We buried our firstborn daughter, Eva, in 1997. She was twelve, killed by a drunk driver while under my care. There was no doubt; at the moment of impact, even before I watched her broken body fly 130 feet through the air, I saw her spirit elevate off this earth. Later that night, when the local rabbi (we were 3000 miles from home) came to the hotel room to recite the vidui, the prayer of forgiveness, something strange and wonderful happened: Eva (for it had to be her) reached into my chest and slapped my heart with an open palm, delivering a numinous explosion of godly spirit that fully penetrated my whole body, a powerful reminder that love was resident in my heart. That Eva! She must have been surprised to find herself dead, and, typically, her first thought was of me. Even in my sick grief I recognized it as her gift to me, reminding me there was a way to live after her loss.
As newly bereaved parents, we did the things you do. We focused on the present, trying to take care of each other and our surviving daughter. We read a lot of dead child books, went to Compassionate Friends, delved deeply into our feelings, resumed seeing our therapists. We went to the synagogue weekly, practicing being seen, reciting Kaddish in the presence of our community. We saw a ‘process of grieving’ specialist. We learned which questions not to ask. We learned to bear the pain we saw in each other’s eyes. We stayed together.
My wife, a psychologist, went back to work after a few months. It took me two years to start up at all, and certainly not with my former ambition. I did remain President of the Board of our school, inhabiting a public role forever transformed by the presence of Eva’s absence. People admired me for being brave; I was holding on to the familiar for dear life, scrabbling up the side of a cliff, fingers scraped raw, desperate to avoid falling into the bottomless chasm I knew could swallow me up forever. And I spun farther away from love, farther away from Eva’s touch, into a private world framed by guilt, anger, sadness and pain.
The first couple of years, the cemetery seemed to be the place she was. I would prostrate myself on the grave, pressing down into the thick, damp grass, my head pressed against the tombstone, yearning for her spirit to suffuse me with the softness of her love. It didn’t happen. Maybe her spirit’s presence in the cemetery diminished as her body rotted away. Maybe my capacity to hear her spirit diminished as the days piled heedlessly on top of each other. The result was the same. I lost track of love. I remained connected only by tenuous strings of faith and habit, buttressed by an inchoate hope that somehow love would reassert itself. Even when I strung together a set of normal-seeming days, the tiniest stimulus collapsed the balloon, returning me to the simple brutality of that day on the street and my self-lacerating guilt. In the third year we started an eponymous foundation and I made it my work, her death an icon that stuck me in amber, centered around the irredeemability of my failure to keep her safe.
As Eva grew, I experienced all the joy and deepening that parents know; it takes your own children to really teach you how to love. When our younger daughter was born, she slipped right into the pool of love created in me by her sister: they became “the girls” and when Eva died her sister got shortchanged, as if it was my love that had caused Eva’s death. I no longer trusted my parenting. I rode my bike a lot, preserving my isolation in the triumph of brutally long rides. Today I regret the cowardice I exhibited by staying hidden in my loss, unwittingly denying my living daughter intimacy with her father. I know now that forgiveness is not received; it is a personal act of bravery, a state of mind that must be nurtured daily.
Only the bereaved parent is given the opportunity to know the destiny of their child. I can make sense of Eva’s life, observe and reflect on it from a distance, lending credence and substantiality to what she gave and who she was. Eva’s death means my family never will be complete. Yet Eva’s life was complete—a life of love, accomplishment, caring. A life that mattered.
I never will “get over” the death of my child. My regret at the circumstance that led to her death is as profound today as in the year after her death; there is no cure for memory. The ability to trust love reemerged as the need to feel pain, sadness, anger and regret became obscured by the passing of the years and the obstinate constancy of my wife and daughter, willing our family together every day. And for that, finally, I am grateful.
Guest article by Mark Gunther.
About the author:
Mark Gunther has been many things in his life—student, hippie, cook, husband, carpenter, father, dancer, administrator, musician, entrepreneur, athlete. He has worked in staff or board roles in nonprofit organizations for forty years. In 1999, he and his wife started the Eva Gunther Foundation as a legacy for their daughter, giving to girls and girls programs. He remains Managing Director there, and serves on the boards of Alliance for Girls and Equal Access International. Mark received an MFA in Creative Writing in December of 2015 and since then has been published in several literary journals.