Eliza Schleifstein lives with her husband Todd and daughters Darcy, 10, and Emily, 7, in Randolph, New Jersey. Still practicing public relations after all these years, but now as a freelancer, she works with advocacy groups and pharmaceutical clients to help raise awareness for disease categories and new treatments, but only when she is not playing chauffeur. Eliza has been writing letters to her children for them to read when they are older since Darcy was born in 2002.
Dear Darcy and Emily,
It’s about 3 a.m. on Monday, December 17, and I can’t sleep. You’re going back to school tomorrow. Because of the tragedy in Newtown, the police will be there. Counselors will on hand to talk with you about what you’ve heard about Newtown if you need. Kids in elementary school should never have to deal with anything like this.
When I heard the news the Friday before, the phrase that popped into my head was, “There but for the grace of G-d, go I.” It’s sad we live in a world where this could happen anywhere, but unfortunately, the fact is that it can happen, even with armies of adults working every day to keep you all safe.
For a while now, I’ve wanted to write something for you both about how a child copes with death – more particularly, how I coped with the death of my mother when I was six years old. What I learned from the biggest tragedy of my life and what you both should take away from it. But I was unable to write a single word.
Until Newtown. The murder of 27 people, including 20 children who are the same age as you are, Emily, broke through that resistance.
My mother died after a long battle with cancer. But because I was so young, I had no idea she was going to die. So her death felt sudden. Most of my memories of her are of my visits to her in the hospital. I grew up marked by a certain unmistakable sadness. I spent most of my childhood afraid that something bad would happen to my father, too – that he, too, would die – and I would be left without any parents.
Here, then, is what I I learned at the age of six. Life can be cut short. Life is fragile and every day is precious. And no matter how hard you try, picking up the pieces is very difficult and takes time. Yes, you have every right to take time to be sad. The deaths of loved ones, like your Grandma Dorothy, or events like those in Newtown, Columbine and Aurora – and on 9/11 – where many people perished, are horrible to live through.
But pick up the pieces you must. You have to live your life and accomplish something in order to honor the lives of those no longer physically here. In trying to be the kind of parent my mother would want me to be — and always to advocate for you – I honor my mother.
I want nothing more to raise you both in a bubble and always keep you safe. But my mother would have wanted me to be a different kind of parent. She would have wanted you to take the opportunity to live your lives to the fullest, even in the face of inevitable risks. That’s the most important lesson I learned from losing my mother as a child, and that you can now learn from Newtown. Never live your life in fear of what could happen. Look forward to every day. Do what the lost children of Newtown would do at this very moment if they could. Take the hands of your friends. Run out to the playground. Enjoy being alive.
Love & Kisses,
P.S. – Let me leave you with one other thought. Six teachers died on that Friday in Newtown, essentially acting as human shields to protect their students. They, too, were moms and dads and children and siblings. They, too, are now mourned by family members. When they signed up to be teachers, it was because they loved to teach. Unfortunately, though, they found themselves with no choice but to become human shields. They adored their students as if they were their own flesh and blood and protected them without worrying about their own lives. So it is at your school. Your teachers, your principal and the whole staff also love you and your friends as if you were family. I have no doubt they would have acted the same. So when you go to school today, please give the staff an extra big hug or a high five. Today is probably even tougher for them than for you. Now they grasp as never before that caring for children is the biggest responsibility any adult ever faces.