Bereaved parents "walk to remember" loved ones
They came to Atlanta from across the U.S.
What happened to the black boots my son was wearing when he met death, riding his motorcycle in northern Georgia? I think about Rolf’s boots as I pace along the two-mile walk for remembrance through metropolitan Atlanta. It’s a mid-summer’s morning, and I’m wearing my new black walking shoes.
I’m in Atlanta for the annual conference of The Compassionate Friends (TCF), an international organization of parents whose children have died. We’ve had two-and-a-half days of workshops, formal addresses and informal sharing sessions. On this slightly mug-gy Sunday morning in early July 2003, we are simply walking to remember.
Pinned to the back of my shirt is a placard carrying the names of three young men, confirmed at First Lutheran Church, St. Peter, Minnesota, during the 1980s. All were killed in traffic accidents in the 1990s: Rolf Christenson, Erik Aasen and David Aasen. The theme of this year’s TCF conference is, “We Have a Dream: Our Children Remembered Forever.”
Sometimes travel is for pleasure or education. This time, for me, it’s a pilgrimage. Rolf was airlifted to Atlanta following his motorcycle accident in February 1997. Crawford Long Hospital of Emory University, where he died of unstoppable hemorrhaging, is just a few blocks from our conference site.
I can picture Rolf, sitting in a corner of his living room on Hidden Cove Road, Dahlonega, Georgia, laughing and joking as he polishes his Ranger boots shiny black. Rolf trained Army Airborne Rangers in the mountaineering and paratrouping techniques he himself had learned there some years earlier. The morning of his accident, he was on his way to a parachute jump. The black boots were about to go airborne.
In Atlanta in July I hear that we Americans do not prepare people for the death of children. We live in a culture where most children do not die. Grieving parents do the best they can. “We can’t change the truth,” author Maria Housden tells us. “It’s what we do with the truth that matters. We grow into our grief. Tell the story, no matter how painful.”
“The sudden experience of death turns our spirituality on its head,” I hear in a panel on spirituality led by Atlanta hospital chaplain Bob Duvall. “Were God’s eyes momentarily turned from my family?” No matter what our faith was before the death of a child, we are told, it will be different afterward. We need regular spiritual counseling.
Episcopal priest Ann Maroney tells us that within the hour after her son’s death, she began finding solace in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Her first concern was to commit her son’s spirit to God. She did not want to cling to him. This thought is a revelation as I recall my chaotic thoughts at the time of Rolf’s death. I don’t remember praying, although I know that our pastor prayed with us.
A sharing session with other parents of motorcycle victims raises some questions and offers possible answers. “Do your friends tell you that you’ve changed? Did your friends change in their attitude toward you? When you lose a child, you find out who your real friends are.” All of us dislike the meaningless term “closure,” to describe a wound that will not close as long as we live.
Parents of accident victims do not like to answer evening telephone calls. The sharing session affirms this experience I’ve had. We have enough trouble sleeping, without an evening interruption when any innocent conversation can suddenly bring up disturbing questions.
At the TCF conference I learn that thoughts, memories, dreams and stories are the ways that those who have gone continue to communicate with us. We need to concentrate on positive memories. No one could make me laugh harder than Rolf. While growing up, his special ploy was to get me laughing at dinner when I was trying to be serious, laughing so hard that I’d have to leave the table in order to compose myself.
Several times after Rolf established his military career, I asked him not to tell me when he was going to be parachuting from a training plane. I did not want to worry. Not until his funeral did his family learn that he had more than 800 jumps to his credit.
At TCF we hear that the cross-cultural literature of grief is well worth reading. Tribal cultures give both men and women specific tasks to carry out after a death.
After a minute of silence on the morning of our walk, we each take the first step, another and then another, through central Atlanta. Rolf’s black boots are lost or shattered. I’m walking in my own shoes. Our path is circular, beginning and ending at our hotel. Beyond this trail, we hope to honor our children and to discern new direction for our lives.