No one can understand what it’s like to be a parent of one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and that includes Linda DeYmaz. But the mother of five children, including the one in heaven, Alexandra Grace, knows how important it is never to forget.
DeYmaz, whose husband, Mark, pastors Mosaic Church in Little Rock (my church), has spent a big part of the past 18 years thinking about grief and helping others deal with its effects. Her daughter’s stillborn birth in 1995 led her a year later to write "Mommy, Please Don’t Cry," a book about hope, healing and heaven that has sold 100,000 copies. The book in turn made her a trusted counselor for grieving families through the years. She’s handed out countless copies, never once having one handed back to her.
"All of a sudden, heaven becomes extremely real to a person when a child dies," she told me.
Unlike the victims of the Dec. 14 shooting, DeYmaz was prepared for her child’s death. Four months into her pregnancy, her doctor leaned close to her during an ultrasound and told her that her baby was "clearly broken" and offered abortion as an option. She said no, unhesitatingly, and has never regretted that decision. Ali Grace had triploidy, a condition in which she had three of each set of chromosomes instead of two. She was born and died about three months later on Easter Sunday.
DeYmaz’s conviction that her daughter is in a better place led her to write the book, but she was not looking for closure and does not want to forget Ali Grace now. In fact, her daughter has been a part of the family for 18 years. Her children would tell adults that the family had five kids, not four. When one daughter would draw family pictures, she would include her sister in heaven above.
DeYmaz says the families in Newtown are only now entering the grieving process. At first, they were in shock and too busy planning funerals. Now they must come to grips with their loss amidst a world that quickly will move on to other things – a feeling she knows well.
"About six weeks after she passed away, I remember going to my mailbox, and there were no cards anymore," she said.
The next year will bring some difficult milestones for the families in Connecticut, DeYmaz said. Many had already bought Christmas presents for children who won’t be there to open them. In a few weeks, other people’s children will return to class. Birthdays will always be a reminder of the lives lost. The one-year anniversary of their deaths will be especially painful.
Meanwhile, friends will sort of expect the families to move on and won’t know what to say when they don’t.
"Grief is a lifetime. Grief is a journey. … (Ali Grace) should be graduating from high school this year," DeYmaz told me.
She and the church are raising money to send copies of her books, which she must buy even thought she is the author, to the families and others in Newtown. She’s personally sending notes to each victim’s family, making sure to look at each child’s picture as she writes. There’s a link to make a tax-deductible donation on the church’s website at www.mosaicchurch.net/give. She’s raised enough to send 300 books and hopes to send 1,000.
It should be pointed out that, in 1998, Arkansas experienced what Connecticut is experiencing now when two students at the Westside Middle School near Jonesboro killed four classmates and a teacher.
Those were sad, angry days whose memories no one wants to relive. At the same time, DeYmaz told me that, "The greatest gift that we can give these families, that we can give anybody that we know, is to keep that memory alive."
So let’s remember those five people – teacher Shannon Wright and students Natalie Brooks, Paige Ann Herring, Stephanie Johnson, and Brittheny Varner. Let’s remember them not because they died, but because they lived, and because their loved ones are still embarking on their lifetime journey.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org