Danielle, my third grader, and Emma, who just turned 5, are my daughters. The greatest understatement would be to say that they are my reason for living, my everything. Twelve months ago, my everything included their mother, my beloved wife, Lara.
We lived in an apartment in Hackensack, just down the street from my sister’s family. After taking a few years off to raise our girls, Lara had returned to work as a physical therapist at a local hospital. We had recently gotten out of debt and had just started talking about putting money aside for a down payment on our dream, a small house in a good school district. Little did I know that this would be a fleeting moment of serenity in our lives.
Then came the unexpected. My beautiful wife, the rock of our family, was killed suddenly by a drunk driver as she was running to catch the bus home from work.
December 4th, 2018 was the worst day of my life. You can’t imagine. The girls went to school, just like any other Tuesday. The difference was, they never returned home. Upon receiving the call from the police, I dove into a deep fog. My sister picked up the girls from school and shuttled them off to her apartment, where I met them and had the conversation that no parent should ever have to go through – that their mom was gone. Danielle and Emma were hysterical.
Fortunately, my sister helped us get through the funeral and shiva, but I was a mess, and I did not want to bring the girls back to our home for fear that they (or maybe I) would fall apart.
And the next few weeks were a blur. One thing led to another, and we continued to stay at my sister’s apartment. It seemed to make sense at the time, amid my grief, to protect them from the pain of their loss by avoiding anything that would trigger memories of Lara and the anguish of going home. But I now realize that my girls never had the opportunity to say goodbye to their mother, their room, their home.
And then came the ramifications of my well-meaning decisions. My oldest Danielle, only 8 years old, stepped into the mothering role. She took care of her sister, her cousins, helped around the house, and spent every waking moment trying to make sure that everyone was “fine.” But everyone was not fine. Danielle’s academic performance started to decline as she could not focus while in school.
Emma’s behavior at school also became a problem. She became defiant, strong-willed, and angry and began fighting and yelling at other children in her class. By the end of February, the school social worker called me in for a meeting.
She recommended that I reach out to JFCS to help our family deal with our trauma. I explained that my resources were now seriously constrained without my wife’s income. But the social worker assured me that JFCS helps everyone in need.
I started speaking to a therapist about my own grieving process, and I learned that even as their father, there is no way to protect my children from loss. Through working with this extraordinary therapist at JFCS, I slowly came to the realization that my job was to find my girls a safe place to talk about their mother. When we began family therapy, the girls brought pictures of Lara and shared memories, stories that brought them laughter as well as tears. And I learned how to show them the amazing qualities Danielle and Emma possess as a result of being their mother’s daughters.
The girls also worked with different JFCS social workers in individual therapy. Initially, Danielle would come to sessions and bury all the dolls under the sand. She used to say her mother wasn’t dead – she was just with God but that she was coming back. The girls talked with their therapists about how to prepare for mother’s day – what to do when other kids are making projects for their mothers.
Thank god for JFCS. Therapy has given us words to talk about our loss, share our stories and bring Lara back into our lives on a daily basis. Thank you, JFCS, for teaching us how to live again.