When I wrote my last blog post on "Providing Care to Bereaved Parents," I didn't expect it to hit home again so soon. But it has, and there is a story to tell.
When our daughter Sarah was about 14, she decided that she wanted to be an organ, tissue, and research donor. She wrote it all out on a card that she kept in her wallet: "I am an organ and tissue donor. I do not want to be buried. I want my body donated to science."
At about the same time, her best friend Ashley was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and while her thyroid was surgically removed, the cancer had spread to her lungs. She received high doses of radioactive treatment, which, despite treating some of her cancer, caused scar tissue to build up in her lungs.
Sarah and Ashley were the typical junior and senior high school BFFs. They loved to shop together despite the fact that Sarah was 5 foot 1 inch tall while Ashley was 5 foot 11 inches. They argued over which was the best boy band; they shared secrets, had fights, made up, and had the sort of connection that would last a lifetime.
Zip ahead to their senior year in high school: The excitement of being nearly done, senior pictures, the anticipation and then excitement in receiving acceptance letters to college. In the midst of this, Ashley found out that she would have to be placed on the list for a double lung transplant. Sarah, always the supporter, promised Ashley that she would be there for her.
But in December of 2003, a 36-year-old man sped through a red light and t-boned the vehicle in which our daughter Sarah and her boyfriend were riding on their way to dinner. Sarah died, and we honored her wishes to be a donor and give the gift of life and hope to others.
A year later, after a long and grueling waiting process, Ashley received new lungs because a family facing the hardest time of their lives said "yes" to donation. We knew that Sarah was there as she had promised because the lungs Ashley received were from a donor who was 5 foot 1 inch tall, and the respiratory therapist who came to take her to surgery had a squirrel on his stethoscope. (Sarah had a wild, unexplained passion for squirrels).
Ashley remained our second daughter and little sister to our son. Like Sarah's promise to her, she promised us that she would always be there for us. She never forgot that promise, and gave "the mom" and "the dad" love and devotion, especially on that tough December anniversary and Sarah's birthday. Ashley grew to become a beautiful, strong, and compassionate young woman: She advocated for organ donation; she became a sign language interpreter; she fell in love.
But then, a week ago, Ashley was admitted to the ICU. She fought hard, but the infection that she had was too much for her lungs, and on a warm sunny morning, with a squirrel firmly in hand, she left this world on gentle wings, joining her best friend and our beloved daughter Sarah to dance across the stars.
And we mourn again. And sadly, we offer support to one of our friends as she joins the community no parent ever wants to be part of.
Death is never easy, and the death of our children is unbearable, even when we have spiritual beliefs that comfort and bring us hope.
Yet Sarah and Ashley's story is one that leaves us with certain lessons we can hold closely.
Cherish the friendships that are forever. In this life we are blessed to be given friends to enjoy, spend time with, and cherish. Don't take them for granted. Just as Sarah and Ashley kept their promise to each other, keep those promises you make to your friends and be there for them, no matter what the future brings.
Never forget to say "I love you." Our family (now my husband, our son, his wife and daughter, and me) never miss the opportunity to tell each other "I love you." This has extended to "our other kids" -- those young men and women who through our children became and remain a part of our family. None of us know what the future will bring, or even each day, so don't hesitate to speak the words to those you care about.
Live life to the fullest. Although Sarah only lived three months shy of her 18th birthday and Ashley to 27, both of them found their passions: Sarah in teaching preschool and loving squirrels, Ashley in interpreting for the deaf and everything Disney, and both for dance, animals, and organ donation. They proudly and enthusiastically followed their hearts by sharing their joy for life with everyone around them, demonstrating compassion and grace. We must do the same: Above all, may each of us follow their example to show kindness to everyone around us.
Give the Gift of Life. Sarah the donor; Ashley the recipient -- both knew the impact that making the decision to be an organ, tissue, and research donor would have not only for them personally but for others. It's a simple act that changes the world; that brings hope to another. If you're not yet a donor, find out the facts and register today; tell your family.
Don't Fear Death. St. Augustine wrote:
Love never disappears for death is a non-event. I have merely retired to the room next door. You and I are the same; what we were for each other, we still are. Speak to me as you always have, do not use a different tone, do not be sad. Continue to laugh at what made us laugh. Smile and think of me. Life means what it has always meant. The link is not severed. Why should I be out of your soul if I am out of your sight? I will wait for you; I am not here, but just on the other side of this path. You see, all is well.
As a bereaved parent -- for my own daughter and now for the daughter-of-my-heart -- I know and trust St. Augustine's words to be true. For you see, I have no doubt that Sarah was holding out her hand to meet Ashley on that path, and they are best friends together again.
Rev. Sue Wintz is a board certified health care chaplain with over 30 years of clinical, administrative, educational design, development and teaching experience. She is Director for Professional and Community Education at HealthCare Chaplaincy Network in New York, and managing editor of the online professional journal PlainViews. Sue is a past president of the Association of Professional Chaplains.
For more by The Rev. Sue Wintz, click here.