point in time. Unmourned losses create holes in your life, barriers to new experiences, chasms in your relationships, dead zones where there is no life or feeling. If you do not mourn your losses you will remain an angry and empty shell. Your grief demands resolution. Know this, your life will never be the same, you cannot go back. We march toward an uncertain future. We can go alone, or we can walk together.

There is an irony in our being here tonight. Our society pays lip service to the value of children. Yet, how is it that there are so few here. That this is only recently been named an official day of mourning. How many people have actually heard of what we are doing here tonight. The death of a child is one of those losses which is not fully appreciated by the larger society. The death of a child is minimized by attitude, word, and deed, and often the collective message spoken in the form of one cliche or another: you’ll get over it, you can always have another child. You just have to move on. God Loved her more.

But I say, it is fitting that we are here tonight. I say the death of a child is one of the most profound losses a person can experience. No, most of our lost children are not war heroes, their deaths were often not even noted. But it is very fitting that we meet here tonight to remember, to memoralize our children who have been lost. In so doing we sanction and legitimize our loss. It is very fitting that in being here ----now---together--in this moment we make this place sacred. In our remembering, we honor our children who did not get to live a normal life span. In our rituals of commemoration, in our words, in our presence, we are carrying on their lives in memory. We are surrounded by a large presence of lost children. We are not alone in our sorrow. By being here tonite we step out of our solitariness join hands, lives and become a community.

In our presence, we offer to each other our wisdom, strength and hope. We make a sacrament of love for each other, for our children and for life.

It is true, that in our encounter with death, our souls are reborn. We learn the great mystery of the cirlce of life: death and rebirth, and that through suffering we die, we learn to love and live and are reborn.

Before I go, I would like to end this on a personal note by sharing a couple of lessons I have learned about grief and loss. The first lesson I have learned is that we cannot run away from grief. I tried, I never went back to the cemetary, I threw myself compulsively into working. I spent money compulsively, I got into crazy relationships, and yet no matter how hard I tried to feel alive I was still numb and joyless.

The second lesson I learned and this is only recently, is that there is tremenduous healing in telling your story and listening to the experience of others. As I have been telling my story, others come up to me and tell me theirs. We share a bond, there is healing in telling your story over and over. With each telling, there is more resolution.

The third lesson is that there are many risks to our physical and mental health in unresolved trauma. Trauma affects the whole person, emotions our bodies, our relationships, and our spirits It can create numerous physical problems, sleeplessness, irritability, headaches, depression, anxiety. It can lead to chronic mourning, emptiness, and the inability to love and care about anything again.

The fourth lesson I learned, is that those who mourn alone are at greater risk for being permanently wounded by our losses. That recovery and healing, as one person put, it take place the same way we became persons, through the love and support of others. The most important part of healing is the quality of our recovery environment. Do not withdraw and grieve alone. This is of particular importance to men.

This message is directed to fathers, we have been taught a lot of things about being men. Most of it is wrong. In particular we were taught to not feel, to not need, to not cry, and never, ever let anyone see you vulnerable. Real men handle their own problems, by themselves! All wrong!! These do not lead to healing. Men, do not shut your wives out. Talk to your wives. Let yourself feel. Let yourself experience the fear of vulnerability, need and loss. Let her inside your armor.

And to you wives, remember that just because your husband is not apparently grieving does not mean that he is not hurting. He just doesn’t know how to show it, or have the words to verbalize his pain. You may have to help him learn to feel and talk about it.

The fifth lesson I learned from my children. This occurred several years ago. Scott and Michele and I were having lunch at a local restaurant. The topic of Nikie came up and Michele wanted to know about her sister, the ghost in our family that was never talked about. I told my children what had happened and how it had affected me and their mother. How our unresolved grief led to divorce when they were teenagers. Michele then asked if we could find the grave so we could see it. Michele was only 18 months old when Nikie died. She and Scott only knew Nikie by the negative effects her death had on me and their mother. We went to Live Oak Memorial Park in Duarte, looked up the grave site and walked among the gravestones of the special section devoted to infants. We finally found Nikie’s grave. The three of us stood there with our arms around each other.

Finally, the ghost became real. I confronted the great fear, I had stopped running. I stood still and then and there and the healing finally began.

These kinds of rituals are extremely important to our healing. They help us with confronting our fears with others. This communal connection is extremely important. Including the family is extremely important. Death affects the entire family, everyone must share in the bereavement. Yet each of us experiences it differently. Do not leave out your other children in your grief. Husbands and wives speak to each other of your pain.

And finally, if you give yourself to your grief, you will heal. It will not happen in a day, a week, a month, or even a year. Your grief will be with you a long time. Sometimes it will jump up and grab you by the throat and leave you feeling as if you have not healed at all. Sometimes you will feel almost normal and you may even forget for a few days. Healing does not happen automatically, time does not heal all wounds. It is what we do as time passes. Bereavement is an active process. It must be done with awareness, we must recognize and accept what has happened. We must connect the feelings with the memories. We must wrestle with the terrible storm of feelings left in the aftermath of death. We must seek meaning and significance in what happened and reconcile ourselves to death, loss, and our own mortality. When we pass through these phases of bereavement -- only then can we move on to rebuild our lives. We must find new purposes for living. And this rebuilding must be done with care, awareness, diligence and new eyes. It is when we can live in the moment, accept what has happened, and appreciate the joy and terror, the pain and ecstacy of being alive that we will know we are on the road to healing. When we can love again, attach again, care again, feel again, believe again, we will know we are moving toward wholeness.

Thank you for this opportunity to share my experience with you.


Author Biography
Gary W. Reece, Ph.D. received his doctorate in clinical psychology and a masters degree in theology from the graduate school of clinical psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1978. He has twenty five years of teaching, training, consulting and clinical work in the private sector. Here are just some of his activities. Dr. Reece designed the emergency and trauma response program and trained the emergency responders for Pasadena-Hollywood-Burbank Airport. He has authored a recovery manual for substance abuse. And recently published The Hero’s Journey, a course on Self-Esteem. He has consulted with numerous local hospitals in the area of staff development and professional burnout prevention. He conducted Work Place Stress seminars for the Veterans Hospitals in Sepulveda, and Bakersfield, California campuses. He has also taught psychology and done clinical supervision at Azusa Pacific University. The Palm Springs Girl Scout bus crash and Chino Hills Murder afforded Dr. Reece the opportunity to gain valuable experience and knowledge in the area of Community Disaster Intervention. He was also member of the Charter Oaks Hospital Disaster Response Team for whom he did many community critical incident debriefings.

In addition to these numerous opportunities to work with victims of disasters, trauma, and abuse, he is himself the survivor of traumatic bereavement. He and his wife lost a 6 month old daughter because of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. These experiences have left him with a special knowledge of trauma and have resulted in devoting his professional life to the study, research, and development of effective recovery programs for a broad spectrum of individuals with life crises.

Currently Dr. Reece is finishing his next book, which is designed to help people survive and recover from traumatic and life changing experiences. He also writes a monthly column for L.A. Steps For Recovery, a widely distributed publication for the recovery community. As the founder and executive director of The Stepcare Institute, Dr. Reece has built a distinguished career as therapist, author, educator, lecturer, and consultant. He is noted for his sense of humor, relaxed presentation style and skill in facilitating learning experiences.

Dr. Reece has written a book: Trauma, Loss & Bereavement which details the effects of trauma and has many helpful self-tests for recognizing the effects of trauma, stages in bereavement, and complicated mourning. The book may be purchased for $20.00 For details check out his web page or call to order at 626 355 2407

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