Five years ago in January, a drunk driver hit my parents as they crossed the street in front of their church. The driver is serving a twelve-year prison sentence now. Both my parents died – my mom at the scene, my dad six and a half weeks later, after many surgeries and a long struggle to recover.
A lot of it is questions. More than a decade before the crash, I read a book by Anthony Robbins called AWAKEN THE GIANT WITHIN. A friend recommended it. I was skeptical, especially because Robbins, with his shiny white smile, reminded me of a used car salesman. But I found the book helpful in changing both how I thought and felt for the better, and finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable difficulties. One of Robbins’ theories is that we think by asking ourselves questions. The questions we ask determine the answers our minds provide and so the quality of our lives. For instance, in a time of grief, if we ask, “Why do bad things always happen?”, our mind obligingly responds with reasons, usually reasons that make us feel worse. That the world is a terrible place, that we somehow deserve whatever loss we’ve suffered, that people are, at heart, evil. On the other hand, if we ask a question like, “What can I do that might make things better?”, our minds are almost guaranteed to return an answer that will help us take action in a positive way.
Robbins suggests a list of questions to ask each day, beginning with “What am I happy about?” This is one I found impossible to ask in the days, months, and even the year after the crash (though I ask it now). I’m guessing almost anyone whose loved one died would find it difficult if not impossible to answer that question. But one question I did ask and that I continue to ask is “What am I grateful for?” Even in the midst of feeling black and angry, I found things to be grateful for. The nurse-practitioner at Loyola who carefully explained my dad’s medical condition and options, and who was always available to consult. The Brookfield police and the prosecutors who did everything they could to see that the man who hit my parents was taken off the road. Friends who did everything from organizing my parents’ financial papers to cooking for out-of-town guests to driving me home from the hospital each night. And Twyla, the victim advocate from the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists who attended every court hearing in the criminal case and explained every step of the proceedings, then took me for tea afterward at a lovely coffeehouse near the courthouse so I could have some quiet time before returning to work.
Now I also often ask, “How can I best honor my mom and dad?” My parents donated monthly to charities despite being on a fixed income. When I’m feeling uncertain about finances (like any business, running a law practice has its ups and downs, as does being a novelist), and I’m hesitant to give, I remember how my parents did this regularly despite their own concerns about money. Also, inspired by my parents’ volunteerism, I’ve become involved with AAIM so I can offer support to others who lost loved ones or were injured by DUI drivers and work toward preventing further DUI-related tragedies. I also try to honor my parents by appreciating everyone in my life. (I’d like to say I’m perfect at doing that, which wouldn’t be so, but I try.) All these things make me feel my parents still contribute to this world, even though they are not physically here.
Other questions I’ve found helpful are, “How can I feel just a little better right now?” “What are the things I learned from my parents that most helped me in life?” “Who in my life do I want to contact to say I love them?” “What is one thing I can do this day/week/month that might help someone else through a difficult time?” “Who is one person I want to thank for doing something kind?” “What am I really enjoying in life right now or, at least, what could I be enjoying if I would let myself?”
I wish I had something more to offer anyone who is grieving – something that would heal the hurt and anger or, better yet, reverse time and change events so no one would ever have been injured or killed. But I don’t. Still, there’s a saying that goes something like: "Better to light a candle than curse the gathering darkness." So I’ll hope these thoughts light a candle or two and help keep the darkness at bay.
In honor of my parents, all royalties this year from my short story collection THE TOWER FORMERLY KNOWN AS SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR will be donated to AAIM. Horror writer Carrie Green referred to the stories as “horror in pinstripes,” a description I wish I’d thought of myself and which I’m happily adopting.
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To learn more about AAIM, or make a donation in honor of someone you love, click here: http://aaim1.org/