From Tragedy To Charity: How Giving Back Healed Me

When I was asked to write a blog post about charitable giving and volunteerism I was a little surprised. As a national safety expert known as The Safety Mom I’m often asked to write blogs on various safety issues.

But I’m now also the CEO of First Candle, the national non-profit dedicated to eliminating Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and preventable Stillbirths and in that role I do a lot of talking about giving. Usually it’s in the form of reaching out to families and potential donors.

But when I actually sat down to write this post and began to think about giving, it was my “other job” that came to mind – my most important jobthe job of MOM. Unfortunately, this is also the job that led me to both of my other roles. You see my first child died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 1997. A year later my second son was born with severe intellectual disabilities. These two events led me down a path I never expected.

Overcoming tragedy is never easy and my process was no different. There were days after my son died where I couldn’t even get out of bed. At first I simply wanted someone or something to blame. I isolated myself in my grief. I also became selfish and righteous. That first Christmas I didn’t want to give any gifts or even think about the holidays. I was angry that everyone else would be enjoying a holiday I felt had been robbed from me. My anger and grief consumed me.

I also wanted answers as to why this had happened to me. It was during this time that I stumbled upon First Candle (which, at that time, was called The SIDS Alliance.) I attended one of their conferences and met other SIDS parents and quickly realized I was a part of a club that no one wanted to belong to. However, that bond amongst parents going through the same struggles helped me heal. I was able to speak with other SIDS parents who had lost their babies years before I did and they generously gave me their time to listen to me and comfort me.

After the wounds began to heal, I realized that I needed to do something to help. This awful tragedy propelled me on a course to help others and hopefully prevent future parents from experiencing the loss I had. This quickly grew into a passion for helping keep all babies safe. And suddenly the light bulb went on for me. It was through these acts of giving and sharing my story that I finally started to feel better. I started caring again about other people and realized that no one is immune to tragedy. I emerged from the darkness that had consumed me and I came out a different person.

That was over 15 years ago and I’ve learned that no matter your background or situation, in giving you get far more in return. Yes, giving money is wonderful and desperately needed by charities like First Candle in order to fulfill their mission but there are so many other ways in which to give. Helping mow the lawn for an elderly neighbor, being a mentor for a child in need, volunteering to serve Thanksgiving dinner at a local shelter or collecting used clothes for victims of a natural disaster who have lost everything. These are just a few examples but the list is endless of ways to get involved and give back in your local community. It’s especially pertinent with the holiday season approaching, when people who are hurting tend to feel the extra weight of their problems. Even if you’re hurting yourself, it can be the best way to put things in perspective and help with your healing process, as it did with mine.

I’ve been blessed with two other children and teaching them the personal fulfillment of giving has been a priority for me. I’ve taught them to use their talents to find ways to give back. My one daughter is an All-Star Cheerleader and because of her brother with special needs she started an all-ability cheer team that she coaches. My other daughter came up with the idea to make dreamcatchers as a craft at her birthday party and delivered them to kids in the local hospital.

As a society obsessed with selfies and reality TV, teaching our children the power of selflessness and charity is crucial in helping them find a higher purpose. The benefits of creating true bonds through a shared common goal of volunteering to help others can’t be underestimated.

For seniors, volunteering and giving have tremendous mental and physical benefits. My father passed away two years ago from Alzheimer’s after being married to my mom for 48 years. He was her life and she devoted herself to caring for him. Even though he died, her need to be a caregiver remained. Quite simply she, like many of us, needed to feel needed. Last year she moved in with us and instead of us taking care of her, she has become my lifesaver. With three children, one with special needs, and a husband who is in a wheel chair due to Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, it’s challenging to work full time and care for my family. My mother helps me run my house and I simply couldn’t do it without her – it does take a village at times. It’s not just me she helps however. She frequently helps other friends whether it’s giving someone a ride or going grocery shopping for someone who is ill she’s always there to lend a hand. I have no doubt this is what keeps her young at heart and mind and there’s actually proof behind this.

  • Research has shown that people who give social support have lower rates of mortality, even after they controlled for socioeconomic status, education, marital status, age, gender and ethnicity.
  • Some of the mental health benefits include lower levels of depression and despair and another study found that older adults who feel a sense of purpose have protection against dementia.
  • Among individuals who are suffering from chronic pain, volunteering decreases their pain intensity and levels of disability.

Quite simply, it feels good to give.

It’s been 20 years and more hardships than I can count since I lost my son Connor. Every day I wish I had him back with me but it was my little angel who helped me find my true purpose. Being the CEO of First Candle is a business, but being a SIDS mom who is helping other people in times of grief is a passion and one that gives me a sense of purpose and pure joy every day.

In this season of giving look around your community and reach out to one person in need or consider giving to a charity – it will be the best gift you’ve ever given yourself.

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