The loss of a child is perhaps the most devastating loss a human being can suffer. The short and long term effects of the pain which affects a parent after the death of a son or daughter are unfathomable. There are legendary stories in both fact and fiction depicting the shock, denial, rage and eventual coming to terms in some manner with the reality that a child, tenderly, lovingly raised from birth, has been removed from a parent's world forever. Never again to be touched, held, listened to, conversed with, wrestled or engaged with in the here and now. Never again.
A dark and deep hole threatening to swallow any feeling human being escapes the majority of folks who are lucky enough to die before their children. But what of the ones who are not so lucky, who must bury the flag-draped remains of their sons and daughters? What of the parents, for example, of those children who have died in the Iraq War? How do they handle it? And why are we not discussing this in American society every evening at every dinner table as we grumble over "endless wars" and "the threat of terrorism"?
Since the U.S. led invasion (a.k.a. the Iraq War) began on March 19, 2003 there have been nearly half a million deaths from war-related causes, according to an academic study published recently in the United States. A half a million. Every one of those deaths, whether from America, Iraq or anywhere in the world, every single one of those people was someone's son or daughter.
I only know personally, however, one person whose life was impacted by the death of her child in Iraq. I only know Cindy Sheehan. So I will write about her because the death of her son Casey is real to me. He is not a number in the half a million. He was an energetic, passionate, intelligent, caring and loving human being. He was her son. And he was killed in a war that never seems to end.
I met Cindy in the East Bay of San Francisco not long after Casey was killed. She had been invited to speak at the community college where I worked in Pittsburg, California at the invite of a member of Code Pink. She was a compelling presence and I remember giving her a bouquet of pink roses and thanking her for her courage in speaking out. She was kind and gracious, a down to earth woman from a working class background. She felt like family to me. And she was grieving. It was that sense of profound loss that permeated her passionate verbal slashing of the current U.S. administration and then President George W. Bush, a man who she had bravely confronted by setting up Camp Casey outside of the Bush compound in Texas as an act of protest not long after Casey's death.
A few years later I met up with her again in Los Angeles as she marched with Ron Kovic through the streets of downtown Los Angeles where I clumsily carried a picket sign, following along behind her. Thousands of us were led by Cindy demanding an end to unjust, immoral and illegal wars in the Middle East. She became for me that day a symbol of courage and integrity despite the fact she was criticized, reviled, accused of exploiting her son's death for notoriety, you name it...she was called it. In truth she was single minded in her pursuit of justice, not only for her son but for everyone who had or was about to suffer or die in an immoral war. Nearly everyone who met her had known from their pure gut instinct that she was a woman of deep conviction, profound intelligence and enormous courage. It is undeniable a decade letter that she was all those things and more. A person of courage, compassion, conviction. And controversy.
In May I sat down with Cindy and her sister Dede Miller for lunch at a restaurant in North Hollywood. This candid interview was a result of that afternoon.
JPF: Cindy, would you tell us a bit about your family's values both socially and politically. How did those values impact you both negatively and positively when you became a parent and wife?
CS: I was born in Inglewood, California in 1957, and in 1959, with my sister, Dede (born 1958), my family moved to Bellflower, Ca. My mom's brother had already moved there with his family. My parents had both grown up desperately poor during the Depression and neither one of them had any skills with money or parenting. Our home life was abusive, both physically and emotionally, and when I got married and had children, I vowed to be a better parent and have a more stable home life for my children. My dad was a blue collar worker and heavy drinker and my mom stayed home. The only thing our family was involved in together were sports. My brother excelled at baseball and Dede and I played softball. Our parents were supportive and came to our games.
JPF: In June 2004 you had a meeting with then President George W. Bush. What was the reason for the meeting, what happened during the meeting and what did you do after the meeting and why?
CS: The meeting was at Ft. Irwin up in Washington State. We were called by the regional staff of the US Army to say that George Bush would be up at Ft. Irwin and that he wanted to have a "sit-down" with us to express his sympathy.
We went as a family. Casey's dad, his brother and two sisters, and me. He was cold and rude at some points. But he also looked very uncomfortable to be there. The good thing about it was that it was about six weeks after Casey's death and it gave us time to be together away from home as a family. We actually had a decent time. We rented a car and went to the Space Needle, etc. It was the first time any of us had been in Seattle.
We were picked up from Sea-Tac in an army van which was driven by a young soldier and we had another young female soldier that was escorting us. The entire time we would be in the van (just our family), I would be staring at the back of the driver's head and my heart would hurt because it looked like Casey's head. We found out when they dropped us back off at the airport to go home that his first name was Casey. He let me give him a long hug and have a cry.
JPF: Why did your marriage end? How and why did becoming a political activist and very public person contribute to its collapse? Would you do anything differently looking back in order to save your marriage if you could? What?
CS: About 85% of marriages end when the couple suffers the loss of a child. When I look at my friends who have suffered similar losses in the Iraq War, Pat and I are the only parents that were married to each other at the time of the death. Many moms are married to a different person who seemed to support them better.
Our marriage was already on shaky ground and had been for many years. We fought a lot, but we would probably be together if Casey hadn't of been killed. Pat agreed with my thinking, but never supported me in my activism even though he knew I had a burning desire to end the wars, bring the Bush crime family to justice, and never let the people of the US forget our son and his needless death.
I would do everything the same. I needed to redeem my own part in Casey's death and I needed my space to grieve him without the rest of my family trying to keep me locked in the past. I knew the only way we could remain a family was to move ahead and forge something new. We have and my relationship with my children has never been better.
I wish the best for Pat and I will always love him.
JPF: What is it like many years later in terms of the grieving process when you think about your son Casey? Are you still as angry, enraged, sorrowful, and/or motivated to make positive changes or have you given up the idea that the US govt can ever fundamentally change its ways and become the govt of compassion and justice it was supposed to have been from the beginning?
CS: To answer each question that you have posed in "yes" or "no."
Enraged: yes and no
Give up: No, never
My view is that the US is on the verge of total collapse, and if we give up now on a compassionate society there will be worse devastation after that collapse. What we do now is to build infrastructure and community to persevere in that inevitable collapse.
No one can sustain rage for long. I am still angry and always will be. My dear son was stolen from me and his family to never return. He was killed for profit and lies. How can I not be angry? Sometimes though, the rage comes back. Usually it is just tangentially connected to Casey, though. It's the same processes that stole him that I get enraged at.
JPF: What books have you had published and did you use a ghost writer to help write them? Which one of all your books is the most heartfelt and the one you are most proud of and why?
I never used a ghost writer. The books I have written are:
Not One More Mother's Child
Dear President Bush
Peace Mom: One Mother's Journey through Heartache to Activism
Myth America I: The 10 Greatest Myths of the Robber class and the Case for Revolution
Myth America II: The 20 Greatest Myths of the Robber Class and the Case for Revolution
Revolution, a Love Story
I Left My Marbles in San Francisco: The Scandal of Federal Electoral Politricks
Peace Mom is my most heartfelt, but I am most proud of Myth America because I nailed the problem and gave the solutions long before the Occupy Movement. I think it's a great organic class analysis.
JPF: When people accused you of being a bit of a publicity seeker, how did you respond to this and was there any truth at all in the idea that you enjoyed having the public's full attention? Do you feel this aspect of your life was examined honestly by you and if so what did you learn from taking a look at it?
CS: People still say I am a "media whore." Of course, if that were true, I am surely bad at it since no matter what I do: run for office, camp out in DC, or ride my bike across the country, I get no media. I have never done anything for that, but I do like that attention is brought to our causes. It is not comfortable to be under constant media scrutiny. Not that I ever did anything I was ashamed of, but there are people who are still repeating lies from the right wing that have been fully proven wrong by accurate reporting and facts and that's also frustrating. The media were never fair to me. I learned to NEVER trust corporate media and I rarely even do interviews now, even if I am asked. Some people only see news for a few minutes everyday and wallow in their mis-information.
JPF: Why do you keep running for public office? First Vice President and more recently Governor of California? Do you actually believe you can topple the powerful factions who win year after year?
CS: Don't forget that I first ran for Congress against Pelosi. I actually don't think we ever have a chance to actually win in this rigged system, but the reason I run for office is to hopefully bring honesty to the discourse. I have seen after 3 attempts now that this doesn't ever occur. This will be my final run for office.
JPF: What is your hope for the future of your grandchildren?
CS: Peace, environmental health and sustainability, economic equality and justice, and lots of love.
JPF: Do you believe it is truly possible to remake our divided, war torn, broken world with love? How do you envision that happening?
CS: This can only happen when the 300+ million of us living here in the Empire stop "thinking like Americans" and start loving all 7 billion of us living here on planet earth. When we do that we will stop supporting the Empire and stop using and wasting 25 to 30 percent of the planet's resources. Only when we can look on the face of a child in say, Iraq and love him/her with the same intensity as we do our own children/grandchildren will this be possible.
I loved and protected my own children like a fierce mama bear, but one of them died anyway. It was a dark day when I realized that part of my responsibility in Casey's death was that I did not love all the children of the world in that same real, not abstract, way.
JPF: That certainly would be a major shift in human consciousness, to see humanity as one entity and break down the barriers of self interest. But it does appear to be the only way to survive now. Thank you for your insights today, Cindy.
CS: You're most welcome.
Note: Since 2003, the United States has spent $816 billion to fund the war in Iraq -- and counting. For up to the moment accounting of your tax dollars visit nationalpriorities.org.