Sunday, January 3, 2021

Happy New Year

I have never really liked New Year's Eve. Well, that's not entirely true. When I was little my parents hosted an annual New Year's Eve party and I really enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversation and soaking in the laughter from the top of the stairs long after I was supposed to be asleep. I would make my way down just before midnight, pretending that I had been awakened by their loudness. I was always allowed to stay, don a crown or hat, and take part in the horn blowing and hugging. 

You would think that would carry into a fondness for the occasion as an adult, but it never did. As an adult, New Year's Eve never seemed to live up to the weight of my expectations. I may have had some responsibility for that. My first year out of college my housemates and I threw a New Year's Eve party. We had plenty of champagne, but shockingly little food and no guests. No guests? That's right, zero guests. We each thought the other had done the inviting so, not surprisingly, no one showed up. Did I mention that our pipes had frozen when we were all away for Christmas and we also had no running water or working toilets? Happy New Year! If you had any lingering doubts of the scientific evidence, this story should confirm for you once and for all that the brain of a 22 year-old is not fully developed. 

My niece summed up my feeling perfectly when she was about 8. We spent New Year's Eve day that year making noisemakers and hats with Emma and my nephew and niece in advance of an 8 pm children's celebration of the grand occasion. We gathered in the living room at about 7:50, donned our homemade hats, grabbed our noisemakers (decorated paper plates stapled together with dried beans in between) and waited for the clock to strike 8. We did the ten second countdown and then yelled, "Happy New Year!!" A few seconds later, my niece piped up, "Somehow I thought that would be more exciting." Yup, that's the feeling!

Clearly, this was not going to be the year to change that feeling for me. While I join everyone in wishing a hasty end to 2020, I also realize that the beginning of 2021 isn't going to be a cakewalk - at least not in our family. There are 20 days until the inauguration to get through. There is a month of radiation to get through. There is a memorial service to get to and through. Oh yeah,  and COVID is still alive and kicking, even though the approval of vaccines is making us feel like there is an end in sight. 

But judging by the advertising in my email and on my Facebook timeline, many people really buy into the promise of the fresh start that the new year offers. In the two weeks leading up to January 1st I was promised a flatter belly, firmer bottom, fuller eyebrows,  and the elimination of frown lines and saggy jowls. Marketers seem keenly aware of our insecurities and have found the dawning of the new year to be an especially effective time to poke that bear. 

Well, I'm not buying. Farley assures me that dogs consider saggy jowls, like the ones he and I both sport, quite attractive; and if my walking routine doesn't firm my bottom, so be it. It still seems to work quite well for sitting, which I think we can all agree is what it was designed for. 

So here's wishing you a happy, healthy 2021 with everything you wish for (for just $19.99 in this time-limited offer)!

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Big 6-0 is Coming!

My 60th birthday is approaching fast. I had hoped this might be the year that I got to celebrate a decade unencumbered by grief or traumatic life events. When I turned 30, we were struggling with infertility and our birthdays were just a cruel reminder that life wasn't going according to the plan.  My 40th birthday was tainted by the death of my father six months earlier and an ill-advised surgery my 84 year-old mom scheduled for the week of (maybe even the day of?) my birthday. My daughter died a year and a half before my 50th birthday, followed by my mom just 14 months later. I was desperately sad and at sea that birthday. I didn't even want to acknowledge I was having a birthday and celebrating was out of the question.

I guess that was why I was looking forward to celebrating my 60th birthday in a big way. I wanted to break my decade birthday curse.  Peter's birthday is two months before mine, so I was thinking we could have a joint party or take a special trip somewhere relaxing, or adventurous,  or exotic. But 2020 put a halt to our planning before we even really got started and by the the fall of 2020, we had to wave the white flag. There would be no big celebration or birthday trips. COVID-19 was going to temporarily rob us of those opportunities. Already feeling the certainty of my curse, I had no inkling of what else 2020 had to throw at me before January 11, 2021 rolled around. 

First, it slammed me with the second C - cancer. On November 2, I was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer. It sounds pretty bad and I was quite scared until the breast surgeon talked me through my pathology report and options. The cancer was caught very early and my prognosis is excellent. Nonetheless, I will be spending my 60th birthday readying myself to begin radiation treatments, instead of for a celebration. Really 2020? You had me at COVID.

And then, another loss. My father-in-law passed away on December 17.  Because of COVID, he died alone in a nursing home without the comfort of the soothing voice and warm touch of a loved one. We know this is a common story, but that doesn't make it easier. Like so many families this year, we will have to travel through the fraught territory of regret to be able to find our way to grief.  My father-in-law had a really big milestone birthday approaching, too. He was to turn 90 at the end of January. Before he was hospitalized with COVID-19 in mid-November, we felt certain we would have the opportunity to celebrate that important birthday with him. Now we will be remembering him and bidding him farewell on that day with a virtual memorial service.  

This past decade, accentuated by the horrors of this past year, has helped me accept that, especially as we get older, loss, illness and struggle are as much a part of the milestones we have reached as are graduations, marriages, births, adventures, and accomplishments. I don't believe everything happens for a reason. In fact, I loathe that expression. Emma's death was senseless. The way my father-in-law died was tragic. I will never believe my cancer is serving some grand purpose. I do believe, however, that we grow in important ways from what we learn about ourselves and others as we go through hard times. Over the last ten years, I have been comforted by the resilient spirits of Peter and Sarah and surprised by my own resilience. The pain of the losses I have experienced are still with me every day, but I have learned to use that pain in ways that are productive - to fuel a sense of purpose,  to support others through loss, and to appreciate joyful moments. I have been blessed with new and growing friendships that are characterized by authenticity and deep connections; and I have re-connected with people with whom I had lost touch. I have come really far in the last ten years and I am able to look ahead to the future with optimism, despite the bad things that have happened.  As I hit the big 6-0 that's what I want to focus on; not the growing older, but the growing.  

Before I sign off, I want to share two more thoughts. First, don't let COVID keep you from getting important health screenings that are due. Sure, put off less important routine care, and certainly put off elective care; but if you are due for a mammogram, breast ultrasound, colonoscopy or other important screenings, go get them. My journey with cancer is going to be so much easier because we caught it early. 

Second, despite everything 2020 has hurled at me and my family this year, and I've only shared a smattering of it here, I know we're still amongst the lucky ones. Low income communities and communities of color, like those served by Horizons at New Canaan Country School, the organization that I lead, have been disproportionately affected by illness, hospitalization, death, and financial hardship due to COVID-19. Early in the pandemic I had to worry about how I would get my food, but I never worried about whether I would have food. When I'm tempted to complain about being stuck at home, I remind myself how lucky I am not to be in danger of losing my home. Imagine being a child or a caregiver and trying to focus on school and learning when these things are weighing heavy on your mind. Long after the vaccine has beaten COVID-19 into submission, our families will be struggling to re-build their lives after this devastation. We are determined to be by their side every step of the way. 

So, if you feel like helping me celebrate my birthday, here are two things you can do that would make me genuinely happy: make an appointment for any health screenings that are due, and make a contribution to Horizons at New Canaan Country School.

As for me, I will be looking forward to celebrating 61 in 2022, when I hope I to be wrapped in comforting memories of lost loved ones and have COVID and cancer largely in the rear view mirror. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

2020 Scholarship Recipients

Thanks to the COVID-19 crisis, the high school Awards Night celebrations for graduating seniors in Fairfield were not held and we did not have the opportunity to meet and present the Emma Jane von Euler Music Scholarship to this year's recipients. I felt conflicted about that. This week is an emotionally exhausting week even without the scholarship presentation. I was a tad relieved not to have to live through the experience of waiting our turn to speak, watching the reaction of the audience as we talk about a subject many think is taboo, and then heading directly over to Fairfield's second high school to do it all over again. Nonetheless, I can't help feeling like I have forgotten to do something - that my grieving process will be even more unresolved this year.

The scholarship committee of the High School Scholarship Foundation did give us the opportunity to write a letter to our two recipients, which I am sharing with you here with congratulations to our two winners: Harry Graney-Green of Fairfield Warde High School and Maxwell Ephron of Fairfield Ludlowe High School

Dear Harry and Max,

Congratulations on receiving the Emma Jane von Euler Music Scholarship. You have worked really hard and accomplished so much.  We are very happy to be able to support you as you head off to college.

The Emma Jane von Euler Music Scholarship was established in memory of our beautiful daughter who took her life in June of her junior year in high school. Emma was kind and gentle, a strong student and a gifted musician. No one who knew Emma realized how intensely she was struggling. She hid it well.

That’s why when we present the scholarship each year we talk to the graduates about mental health and suicide. We encourage them to take their mental health as seriously as they take their physical health and to understand that there is no shame in seeking help for mental and emotional challenges.

We think this message is especially important this year. You have all had a very different ending to your senior year than you had hoped for. Isolation has been tough on all of us and we have all experienced periods of grief, sadness, loneliness and anxiety as we survived these last 3 months of quarantine. It’s important that we are all able to reach out for help and support when we need it. As you head off to college, make sure you know where to get help before you or a friend needs it. Put the crisis hotline and text line numbers into your phone, and find out where the health center and the counseling center are. Find friends who listen and care and be that kind of friend. Know that you have strength to overcome obstacles. You did it this spring!

You have much to be proud of. You have been resilient and accomplished your goals in the face of a historic crisis. We wish you continued resilience and success as you head off to college. Congratulations and be well!

The von Euler Family

Wednesday, August 7, 2019


On Sunday I relaxed at the beach and finished up Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. The book is a memoir done in the format of an encyclopedia in which the author alphabetically captures her observations and reflections of her every day life. Her entries range from profound to comical, and she zooms in and zooms out on her life in a way that allows you to get to know both her idiosyncrasies and the time and context that shaped them.  I grew to like her more and more with each page and by the end I felt like we had been lifelong friends with all sorts of stories and shared experiences that we could chuckle about over a cup of coffee (Amy loves coffee!).

AKR, as I like to call her, has a habit of writing to authors when she finishes a book they have written, so I thought she would appreciate a note from me with my reflections on her book. While I was still at the beach, I looked up the book's website that was shared on the cover, but the website couldn't be found. Next I tried AKR's website that was also shared in the book. Again, I got the message "website cannot be found." I concluded that this was the fault of poor cell service, typed some notes on my phone to remind me what I wanted to say to her, and decided to try again at home.

When I got home I tried both the book's and AKR's website addresses again with no luck. Were both the websites down? How weird. I googled her name and when I saw the first entry my heart stopped - "Amy Krouse Rosenthal Obituary." Obituary?! She's dead?! My friend is dead?! I felt a lump grow in my throat and tears begin to well in my eyes. How could this be?!

In her obituary I read about a column AKR had written that was published in the NYT, titled "You May Want to Marry My Husband." She had written the article as a love letter and Valentine's gift to her husband when it was clear that she was going to lose her battle to ovarian cancer at age 51. I remember hearing this touching story on NPR back in 2017 when the article was first published, but I had not connected that author to the author whose book had totally absorbed, entertained and moved me. She had inspired me to strike up a conversation, but it was too late. She was gone.

I have not been able to shake the desire to have that correspondence, so I'm just going to have it here. AKR, here's what I wanted to tell you:

1. I found it very affirming to read that you share my fear and distrust of escalators. My family is particularly fond of the movie Elf because the escalator scene is just a small exaggeration of the routine I go through when I mount and dismount an escalator. I completely distrust the toothed monster at the entrance and exit of every escalator and make sure that I step way over its mouth as I get on and off so that it doesn't reach up and snatch my foot in its teeth. I love amusement park rides of all shapes and sizes but, damn, escalators are scary!

2. I sympathize with your inability to remember which side your gas tank is on. I want to let you in on a little secret before you are subjected to the humiliation I experienced when my teenage nephew who didn't even drive yet told me the sure fire way to know. You see, there's a little picture of a gas pump on every dashboard with an arrow pointing to the side your gas tank is on. I'm not kidding, there really is! Go look for yourself! Before you get too excited, this information will not be as life-changing as it seems. If you're anything like me you will forget to consult the picture until you have pulled up to a pump on the wrong side.

3. Thank you for allowing yourself to vividly imagine how it would feel to lose your child. For all of us whose children slipped through a hole in the universe; who were there one minute and gone the next; thank you for allowing yourself to feel and express the terror, grief and anticipation of profound loss when Miles slipped through that hole in the floor of the shipwreck you were exploring. When my daughter died, so many people said, "I can't imagine what it would be like to lose my child." What many of them meant was, "I don't want to imagine what it would be like to lose my child." It takes courage to face the potential of a loss so profound. I realize that was not the last time you needed that kind of courage. I'm glad that you found Miles, scraped up but safe, one level down. I'm glad that you escaped a horrifying loss that time and got more time with Miles. And I'm so sorry that your time with Jason, Justin, Miles and Paris was cut short by your disappearance through a hole in the universe. Thanks for letting me get to know you.

Your friend,

Saturday, June 22, 2019


I had always considered myself a lucky person – a happy person. I have a large, boisterous family. My parents remained married their whole lives, and while there was sometimes strife between them, it wasn’t hard to tell that they were devoted to one another. I had enjoyed a lot of good fortune and very little loss. I even married my first love.

The first bump in the road came for us when we tried to get pregnant with no luck. There were a couple of years of humiliating infertility testing before we got a satisfactory diagnosis – I had a congenital anomaly of the uterus that left me with one fallopian tube and a very under-sized uterus. It was still conceivable (pardon the pun) that I could get pregnant, but there was a big question mark about whether I could carry a pregnancy to term. For the first time in my life, I felt unlucky.

It didn’t take long for me to emerge from my self-pity and realize I had options. Good options. I began looking into adoption. Private open adoptions were just taking off at that time and there were some high profile stories about adoptions gone bad. These stories terrified my husband, Peter. He imagined the pain of bonding with a child and then having to return the baby to his or her birth parent. He was not convinced this was the right path for us. We read a lot and went to adoption conferences. The wonderful stories of families formed through adoption gave us both hope and we began making our own adoption plan. We decided to adopt internationally, from Colombia, and began the application and home study process.

Before our home study was even complete an opportunity for us to adopt domestically became a possibility. We had deliberately decided not to do this, but this out-of-the-blue opportunity seemed fateful. Our social worker told us there was very little chance it would work out, but just several weeks after the first conversation we found ourselves driving south to await the birth of our daughter. When we held Emma for the first time, we couldn’t believe how lucky we were.

Our luck repeated itself 3 years later when I found myself pregnant. Our second beautiful daughter, Sarah, arrived a little more than 4 years after Emma and once again, I considered myself one of the luckiest people in the world: a nice home, a loving husband and 2 beautiful daughters. I was living a charmed life.

When a tragedy strikes, life changes in a head-spinning moment. On June 17, 2009 our lives changed forever when our beautiful daughter Emma took her life 5 days before her 17th birthday. Emma had had some struggles throughout her childhood, but she was from all appearances a happy, smart, personable and accomplished young woman. Nothing could have prepared us for her death, and nothing could have prepared us for the journey with grief we have faced since her death.

It rained non-stop for the five days leading up to Emma’s funeral, which seemed appropriate. It was like the universe was mourning with us. Deaths by suicide are often hidden and shrouded in shame. We did not hide how Emma died. It was not a conscious choice. In our shock it didn’t even occur to us to lie. Thankfully, family, friends and our community rallied around us. We felt loved and supported and that was a great help.

The really hard part of the journey came after the funeral. People who had been supporting us non-stop began to go back to their lives. We were left alone to deal with the shock, shame, guilt and bone-crushing grief. Sarah was terrified that her family would fall apart under the weight of all these emotions. She had lost a friend to leukemia in 4th grade and had watched that family disintegrate afterwards. About a week after Emma died the three of us were sitting at the dining room table trying to make sense of what had happened when Sarah declared, “We are not going to let this destroy us!” She was right, of course. We couldn’t let that happen. It wouldn’t be right for us, and it wouldn’t be the right way to honor Emma’s memory. We had to find a path forward.

In late August, 2 months after Emma died, Peter went back to work and Sarah went back to school. I had quit my full-time job so that I could be available for Sarah if she needed me, but my boss insisted that I continue to work at least a little – 10 hours a week; not because they needed me, but because she thought I needed some purpose. We were all finding it difficult to concentrate and be productive, but we had gotten some advice to just “fake it until you make it,” so we were faking our way through the days.

My boss’s instinct was right, and I soon found myself spending too much time alone with nothing to distract me from my grief. I decided to volunteer to be a guest reader for a kindergarten class in a neighboring city. Emma had loved books and reading from the time she was tiny, so going in to read to that class was almost like an act of communion. The children were also incredibly healing for me. The reflection of myself that I saw in their smiles, heard in their laughs, and felt in their hugs, made me feel that while I felt broken, my spirit was still intact.

Maybe it was reading those books Emma loved to the kindergarteners, but about 4 months after she died I began to get a rush of memories that I felt compelled to record. This came as a great relief because immediately after Emma died it felt as if all of my memories of her had been erased from the hard drive of my brain. I started a blog to capture and share my stories of Emma and for the rest of the first year and most of the second year I posted a new story every day.

We joined support groups – two of them – where we could share our heartbreak and shock with people who had experienced the same or similar losses. One of our support groups was for parents who had lost children in all different ways, but when we joined we were the only ones who had lost a child to suicide. Going in we thought that our experience was too different for this group to be helpful. But it turns out that shock, isolation, guilt and, of course, grief accompany the loss of a child regardless of the circumstances.

I also allowed myself to be angry, in mostly productive ways. I was distressed by the cursory way that the school supported and educated Emma’s friends after her death, so I educated myself and shared the resources I found with the district. I worked with the district for the better part of 2 years to get a more comprehensive suicide prevention, intervention and response policy in place. I became active in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), raising money to support education, survivor support, training, research and public policy efforts. Twice I joined AFSP in Washington, D.C. to visit my legislators, share my story, and ask for their support of important mental health legislation.

Sarah and I traveled to India on a mission trip to get some perspective on our lives. As unlucky as we felt on a day-to-day basis, we couldn’t ignore our privilege when faced with the wretched conditions we saw in the slums of Hyderabad. Yet, despite extreme deprivation, all the people we met were supremely joyful. Humans are resilient. We will be resilient.

And I formed new friendships. Looking back, I think this was perhaps the greatest sign of the resilience of the human spirit – that I could form new bonds in the face of a devastating loss. But I was lucky enough to have some wonderfully kind and generous people befriend me after Emma died. Some of the people I knew well before Emma’s death had an unhelpful inclination to try to fix me. These new friends were willing just to be present – to stand in the circle of my grief with me and let it be.

None of this was a silver bullet. Grief will have its day. You can’t will it away. We were shocked to find that the second year was harder than the first. I suppose we thought the first year was like a sprint to the finish line and that we would feel better when we got there. It turns out this journey with grief is more like a marathon. Life would never be the same and we needed to find a new rhythm – a new normal, as they say.

I’m 10 years out now.  We have found that new normal. I’ve been back working full time for more than 7 years now at jobs that have provided real purpose. Sarah has graduated from high school and college and has continued to lead us with her insights and determination. She has learned to tell her family’s story truthfully and openly and has found support and acceptance all along the way. Peter and I are celebrating our 33rd wedding anniversary this year, dodging a frightening divorce statistic for couples who have lost a child.  I still miss Emma every day. I still get sad. Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays are still hard, but I’ve come to accept this as the price of loving someone with all your heart, and I wouldn’t trade that love for anything. I’m a lucky person.