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Love, hope and the loss of a child

Last month, I was at a high school reunion when I received an email inviting me to a ceremony celebrating a college classmate. He is to be designated a “Distinguished Graduate.” It’s a well-deserved accolade. His career was marked by an MBA from Stanford and a steady stream of achievements as an investment banker and entrepreneur.

The organizer of our high school reunion has no such resume. Yet, his accomplishments are just as illustrious, even if they don’t seem to be on the surface. To borrow an old joke—when we were in high school, if you looked up troublemaker, his picture would be there. Later, he was medically discharged by the Marine Corps after dropping out of college. And he and his girlfriend found themselves contemplating a “shotgun wedding” when he was twenty-one.

And, yet his achievements are no less distinguished than those of my college classmate. He and his bride had four children in five years, and each has since had children—some grandchildren. He struggled to put a roof over their heads in the early years—literally. Their first home was a converted garage. But Jay (not his real name) was unafraid of hard work. And work he did, establishing himself as owner of one of Long Island’s leading independent insurance agencies.

His and his wife’s waterfront home on the Long Island Sound may be a marker of how far he has come. But it is not what distinguishes him. What we achieve in life cannot be measured by the promotions we receive, the awards we win, or the successful people with whom we associate. That’s our LinkedIn profile. But that’s not what’s important.

To Jay and his wife, what’s important has always been family—first, last, and always. That’s why hearing of the death of his youngest child—a daughter aged 47–was as devastating to me as if I had lost one of my own. She had been the spark that ignited and reignited the flame in their family. And she raised one of her own, leaving behind a husband, three sons, and a daughter. She had been her mother’s closest confidant and her father’s pride and joy.

And, now, she is gone.

In the modern age, the concept of a traditional family has broken down. Shotgun weddings are out of fashion. Families have become blended, and relationships have been redefined by our changing perceptions of gender. Yet, families continue to be defined by one thing and one thing only—love. Love has always been the foundation of families.

Most of us learn about death when we are children. Usually, the death of a grandparent forces our parents to explain age and dying. We begin to contemplate this cycle of life at a very young age. The loss of a child disrupts that cycle. We never expect it. It shouldn’t happen. And, when it does, we are bereft. Empty.

What saves us is hope. Hope that such a loss will inspire those who survive to become the best version of themselves—to live their best lives. The love that defines a family is the basis on which we can build that better life. A lifetime of loving can and should yield a lifetime of being loved.

Jay never aspired to win awards. His LinkedIn profile is low on his list of concerns. He only aspired to raise a family whom he loved and who loved him. And, in that sense, he is the most distinguished graduate I know.

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