Our magazine first explored the difficult topic of a child’s death in 1991, when a local mom shared a first-person account of her own excruciating journey. “Sarah’s Story” was something that I, then the mother of healthy 5- and 3-year-old sons, couldn’t fathom. I still can’t.
The impact of her story never left me — and not just because I spent several days immersed in her anguished, but beautifully expressed, sorrow. Her courage in facing her grief — in feeling it, living it, exploring it, expressing it and seeking something positive from it — shored me through a sudden and unexpected loss of my own. The very week I was editing “Sarah’s Story,” my father died of a cancer he didn’t even tell us he had.
I couldn’t help thinking about the parallels yesterday, as I watched my colleague and friend, Mary Ann Bashaw, accept an award for a series of articles she wrote for us in 2011 about “Finding Purpose in Grief.”
Mary Ann was honored by the MISS Foundation with The Phoenix Award: Rising to the Service of Humanity during a “gratitude luncheon” Saturday at the Fiesta Resort in Tempe. The event was part of a three-day conference hosted by the nonprofit organization, which provides resources and support to families that have a lost a child of any age, for any reason. This year’s theme was “The Transformative Nature of Grief.”
Mary Ann was one of four honorees, including Kathy “KD” Frueh, president of The Kong Company, an international marketer of dog toys and presenting sponsor of the conference; Robert Neimeyer, Ph.D., an author, speaker and professor of psychology at the University of Memphis; and Wendy Halloran, an investigative reporter for 12News. The award is given to “outstanding individuals who have made significant contributions to support and further the ideology and work of the MISS Foundation.”
As Mary Ann accepted her award, she gave an eloquent and impassioned speech. This series changed her. How could it not? She was accepted — welcomed, really — into the deepest, darkest emotions of parents around Arizona who have lost precious children. They entrusted her with their stories; she responded with sensitive, empathetic and ultimately hopeful stories acknowledging the fact that no one ever “gets over” the loss of a child; one simply finds ways to live with it. To carry on. To honor and remember. To learn and grow.
Many in the room applauded loudly when Mary Ann mentioned the continuing taboos surrounding discussion of loss. Few knew that she, too, had faced a profound loss during her telling of their stories. A little over a year ago, as Mary Ann was putting the finishing touches on her last article in the series, she lost her precious mother to a long and heartbreaking illness.
And yesterday, as she walked into the luncheon (greeted like a rock star by the many MISS Foundation members whose stories and lost children Mary Ann has experienced and cherished) she was facing a new grief. Just the night before, her friend of more than 20 years lost her husband to a heart attack following surgery for an unrelated cancer.
Mary Ann’s proud husband Eric, her beautiful, poised daughters Claire and Hannah (both students at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff) and her dashing and delightful father Jake Seabrook (the girls call him “Jake-o”) were with her yesterday. All of us were dabbing tears as Mary Ann concluded her speech. As always, I was struck by her ability to step outside of herself and say — with poise, gentleness, respect and reverence — exactly what others most need to hear.
The speech Mary Ann gave as she accepted The Phoenix Award:
Thank you. I am deeply humbled by this honor.
Two years ago, at the last MISS conference, I sat among you in this room. I was not here as a grieving parent, but as a journalist, with the intent to write a story about the MISS Foundation for Raising Arizona Kids magazine, where I’ve been writing for almost 10 of its 23 years.
My editor, and the publisher of Raising Arizona Kids, Karen Barr, accompanied me to the luncheon in 2010. When we left that day, we knew that what we had just experienced, what we had seen and heard, warranted far more than a single article about MISS. So I wrote a series of articles in 2011 titled “Finding Purpose in Grief.”
In the first piece of the series, we introduced our readers to Joanne Cacciatore. I had the privilege of spending some time getting to know Joanne, who ended up being an invaluable resource throughout the series, as she put me in contact with MISS parents who, because they trusted Joanne, trusted me, a total stranger, to tell their stories. Time and again I was struck by the courage and honesty of these individuals who told me of the unspeakable loss of their precious children, who shared details of their dark and difficult journeys through grief.
I spoke to professionals dedicated to supporting grieving families. I wrote about perinatal hospice and how families try to cope as they face the loss of their unborn and newborn babies because of fatal fetal anomalies. I spoke to fathers about their loss, and wrote of their unique perspectives of carrying the burden of grief in a society that is not often tolerant of men showing emotion, of men’s tears. A father’s pain is no less real, no less visceral.
Parents shared with me the ways they grieve, their rituals, their personal expressions of grief as they search for their child’s light to help them navigate a path that they know will always be hard but on which they can eventually find some semblance of peace, wisdom, balance, acceptance.
Our magazine’s goal for this series was to inform our readers, so that they can in turn use that awareness as a call to action to practice compassion, patience and understanding in support of bereaved families in our communities. I am grateful that Karen Barr herself had the courage to run this series on a painful and tragic subject, one that might not sell as many magazines. But you, bereaved families, are all around us, and the loss of a child, YOUR child – still far too taboo a subject in our society – must be acknowledged.
Raising Arizona Kids magazine has a motto: “Real families – Real stories – Real life.” Your families’ stories of loss are real life. Your stories deserve to be told. MISS deserves every drop of ink, every keystroke, every volunteer hour, every scarce dollar, as this extraordinary organization works tirelessly to support families like yours.
On a deeply personal note, MISS has made me that much more aware of, and grateful for, the gift of my living children. Through MISS and Raising Arizona Kids, I found my voice to share your voices. I accept this award on behalf and in honor of your children, who have left you too soon. And may MISS continue its important work, serving families in Arizona and around the world, helping them through their darkest hours, and hopefully, ultimately, to brighter days.