She would be thirty-three years old now but, to me, she is still the seventeen-year old who kissed me goodbye that fateful night. It was a long time ago, but the memory of the night I lost my daughter remains painfully clear in my mind. In the first years of her absence, I regretted not being able to see her getting married or having children; not being able to see her accomplish what I thought was her destiny. It was all about my pain. But then my regret became that I did not understand what she was going through and could not be more helpful during those turbulent last years of her life. The generation gap between us was quite wide, and I took for granted that she would outgrow the choices that brought her so much pain. After her passing, the awareness of what had gone on in her life made me feel naive and out of touch with the “real world” of young people. I saw the lack of truthful communication between our generations as the cause of a separation that could not be bridged. After all, my attempts at open and honest communication with my child had failed. What had I missed?
I retained this uncomfortable perception for many years. As I would walk my dog by the school bus stop every morning, it seemed as though these young people would make every effort to disregard my very existence. They would look down as I approached, avoiding my glance, not responding to my greeting. I felt a huge gap between us. All this was to change one miraculous day last year. I was asked by Taylor Barton, a dear young man I had seen grow up, to volunteer at the Challenge Day program his foundation was sponsoring at a local high school. This program has been very effective in helping teens to stop bullying and in helping those who have been bullied. I had seen their success story on one of Oprah’s shows and wondered why the program wasn’t mandatory at every school.
That day I really had no expectations as I did not know what part I would play in the program, but I was definitely there to be of service. It wasn’t very long before I realized that my longing for honest communication with teens was about to be fulfilled. It was a life-changing experience for me. Although some boundaries in the use of words were set due to school rules, there were no boundaries as to content, and all communication was to be received without judgment. Ah! That’s what I had missed with my daughter–the “without judgment” part! There is a mindset of judgment that is not as obvious as the judgments we use to condemn. As a parent I had seen myself as the authority figure in my child’s life; loving and understanding perhaps, but definitely “knowing better.” That’s probably the biggest judgment that separates us not only from our children, but from every other human being. It is the giceiving of non-judgment that opens the door to full, clear and honest communication–a communication that brings about trust and connection.
That morning about thirty adults welcomed a hundred teens into the gymnasium with loud music, high fives, and great enthusiasm. We broke up into small groups and the communication began. We were to complete the sentence: “If you really knew me, you would know….” There was another facilitator in our group who wanted to share first but for some reason changed her mind and asked that I do so. I really did not know what I was to say, but looking around the circle at the young faces, I recalled how very young my daughter was when she passed. How could she possibly have known how to deal with the problems that confronted her in her young life? I then said, “If you really knew me, you would know I had a daughter your age who was killed in a car accident.” I then burst into tears and confessed how for years I had come to mistrust teens because of what my daughter had done but that now my heart just wanted to reach out to each of them. My honest emotion led these beautiful souls to expose their pain as well. The boy next to me shared that he had been in a gang and that after the killing of his friend, his family had moved so he could start a new life. It was still a struggle, but he wanted to be a good example for his younger brother. Beside him, a grieving girl spoke of her baby brother who had just died. The next girl told how her step-dad had left them and how she would rush home every day to comfort her young half-brother who missed his dad so much. The last girl spoke about how every day she wanted to commit suicide because she was overweight and her classmates bullied her. She then had to return home to parents who were addicts and who told her she would never amount to anything. Tears fell freely from all of us and we could feel the bonds forming.
The next exercise had all of us at one side of the room. We were asked to walk to the other side of the room if a statement pertained to us. As questions, such as– “Have you ever been abused by those who said they loved you? Have you been homeless or hungry? Have you wanted to commit suicide because someone bullied you? Has a friend or someone you know been killed? Have you lost someone you love? Have you or someone you know been bullied because of being gay?”–it became clear that each of us had had experiences of great pain. We all walked across that room many times, looked at each other, hugged and cried together. I am crying at this very moment because the depth of the pain in that room was as deep as the pain I had experienced with the death of my daughter. But it wasn’t left there. The facilitators were amazing in how they turned all that pain into an energy for healing. The teens were taking the microphone asking for forgiveness of those they had bullied. Friends who had parted because of misunderstandings embraced. All vowed to carry this message of healing to others. We recognized that judgment came from the differences we perceived in each other, and that healing comes from the compassionate understanding of how we all experience deep pain from feeling different and separate. We cried for six hours; first out of pain and then out of joy! The heart-to-heart bridge that was formed that day left no room for regrets in me. Now as I walk past the students at the bus stop and see those who will not look at me, I recognize there must be great pain in their lives and secrets they hold. I send them a silent blessing filled with God’s Love and pray that there will be many adults in their lives who will perceive them without judgment.
For Alison, who visited Earth on September 3, 1979 and went Home on October 31, 1996.