When It Happens To You, Everything Changes

This post is personal.  Very personal, in fact.   But if it helps one parent, it’s worth sharing.

I always believed that unless you experience something yourself, telling someone, “I understand” is like listening to a symphony without the strings section.  You can hear it but you can’t fully get it.  I was wrong.

Several days before Christmas, my young adult son went missing.  At first I thought it was just a misunderstanding…a mixup of where and when to meet.  But it quickly became far more.  Hours of social media attempts to make contact.  Reaching out to people — and people who knew people — day and night.  Walking the city streets.  Distributing flyers.  Contacting authorities.  It was a nightmare.  He was found unharmed on Christmas Eve, yet the scars from this surreal experience will last a lifetime.   At least they will for me.

There are thousands of parents whose children go missing every year.  Some are lost.  Some have been told to leave.  Some are confused.  Some are trying to figure out life.  Some are struggling to make the leap from child to independent adult.  Some are struggling with mental illness.  No matter the reason, each of these children has a parent or parents, many of whom are doing little more than breathing as they search for their child.

About a week before my life went into a four day tailspin, I was leaving a suburban shopping center around dusk when there was a young man holding a sign that said “homeless.”  I was sitting in my car, waiting for the light to change and found myself staring at him.  I just couldn’t take my eyes off of his face.  Mind you, this was an upscale suburban area where SUV’s and gourmet market bags of imported cheese defined everything.  Yet here was this young man, standing in the cold on a small strip of grass … homeless.  He glanced my way as I pulled some money from my purse and opened my window.  I handed him the money while looking into his eyes and said, “Eat something.”  He grinned and said, “I will, thank you” and then said, “Happy holidays to you.”  As I pulled away, I looked back to see where he was going and saw him headed to the market, likely to buy himself something to eat.

As I drove home, I couldn’t get him out of my mind.  Why was he homeless and why there.  What happened that had him without a warm bed and someone to care for him.  What would he do once the shops closed.  And then I thought about his parents.  Did they know he was on the streets?  Were they looking for him?  The entire situation had me twisted and distressed.  I felt guilty for that momentary rush of gladness I felt, knowing that my own child — around his age — was safe at home that evening.  Little could I know what was to come only a few days later.

So why am I sharing this.  It’s because we often talk about work/life and what takes priority given conflicting obligations.  It’s family…no questions asked.  Whether during times of crisis or not.  No matter what else is going on.  It’s family first.

It’s because we have a responsibility to our children.  Our own and others.  We are facing a societal problem unlike anything we’ve dealt with before and regardless of the reasons, the reality is that children — even if they’re 18, 21 or 28, are struggling and suffering.  Today there’s more stress.  Higher expectations.  Less certainty.  Many children are slipping through the cracks whether in school or out in the world.  And this includes children of well-intentioned, caring parents who believe they are doing everything right.

And it’s because we have a responsibility to not look away when we see a child who may be in need.  It’s difficult to know whether a teenager walking the streets at 10:00 on a weekday morning or a young adult sitting alone at night at a fast food restaurant may be in need.  But it’s not difficult to ask or to make a gesture, similar to the 26 acts of kindness to honor those lives lost in CT.  It’s really about being aware and a willingness to lend a hand.  Or a heart.

During our days of frantic searching, I encountered some wonderful strangers who quickly became more.  People who jumped without hesitation to help in some small way.  Their kindness was matched by their understanding — whether they themselves were parents or not — of what it must feel like to know your child is missing.  I used to think that you had to live something to truly get it, but I was wrong.  I now know that it’s really all about being human and recognizing that the adage “there but for the grace of God goes I” can apply to each of us in a heartbeat.

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