I Recovered From The Depths Of Despair, And You Can Too (Jeff’s 31st Birthday Post)

2 Mar

You probably never thought you could live through your child’s funeral. What could have been more dreadful?

But you did.

Certainly, surviving all the grief you felt seemed impossible. Those days and nights of crying, exhaustion, and pain were almost beyond endurance. You were certain, at times, you would never get past that time in your life.

But you did.”

               –Harriet Schiff, “The Bereaved Parent”

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It was last summer on August 13th, the day after my birthday and the day before Brett’s, when we sat at an outdoor table at Harvest on Hudson in the blazing heat for a celebratory family brunch. Sitting at the head of the table, I was surrounded by love, hope, grit and resilience—Carey, Drew and his girlfriend Kelsey, Brett, Carey’s mom and 94 year old aunt, and my sister, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed in 2006 and has beaten it into long-term remission.

It was a glorious day in what had been a glorious summer for our family, and if you had told me as they lowered Jeff’s casket into his grave on November 13, 2010, that I’d ever again use that word in relation to any time period in our lives, I’d have said there was about as much chance of that happening as there was of someone like Donald Trump becoming President someday.

Last summer was glorious for us for so many reasons. It was heartwarming watching Drew and Kelsey grow close; amazing to watch Brett come into his own at CBS News; romantic and fun lounging on the beach in Southampton with Carey; and wonderful to do a boys trip in Montauk again with Drew and Brett. It was glorious because it was just so normal. How did we ever get back to this place?

We got here by making a choice in the aftermath of our tragedy, though speaking for myself, there was really only one option. That option was to maintain an unwavering focus on my most precious gift–my family. While I knew that I’d be grieving over the unnecessary loss of Jeff for the rest of my life, I needed only to take a quick look around me to know that I still had too many blessings to not appreciate them every day. If anything, the fragility of life that I had learned about firsthand made it even more imperative to be thankful. In addition, I was frantic from day one about keeping Jeff’s memory alive, and so I resolved to aggressively incorporate him into my daily life.

By doing those two things–maintaining focus on what I had left and keeping Jeff at the forefront of my life–I was able to gradually allow myself to feel joy again.

And so I carry his picture with me everywhere I go, I wear his Middlebury t-shirt to my most competitive tennis league matches so that he’s literally close to my heart while I play, I talk to him behind my closed office door at work, and I do 302 sit-ups each day in honor of today, March 2nd, the day Jeff came onto the scene and began to take us on a wild 23 1/2 year ride. Also, Jeff would certainly approve of the fact that I pour all my sports passion into the Villanova Wildcats basketball team.  And that’s only a fraction of it…

When Jeff’s Verizon Wireless bill arrives each month, I elevate it to the top of the pile.

Like a retired star athlete whose team retires his number so that no one else who plays for that franchise will ever wear that number again, no one but Jeff will ever have the mobile number 914-450-5601. I will pay his monthly bill for the rest of my life to ensure that is the case and that I can always hear his voicemail greeting on demand. And I will ask Drew and Brett to continue to pay it when Carey and I are gone. Jeff was a star, and I’m retiring his phone number. Forever.

This is yet another way that I keep him close.

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When we landed at JFK in late January after a vacation in the Bahamas, Carey had a text from a friend stating, “I need to talk to you.”  When they connected, she told Carey about a college kid from the next town who had hung himself at school a few days earlier. She wanted Carey’s advice on how she could help the mother, who she knew well. It was striking to both of us how dramatically things had changed over the years since Jeff died. There have sadly been several local suicides after Jeff’s, and in the early days, people tried to shield us from such news, thinking it would make our pain worse to hear about others.

More recently, though, people seem anxious to talk to us about the latest tragedies and seek our advice. Some will even say things without thinking, such as, “Can you even imagine…” when discussing something like the latest school shooting. We realize that it’s because Carey and I appear to be totally back to the way we were before November of 2010 and that people don’t view us as grieving parents anymore. They mean no harm.

And it’s true, we have regained the ability to feel genuine happiness and joy, and I’m glad that people see that and therefore don’t filter every word that comes out of their mouths when they’re around us. But we are still grieving always, and we manage the pain as you would a chronic illness, through our own therapeutic methods and routines. ____________________________________________________________________________________________

But no reign is eternal, no empire lasts forever. The past two years have seen Federer’s dominance fade, as 2010 saw his streak of consecutive semifinal appearances broken and Roger add only one trophy to his case…

This is the first time that he has not won one of the four Grand Slams during a tournament year, but it won’t be the last.  Roger Federer will never win another major…”

— Erik Wallulis, “Top 10 Reasons Roger Federer Will Never Win Another Grand Slam”, Bleacher Report, September 12, 2011

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Nine months later, Roger Federer won his 17th major.

And 4 1/2 years after that, at age 35, he won the first of 3 more majors, and last month at age 36, he regained the number one world ranking.

My point is that when Walluliis wrote that article, he was unwittingly doing more than making a simplistic and misguided sports prediction. He was contributing to a broader narrative that I feel has taken hold in our society and has been detrimental to the emotional well-being of large swaths of the population, and in particular, children and young adults. The message is essentially that when the chips are down, they will always stay down. People can’t recover and turn things around. The aging process is irreversible, and illness can’t be beaten. This prevailing pessimism is why the global suicide rate continues to increase, especially among young adults.

But that’s a load of crap. Roger Federer, Tom Brady and countless others have proven that sheer dedication and force of will can lead to prolonged athletic success. The workforce in general is aging, because people in all walks of life are working productively for longer than ever before. My sister and countless other cancer survivors have blown away the myth that a diagnosis is an automatic death sentence. Societal norms have been rewritten and will continue to be.

People recover.

In my small universe, I have witnessed how several of Jeff’s friends and peers, who have told me since Jeff died about their severe emotional struggles, have fought through their issues and improved with time. Three have recently married, and the others are doing just fine because they simply resolved to keep on fighting. These examples are why this is my favorite banner ever:

 

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Most young adults get to a better place by just living, maturing, gaining life experiences and taking even the smallest of action steps to move forward. Their difficult situations are not irreversible. Jeff and others who commit suicide, however, can’t call for a do-over, and that is so tragic because, according to a 2013 British study,

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have made it possible for scientists to watch the rate at which the PFC matures, and have discovered the male brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25.” (Medicaldaily.com, Men Mature After Women — 11 Years After, To Be Exact — A British Study Reveals”, June 11, 2013)

Had Jeff simply lived to fight another day, each day until his brain fully developed, I am certain he’d be alive, happy and productive today.

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“The fear of the unknown is behind us, for most of us, because we have already taken a long look at hell.

Understand and accept that, for you, there is still a future and one that can be as bright and good as you choose to make it. You have before you the rest of your life. What you do with it is entirely a matter of choice.”

                                                                         —Harriet Schiff

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On Jeff’s 31st birthday today, I want people who knew him or have come to know him through this blog to remember who he was.  I want them to remember his handsome face:

 

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His hilarious personality:

 

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His passion for sports and for the underdogs, his sweet jump shot, his interest in politics and fervent support for Barack Obama, his love of food and drink (he once ordered curried goat from a fast-food counter in a mall), his sense of humor, his love for his family and friends, his Talkin’ Sports blog (http://jeffkleinsports.blogspot.com) and his articles in the Greeley Tribune and The Middlebury Campus newspapers.

But equally important for today’s post, I want you to understand where Jeff would have been today, at age 31, had he just bowed his head, said a prayer, and weathered the storm during the late summer and fall of 2010. He would have found his way, as his 23 year old troubled brain became a mature late 20s and early 30s brain. I envision him as a columnist and commentator, in sports or in politics. And he would have been fine.  Absolutely fine. He had a loving support system surrounding him, and he would have returned to his vibrant self with the passage of time.

And that is the point of Jeff’s 31st birthday post: hopelessness can be overcome, and for those who make the choice to fight, it almost always is. You just need to find the strength within you to live in the moment, put one foot in front of the other, and resolve to take small, incremental action steps each day to make your situation a bit better than it was the day before. Have goals for the future, but don’t live there and obsess over it. That’s what Jeff did, and it’s why he’s not here to celebrate his birthday with us today. I believe the worst thing any of us can do is to create artificial deadlines for achieving goals.

And so with permanent holes in our hearts, Carey, Drew, Brett and I forge on and find our own ways to cope with our loss and experience joy again. Brett will run 3.02 miles today, while Drew prefers to run 3.2.  I know that Jeff will be honored by each of his brother’s loving gestures on his birthday. March 2nd is a day to reflect on Jeff’s life–the joyous days and the days that turned dark, as we continue to try to understand and come to terms with what happened.

My outlook, though, is anything but dark. I have two sons here on earth who bring me pride and joy every day, as does the memory of my oldest son in Heaven.  And I have Carey, the love of my life since I was 19. I agree with Harriet Schiff that what you do with your life is a matter of choice, and I made the choice years ago to focus on all the blessings I still have, not the enormity of what I lost, and everyone who is depressed or hopeless can make that same choice. It’s easier for some than it is for others, I understand that. But you all can do it. Each of us is stronger than we think we are.

It all could have unraveled so easily if I had let it. But I simply wouldn’t let it. And I never will.

The glorious summer of 2017 is now a treasured memory, but on Jeff’s birthday, I have high hopes that 2018 will bring our family an increasing number of glory days.

–Rich Klein

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “I Recovered From The Depths Of Despair, And You Can Too (Jeff’s 31st Birthday Post)”

  1. rob reuben March 2, 2018 at 9:15 am #

    I love you

    • rktrain March 2, 2018 at 11:04 am #

      Same here Rob. I miss you, bro

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