Lessons learned in the Face of Tragedy

Friday, March 6th, 2015

casey with dates (2)By Joel Feldman*

At the time Casey was struck by a distracted driver I was with a legal client in northern New Jersey. When the call came in to rush to the hospital he would not let me drive there alone. He insisted on having a neighbor drive me the 90 minutes to the hospital and he followed, driving my car. He was there at the time Casey died and he came to the funeral. He was the first to show me how kind and caring people can be after a tragedy.

I was representing him because a diagnosis of his cancer had been missed and he was not given a very good chance of survival – he was 40 and had a wife and two young children. I was filming a video for his case that would tell what he was experiencing and what his family was experiencing. I interviewed his parents, asking them to consider what it was like to know that you would be burying a child. I was interviewing his parents at the time my child Casey was dying.

Since then, we have talked often of the irony of me losing a child on that very same day.

When tragedy strikes, losing a child or contemplating one’s likely untimely death, we are caused to think about life differently. And that was certainly the case for my client.  He described how he would look at his wife and children and “take them in”, making a mental picture and holding them as close as he could because he did not know what the future held for him.  He explained that he had a new appreciation for all those he loved, was grateful for the time he had with them and the time he would have in the future. He was not angry or bitter about what he was losing but appreciative of what he had. It was as honest, raw, painful and eloquent a description of gratitude in the face of an incredible challenge that I had ever heard. I learned something from him that day that would help me in the following days as I buried my daughter and which still helps me today.

My client was cancer free for 8 years and all of us felt he had “beaten” it. I learned a few days ago that he recently died.  The cancer had come back. So I have been thinking about him, his children who lost a father, a wife who lost her husband, parents who lost a child and about that day when my daughter died.

I have been thinking how I have been able, as I continue to mourn the loss of my daughter, to be grateful for  so many things – the 21 years I had with Casey,  all those who love me and who I love and my client, for teaching me  about how we can choose to look at what we have and not what we have lost.


Joel & Casey, Christmas 2008

Joel & Casey, Christmas 2008

*Joel Feldman is the father of the late Casey Feldman and founder of the Casey Feldman Foundation and its sponsored project, EndDD.org. He has been a practicing attorney for 30 years and a shareholder in the law firm of Anapol Schwartz in Philadelphia. He received a masters in counseling in 2013 and speaks throughout the U.S. and Canada to teens and adults, changing attitudes and behaviors through the science based, EndDD program. Joel can be reached at [email protected]

Simple acts ease great pain, by Joel D. Feldman

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Posted on Mon, Apr. 5, 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer – Opinion

Joel and Casey – Dec. 25, 2008

Simple Acts Ease Great Pain

By Joel D. Feldman

My lovely 21-year-old daughter, Casey, died about eight months ago on a beautiful summer day in Ocean City, N.J. She was struck by a car in a crosswalk while on her way to a boardwalk restaurant where she worked. How she died and, more important, lived her short life was reported in various newspapers.

Casey’s death is the most difficult thing I have faced, and going on without her is the most difficult thing I will face.

But in the immediate aftermath, I would not have expected to be doing as well as I am now. My progress has been possible because of supportive family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.

But I have found that many people, however well-intentioned, simply don’t know what to say or do to comfort the grieving. Awkwardness, anxiety, and ignorance surround death and mourning. So although grief is different for everyone, I offer my thoughts on what has and hasn’t helped me.

“How are you doing?” So many people asked me this question and then quickly tried to retract it, saying something like, “How stupid of me to ask! I know you must be suffering terribly.”

Even before Casey’s death, I was ambivalent about this expression, which often doesn’t indicate real interest in another’s condition. It’s better to ask someone who is grieving, “How are you doing today?” That communicates a genuine desire to know how someone is doing at the moment. A person can answer as fully or briefly as he wants, comforted by the knowledge that someone is willing to listen.

“What can I say?” You can’t really lessen my grief, certainly not with a phrase. You can comfort, but not cure. Just be present. “I was thinking of you and your family” is the kind of sentiment that helps.

“I know how you feel.” Please don’t ever say this. Many of us have lost loved ones, and some have even lost a child, but your loss doesn’t tell you how I feel about mine. (Presumably you are not as clueless as the person who told me she knew how I felt because she had recently lost her 18-year-old cat.)

Listen; don’t feel compelled to talk. Casey was an award-winning reporter and editor at her college newspaper, and one of her colleagues told me Casey had taught her that everyone has a story – that one just has to listen. That is perfect advice for anyone trying to comfort someone in mourning. All I want is to be listened to – to feel you are trying to learn what it’s like to stand in my shoes and are there when I need to talk.

“I didn’t want to remind you.” Many people said they were afraid to talk to me about Casey for fear of reminding me of her. But I think of Casey almost all the time, regardless of what others say to me.

I am afraid people will forget Casey. I’ll always appreciate it when people speak of and remember her.

Don’t judge my grieving. I struggled, and still do, with whether I am grieving enough for Casey. I know my grief is not a measure of my love, but when I would laugh or find pleasure in something, I would often chide myself for being happy too soon.

As I returned to normal activities, people would say things like, “I don’t know how you are going about your life as you are. I would never get out of bed.” This was probably intended as a compliment, but it made me question whether I was grieving enough. No one can know what I’m going through, so no one should try to characterize or judge my progress.

“I didn’t want to intrude on your grief.” I often heard this from friends trying to explain why they didn’t reach out to me sooner. But whether they did nothing because they didn’t want to intrude, didn’t know how to offer comfort, or just didn’t care, they still did nothing. I had no way of knowing the difference.

There was not a single person who reached out to me whom I saw as intruding. Surviving a tragic loss is a struggle. I feel different as a result of my loss; don’t compound that by making me feel isolated. Do something, lest your inaction be construed as insensitivity.

When is it too late to send a card? The answer for me is never. The bulk of the support I received came in the first month after Casey died. As time went on, there were fewer and fewer cards, phone calls, and deliveries.

Some studies show grief symptoms may actually worsen several months after a loved one’s death as a result of the gradual lessening of support over time. Put a reminder in your calendar to make a call, send an e-mail, or plan a lunch. It will be most appreciated.

My expectations – that Casey would graduate from college, find a satisfying career, marry, have children, live a full life, and one day mourn my death – have been shattered. In struggling to put together the pieces, I have learned that a tragic death can paralyze kind and caring people. And I have been helped by those who, whether they were comfortable doing so or not, tried to offer support.

Joel D. Feldman is a lawyer in Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information about Casey Feldman and what her family is doing in her memory, see www.caseyfeldman.com.

[Note: Read  and follow Joel’s blog, “Recovering From A Tragic Loss” – http://tragicloss.blogspot.com/. Also, the photo of Joel and Casey above, was added for this copy of the article on the Foundation site and did not appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer.]

“Grief in the Age of Facebook” by Dr. Elizabeth Stone, The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 14, 2010)

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Dr. Elizabeth Stone, one of Casey’s professors and mentors at Fordham University, published the following article in The Chronicles of Higher Education, on March 14, 2010:

Grief in the Age of Facebook

By Elizabeth Stone

After the death of Casey Feldman (right), many of her friends changed their photographs of themselves on their Facebook profiles to a snapshot of them with Casey. Above, Kelsey Butler's Facebook photo, with Casey.

On July 17 last year, one of my most promising students died. Her name was Casey Feldman, and she was crossing a street in a New Jersey resort town on her way to work when a van went barreling through a stop sign. Her death was a terrible loss for everyone who knew her. Smart and dogged, whimsical and kind, Casey was the news editor of the The Observer, the campus paper I advise, and she was going places. She was a finalist for a national college reporting award and had just been chosen for a prestigious television internship for the fall, a fact she conveyed to me in a midnight text message, entirely consistent with her all-news-all-the-time mind-set. Two days later her life ended.

I found out about Casey’s death the old-fashioned way: in a phone conversation with Kelsey, the layout editor and Casey’s roommate. She’d left a neutral-sounding voice mail the night before, asking me to call when I got her message, adding, “It’s OK if it’s late.” I didn’t retrieve the message till midnight, so I called the next morning, realizing only later what an extraordinary effort she had made to keep her voice calm. But my students almost never make phone calls if they can help it, so Kelsey’s message alone should have raised my antenna. She blogs, she tweets, she texts, and she pings. But voice mail? No.

Paradoxically it was Kelsey’s understanding of the viral nature of her generation’s communication preferences that sent her rushing to the phone, and not just to call boomers like me. She didn’t want anyone to learn of Casey’s death through Facebook. It was summer, and their friends were scattered, but Kelsey knew that if even one of Casey’s 801 Facebook friends posted the news, it would immediately spread.

So as Kelsey and her roommates made calls through the night, they monitored Facebook. Within an hour of Casey’s death, the first mourner posted her respects on Casey’s Facebook wall, a post that any of Casey’s friends could have seen. By the next morning, Kelsey, in New Jersey, had reached The Observer’s editor in chief in Virginia, and by that evening, the two had reached fellow editors in California, Missouri, Massachusetts, Texas, and elsewhere—and somehow none of them already knew.

In the months that followed, I’ve seen how markedly technology has influenced the conventions of grieving among my students, offering them solace but also uncertainty. The day after Casey’s death, several editorial-board members changed their individual Facebook profile pictures. Where there had been photos of Brent, of Kelsey, of Kate, now there were photos of Casey and Brent, Casey and Kelsey, Casey and Kate.

Now that Casey was gone, she was virtually everywhere. I asked one of my students why she’d changed her profile photo. “It was spontaneous,” she said. “Once one person did it, we all joined in.” Another student, who had friends at Virginia Tech when, in 2007, a gunman killed 32 people, said that’s when she first saw the practice of posting Facebook profile photos of oneself with the person being mourned.

Within several days of Casey’s death, a Facebook group was created called “In Loving Memory of Casey Feldman,” which ran parallel to the wake and funeral planned by Casey’s family. Dozens wrote on that group’s wall, but Casey’s own wall was the more natural gathering place, where the comments were more colloquial and addressed to her: “casey im speechless for words right now,” wrote one friend. ” i cant believe that just yest i txted you and now your gone … i miss you soo much. rest in peace.”

Though we all live atomized lives, memorial services let us know the dead with more dimension than we may have known them during their lifetimes. In the responses of her friends, I was struck by how much I hadn’t known about Casey—her equestrian skill, her love of animals, her interest in photography, her acting talent, her penchant for creating her own slang (“Don’t be a cow”), and her curiosity—so intense that her friends affectionately called her a “stalker.”

This new, uncharted form of grieving raises new questions. Traditional mourning is governed by conventions. But in the age of Facebook, with selfhood publicly represented via comments and uploaded photos, was it OK for her friends to display joy or exuberance online? Some weren’t sure. Six weeks after Casey’s death, one student who had posted a shot of herself with Casey wondered aloud when it was all right to post a different photo. Was there a right time? There were no conventions to help her. And would she be judged if she removed her mourning photo before most others did?

As it turns out, Facebook has a “memorializing” policy in regard to the pages of those who have died. That policy came into being in 2005, when a good friend and co-worker of Max Kelly, a Facebook employee, was killed in a bicycle accident. As Kelly wrote in a Facebook blog post last October, “The question soon came up: What do we do about his Facebook profile? We had never really thought about this before in such a personal way. How do you deal with an interaction with someone who is no longer able to log on? When someone leaves us, they don’t leave our memories or our social network. To reflect that reality, we created the idea of ‘memorialized’ profiles as a place where people can save and share their memories of those who’ve passed.”

Casey’s Facebook page is now memorialized. Her own postings and lists of interests have been removed, and the page is visible only to her Facebook friends. (I thank Kelsey Butler for making it possible for me to gain access to it.) Eight months after her death, her friends are still posting on her wall, not to “share their memories” but to write to her, acknowledging her absence but maintaining their ties to her—exactly the stance that contemporary grief theorists recommend. To me, that seems preferable to Freud’s prescription, in “Mourning and Melancholia,” that we should detach from the dead. Quite a few of Casey’s friends wished her a merry Christmas, and on the 17th of every month so far, the postings spike. Some share dreams they’ve had about her, or post a detail of interest. “I had juice box wine recently,” wrote one. “I thought of you the whole time 🙁 Miss you girl!” From another: “i miss you. the new lady gaga cd came out, and if i had one wish in the world it would be that you could be singing (more like screaming) along with me in my passenger seat like old times.”

It was against the natural order for Casey to die at 21, and her death still reverberates among her roommates and fellow editors. I was privileged to know Casey, and though I knew her deeply in certain ways, I wonder—I’m not sure, but I wonder—if I should have known her better. I do know, however, that she would have done a terrific trend piece on “Grief in the Age of Facebook.”

Elizabeth Stone is a professor of English, communication, and media studies at Fordham University. She is the author of the memoir A Boy I Once Knew: What a Teacher Learned From Her Student (Algonquin, 2002).