As summer gives way to fall, several recent high-profile deaths have reminded us of the fragility of life. Among them: the shocking suicide of Robin Williams, the barbaric beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the sudden tragic loss of Joan Rivers during a routine medical procedure.
How do we envision a world without those who made us laugh and made us think and provided endless food for thought for our hearts and minds?
We grieve for them and for their families and we identify. We think of our own heart-wrenching losses that are not lived out in the public eye, but are as raw, mysterious, and troubling for us as they are for the families of those in the news. Compounding it all is the 13th anniversary this week of September 11 -- that day when 3,000 innocent souls lost their lives and we, as Americans, lost our innocence forever.
While the media shares the horrific details of individual and collective deaths and murders, there is a point when we need to focus more on how they lived rather than on how they died. We need to emphasize and celebrate the values, passions, memories and legacies of those we have lost rather than constantly rewinding how they were taken from us.
Melissa Rivers got it right when she said shortly after her mother's death: "My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."
Reports indicate that Joan's funeral inspired attendees to remember her legacy of laughter. We also need to remember her work ethic, her ability to reinvent herself, and her devotion to her family and friends. So too, James Foley and Steven Sotloff should not only be memorialized as victims of terrorism, but remembered as sons and brothers who had extraordinary courage, professionalism, and altruism.
That is exactly what Liz and Steve Alderman did after their 25-year-old son Peter was killed on 9/11 at the World Trade Center. They established the Peter C. Alderman Foundation to honor Peter's memory by helping other victims of torture terrorism. The foundation trains doctors and establishes mental health clinics on four continents to treat victims of PTSD. It has proven so effective, that President Barack Obama honored the Aldermans for their work.
"There was nothing we could do for Peter," Liz Alderman told us in our book, The Living Memories Project: Legacies That Last, "but if we could return the survivors of terrorism to life then that would be the perfect memorial because Peter so loved life."
After Maj. Stuart Adam Wolfer was killed in Iraq, his family was also determined to keep his memory alive. His parents, Len and Esther, and his sister, Beverly Nerenberg-Wolfer, created the Major Stuart Adam Wolfer Institute (MSAWI), which they also discussed in our book. It supports U.S. troops by increasing public awareness of the sacrifices made by those in the military.
"When we receive letters from solders detailing the impact a care package made on them, we know that Stuart would be proud," they told us. "That everyday Americans, regardless of their political views, took the time to think of and support the troops overseas....Having MSAWI allows us a positive outlet for expressing our grief, for remembering and honoring Stuart and for helping others...."
There is no timetable for grief, no rules for grieving, and surely everyone is entitled to grieve in his or her own way. But celebrating memories can be comforting and healing.
Probably Nick Clooney, George's dad and the brother of Rosemary and Betty, said it best:
"I don't think anybody requires advice on how to move beyond mourning, except maybe they need to be reminded of it. Think of all the wonderful things. As soon as that awful wrench occurs and the person you love in the deepest corner of your heart breathes his or her last, move as quickly as you can past that to the great, funny, uplifting moments you shared with them. So do something to remember them positively in the world because you have to know, whatever your beliefs are, that they are resting much easier because you did that."
The Living Memories Project: Legacies That Last, by Meryl Ain, Arthur M. Fischman and Stewart Ain, was published this year by Little Miami Publishing Company. It tells how 32 individuals keep alive the memories of their loved ones. The book was just honored with a Silver Medal in the 2014 Living Now Book Awards.