Co-Presidents’ Message – July 2022

This month will be six years since my family and I lost my older brother, LB.  July 3rd is the day he died and July 6th is the day we said our goodbyes to him at his funeral, but in between those dates, our family also has reason to celebrate. July 5th is my younger brother’s birthday.  Matt has never been a big birthday celebrator, it’s just his personality, but in 2016, I don’t think any of us knew what to do or how to celebrate.  I remember feeling more strongly about celebrating Matt’s birthday than usual because we had all just been so harshly reminded that these moments won’t and don’t last forever.  I don’t want to put words in Matt’s mouth, but I remember how guilty I felt on my birthday, two months later, because why did I still have a life to celebrate and not LB?  

I cannot imagine how Matt must have felt that year, or how Matt might still feel, every single year when the calendar flips to July and those dates stare back at him.  On July 3rd, he’s painfully reminded that he lost his big brother and his best friend and on July 5th he is expected to celebrate his own life.  The extreme emotionality of it is never lost on me and although I text him “Happy Birthday!!!” as soon as I wake up, and FaceTime him when my family is home together, I know there’s nothing anyone can say or do to make him understand it’s ok to celebrate his life and it’s ok to let others celebrate him… even though two days before, all of us, in our own way, spent the day remembering and feeling the loss of LB a little bit more than we do every other day. 

He has told me he doesn’t see a point in celebrating his birthday because it’s just another day.  I realize he has the right to feel that way but it doesn’t mean I have to feel that way.  It doesn’t mean our parents have to feel that way. And I will speak now for myself, and my parents, by saying we don’t feel that way. 

Matt, on July 5th, 1984 you gave me the best gift: a younger sibling to pick on, tease mercilessly, and blame things on. Ok ok, you did more than that- you made me a middle child- thanks a lot. In all seriousness, you made me an older sister to the best younger brother I could have ever asked for.  You’re absolutely hysterical (sometimes a little gross, too), you love dogs and the NY Mets as much as I do, you’re quirky (not quite as quirky as Dad but you’re getting there), you gave me another sister when you married JoJo, you’re terrible at decoding vanity license plates which has become a fun game to play with you, you’ll forever be my favorite Outback and Taco Bell eating companion, but most importantly, I know that if I ever needed something or someone, without hesitation you will be there for me.  I hope you know that works both ways and if you don’t, I’m telling you, and a lot of other people right now, that if you ever need anything, call your big sis… or maybe text me first because the family joke about me never answering my phone is completely true (but I promise I am trying to be better).

I know how painful life is after we lose someone- we all know that too well, but I also know that after we lose someone, we are all still here.  Nothing may ever relieve that pain and nothing may ever fill the hole our loved ones have left, but it doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate each other or allow others to celebrate us, our lives, and the love we have for each other.  If you want to help me celebrate my brother Matt and his birthday this year, send me an email (jen@copefoundation.org) with a message for him and I promise I will send every single one to him. 

As for July 3rd, I will likely find myself at Citi Field, watching the Mets play, remembering all the times my whole family went to Mets games, the times LB and I went together, and the times Matt and I went together.  I think it’s the best way I can honor the memory of LB and celebrate my family as it exists in life today.  On July 5th, I’ll wake up and send Matt a birthday text, Face Time with him later in the day, and hopefully bombard him with a bunch of messages from my COPE family to show him how much he is celebrated and to remind him that nobody will ever come up with more ways to annoy him than his big sister.

Co-Presidents’ Message – June 2022

Greetings COPE community – As the saying goes, hope springs eternal. This isn’t always the easiest sentiment for grieving families to relate to or understand (especially these days). Similarly, this isn’t the message I hoped I’d be writing as we emerge from Memorial Day weekend and drift into the promise of summer warmth and rejuvenation.

Sadly, it was just 13 months ago that the past COPE Board President, Sandy Wolkoff, wrote here about the mass shooting in a grocery store in Denver and the importance of “being there for others in our community when they face unspeakable loss.” Yet here we are again after a heartbreaking month of senseless acts of gun violence in Uvalde, TX, Buffalo, NY and around the country, leaving a wake of shattered lives and communities, and a whole lot of people in need of healing and support.

We are a nation struggling to protect its children. Unfortunately, a lot of us know too well the shock, horror, and anguish of having someone taken from us too soon, and no parent should ever have to say goodbye to their child. These are unsettling, unpredictable, and scary times. We have so much accumulated grief from the last few years. And now once again, many of us are struggling with feelings of fear, rage, and despair. Our sense of safety, and worse yet, our innate need to provide safety for our children, feels like it’s been threatened to the core.  

While I’m neither an educator, medical professional nor politician, I feel a responsibility, as a grieving parent and the leader of a grief and healing organization, to address what parents around this country are faced with time and time again – the almost crippling need to do something to keep our children safe – physically and mentally, and the terrible fear that things will not change. Personal safety and mental well-being are not things we or our children should ever have to sacrifice. It has been reported that childhood anxiety and depression are at the highest levels ever reported by professionals. This can no longer be about the right to bear arms or politics. This is about the right to a childhood. This is about the right to grow up safely and to feel safe. This is about the right to live. It is past time for legislators to prioritize the lives and interests of children over special interests and the political agenda of the gun lobby.

We, as a community, need to make it our absolute top priority, whether at home, in school, in places of worship, in public, etc. to make choices to fight for accountability and change from our elected officials; to channel our feelings of anger and use our collective voices and will to support and foster safety, kindness and empathy; and to invest in physical and mental wellness. Our families deserve it.

For those of you who are struggling with the weight of these recent events and similar past events that are too many to count, as well as feelings of hopelessness, I have this message: You are not alone. Be kind to yourself.  I want to recognize the critical importance of communities (and organizations serving them like COPE) that support those who have suffered loss and require healing.  I thank you for your continued support of COPE and I encourage you to take action to promote change in whatever way is meaningful for you.

 

Co-Presidents’ Message – May 2022

I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to say this month. Mother’s Day is like the elephant in the room that couldn’t or shouldn’t be ignored, but I wasn’t sure how to discuss it with the COPE community because I am not a mother who has lost a child, but I do have a mother (hi mom!) who has lost a child.  I decided to share with you excerpts from a letter I wrote to my mom after her first Mother’s Day without all of her children.

I know that our lives are never going to be the same without Lewis here. What that will look like or feel like, years from now, is unknown.  It has been almost a year since we lost him and as such, we have now lived through and/or experienced almost all of the “firsts”: our birthdays, Opening Day, holidays, his birthday, and now Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day is always acknowledged and celebrated as a day in which children honor, celebrate, and remind their mothers how much they are loved and how thankful we are to have them in our lives. It’s just as much a day, although it’s not thought of or expressed nearly as much, in which mother’s reflect on what it means to them to be a mother.  To think about their children, the people they have become, the people they will still one day become, and to celebrate any or all of that. 

This was the first Mother’s Day you had to live through since you lost one of your children and I could only guess that you probably didn’t know what the day would be like for you.  I didn’t know what plans you had for the day, if any at all, and I didn’t want to ask you ahead of time because I was worried it would make you feel like you had to have some kind of plan for the day, or that there was some expectation that you would have to do anything other than what you felt like you could or couldn’t do, when the actual day arrived. 

I had been thinking about Mother’s Day for quite some time before the actual day, trying to think about the best way for us to acknowledge the day and honor you.   I knew it was going to be very difficult for me to say “Happy Mother’s Day” to you because of that damn word –  happy.  It’s the most commonly used expression but it didn’t feel right to me; it felt like I would be forcing a feeling or sentiment or an expectation on you.  I couldn’t even write it on your card.  If you were feeling happy, great; but me wishing you or telling you to have a Happy Mother’s Day was too uncomfortable for me.  All of that being said, maybe you wanted or needed to be wished a “Happy Mother’s Day”, and maybe it was hurtful to you that I didn’t say that, but that’s why I am writing this to you, with the hope you’ll understand all of the thoughts and feelings (whether they were rational or irrational) that went into anything I said or did (or didn’t) on Mother’s Day.  

What I wished for you on Mother’s Day, and what I will wish for you always, is peace and to feel my love for you. 

 

Co-Presidents’ Message – April 2022

“When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old men that wait to die.

And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give to them
What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.

Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.

You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands
By letting
Bodies touch bodies
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away”

― Merrit Malloy

I remember sitting bored and drifting off in synagogue during high holiday services a few years ago. And I glanced down at the page and started to read what looked like a typical biblical meditation or psalm (preceding the kaddish prayer for loved ones who have passed). Except by the time I finished reading and digesting it in my head, my mouth dropped open, a lump formed in my throat and I might have whispered the word “wow” to myself. I re-read it several times making sure I acknowledged how this made me feel a little different. Better. And then, I snapped a picture of the page with my cellphone at this moment (not really considering the setting or the moment). What was it about this poem? Why did I and my co-president Jen (who I had never met at the time) both have this almost identical experience in temple during services (likely remembering our loved ones) while reading these words?  The poem, Epitaph written by Merrit Malloy, is actually a fairly popular one (after having been featured on a popular crime drama and circulated online) and is only a few decades old. Every line is a deep lesson and beautiful nugget of wisdom for those who have grieved. It contains universal truths. For me, the power and comfort come from the speaker telling the reader that they want their life AND death to do as much good for the world as possible. Use their love to better the world. Inspire the good in others. And in a way that we can understand today (following pandemic and now war), the reader is guided to cry and feel pain not for the dead, but for those that are still alive and suffering. Help those that need help. Sometimes, a suggestion of a different perspective is all that is needed in order to change feelings of pity, anger and despair into something better. And to redirect your energy. This is a selfless way of looking at death. One of my favorite ideas that these words suggest is that we can keep our loved ones alive after death by purposeful acts of love (and not just remembering). And that is what I’m going to continue to do to keep my angel alive.

– Larry Mergentime

I was at Yom Kippur services, three months after I lost my brother, somewhat mindlessly reading through random pages of the prayer book when I first read these words.  When I finished, I read them again; when I finished a second time, I knew I needed to have them.  I considered for a moment, “borrowing” the prayer book so I could bring it home, make a copy of the page, and bring it back, but I was a little worried it would look like stealing. And who steals something on the holiest day of the year for Jewish people? Right, nobody.  I realized I could simply take out my cell phone (not great, but better than stealing) and take a picture of the page- so that’s what I did.  The words spoke to me and my loss in a way I had not yet experienced, and maybe in a way I still haven’t experienced since then.  People say that our loved ones are always with us but what does that mean? For me, this poem taught me that the love for my brother will always be with me and it showed me how to feel and use that love so that he will always be with me.  When I read this poem, I almost pretend that my brother wrote it- that it is my brother telling me that the best way I can love him now is to love others, to look for him in our family and in his friends. There are pieces of ourselves in everyone we know and love.  My brother isn’t here physically anymore, and that will never change, but he was here for almost 40 years and he knew and loved a lot of people in his life. In the moments I am missing him a little more than usual, I look for pieces of him that will forever exist in me, our family, and his friends- and I always find him- because that love will always be there.

– Jen Schwartz

Co-Presidents’ Message – March 2022

The night of July 2, 2016, my brother and I were texting about the Mets (like every year, we had high hopes for them). Our conversation came to an end and he texted me “Good night! Love you!” Those were the last words my brother ever said to me. He died just a few hours later. A few weeks later, I had a problem with my phone and I lost all texts and pictures from the month of July. His last words to me were gone. 

In March 1997, I woke up for school and found a letter from my brother next to my bed. I guess we had argued earlier because most of what he wrote in that letter was an apology- he didn’t mean it, he shouldn’t take stuff out on me, and he was sorry for how things went down. The real point of his letter, however, was to ask me if I would wake him up the next morning- and he would even drive me to school! 

For whatever reasons, I kept the letter. It was dated 3/11/97 which my brother noted “hey, it’s 311!” (at the time, one of my favorite bands). My brother loved to draw and exaggerate. He drew an intricate spider web, next to which he wrote “the web!” He talked about the internet a lot and told me he liked to think of it as a giant web. Not much later I learned that “the web” was not his analogy; it was literally the internet’s nickname. His handwriting was beautiful, every letter was a work of art, and I admired it my entire life. This letter was an entire page of the very handwriting I would later work so hard to emulate.  That letter was my brother: creative, fun, smart, beautiful, sometimes a little sneaky, and always endearing. 

In March 2017, as I was going through some old pictures and cards in my nightstand, I found the letter. I started to laugh, remembering how mad he was when I tried to wake him that morning, when I noticed something about the letter- it was signed “Good night! Love you!” His last words to me before he died, which were lost forever in that damn “web” he loved to talk about, were now staring at me in his beautiful handwriting from a random letter he wrote me in 1997. 

It’s March 2022- almost 6 years since I lost my big brother and 25 years since that letter was written. I think of him every day and miss him all the time. Sharing him with you keeps me feeling connected to him but it also connects me to all of you- and to me, that’s what COPE is all about- connections. 

We all have the shared experience of loss but I bet we share more than that. So let’s connect- send us an email, share a story, show us your favorite picture. It may help you in your journey and you may help someone else in theirs. The next level of healing is helping. 

To each of you in the COPE community, it is an honor to be Co-President with Larry.  An important piece of our vision is to ensure that COPE continues to be available and accessible to everyone who needs the support- we cannot do that without you. Help us to grow COPE and make it stronger.  To Larry, thank you for loving Phish and reminding me so much of my brother. And to my brother- good night, love you!

– Jen Schwartz