As the second anniversary of my mom's death approached I felt a lingering sadness and deep anger. I had tried to do everything "right" in my grieving process. My mom took her own life on July 19, 2011 and by the next month I was in a support group for those who had lost loved ones to suicide. I had a therapist, went to AlAnon and participated in all kinds of fundraising walks to raise awareness about suicide prevention. I had even started a group six months after my mom's death specifically for those who had lost mothers to suicide called Mom Squad. Still, I felt disconnected from my grief and from her.
On the first anniversary of her death my brother and I had travelled to our mother's home state of Texas to spread her ashes in the pond where she often sat with her dad. We sat with my mom's siblings and told stories of her life and our lives without her, we held each other and it seemed like the world had paused for our grief. This year there were no more ashes to scatter and another trip to Texas seemed indulgent. A voice inside me said it was time to move on. Even though I had been told time and time again that you never get over it, I was really wishing I could. It seemed like the only appropriate thing to do on the anniversary of her death was lay in bed, to hide from the world until it was another year, another year without my mom.
So I did. I laid in bed and watched TV and let the hours pass as I tried to not feel the absence of her. I looked at pictures of the two of us and asked her. "What can I do to remember you? It feels like the world has just moved on and I'm supposed to go with it and I...can't."
Something inspired me to do a search for volunteer opportunities. After all, my mom and I had volunteered together a lot when I was growing up. It just so happened that the very next day was Los Angeles's "day of giving." I signed up to "spruce up" an elementary school in downtown Los Angeles thinking I may not even show up. I invited a friend who had also lost a loved one to suicide. The next morning, probably because I knew my friend would be there, I got out of bed and showed up. We spent the day chipping away old paint and making the walls of the school look ready for the eager, bright minds that would soon inhabit the halls. I thought about my mom and her love of children. I thought about the story my dad had told me, about when my mom was a young nurse and had painted characters from Sesame Street on the walls of the children's ward. I thought about how she was always the first adult on the floor when a child was in the room, how she never lost her ability to love and connect with children even after alcoholism and mental illness had ravaged her body and her spirit. And I felt her there.
Driving home I felt a lightness I hadn't felt in months. I had connected to what was good in her and it produced something good in me. I had looked at the chipped paint and dirty walls and dedicated myself to making that school a better place for kids to learn. In that moment I forgot my pain for a minute. I thought about my friend who was with me and realized I had seen a lightness in her, too. By volunteering together we had found hope after our loss. In that moment Hope After Project was born. I've spent the past six months bottling that experience and giving it to others. I build community service projects for people looking to remember the life of a loved one.
Every Hope After Project starts with a conversation. I ask the Hope After Project recipient to tell me about their loved one. Speaking their loved one's name immediately changes their perspective. They tell me about their loved ones life, their passions and their struggles. Then I brainstorm, I reach out to different charities and find a good fit. We gather and do an act of community service in memory of that person's life. We've planted flowers in memory of a husband, played with homeless cats in memory of a brother, built military care packages in honor of those who have lost loved ones to suicide and on Feb. 22nd we'll be caring for trees in memory of the fiancé of that same friend who joined me at the elementary school.
If you were to come to a Hope After Project you would see a group of people dedicated to the volunteer work we are doing that day. They might all be wearing the same color tshirt or pins with someone's picture on them. You might see a volunteer taking a picture with a friend, feeling silly that they are covered in dirt. You would see people introducing themselves and telling their stories. You would see a lot of laughter and smiles and you would also see tears. You would see gentle squeezes and reassuring hugs. You would hear a name said over and over even though that person wasn't there (at least not there physically). You would see people coming together, some who have experienced loss and others who have not. You would see and, more importantly, feel a lot of hope. You would see a group of people who have journeyed through darkness and have made a decision, even if it's just for a moment, to look for lightness.
Every time I build a Hope After Project I get the honor of helping another human being find hope and I get closer to finding mine.