How to Grieve as a Family
Jessie Flynn, writer, Life Coach and Grief Specialist shares this story to help families see how to approach grief as a unit. She writes: Our entire community mourned the loss of such a young, promising life. We also praised the manner in which the Afendoulis family conducted themselves throughout their three-year ordeal. From blood drives to fund-raisers to prayers, churches, schools, neighbors, and clubs all joined together in supporting efforts to heal Lainie. Unfortunately, in the end, the disease proved too aggressive, and their first-born, 12-year-old daughter died.
by Jesse Flynn
Lainie Afendoulis died on her living room couch on June 14, 2000. After valiantly fighting Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer, Lainie died peacefully in the home she loved.
Our entire community mourned the loss of such a young, promising life. We also praised the manner in which the Afendoulis family conducted themselves throughout their three-year ordeal. From blood drives to fund-raisers to prayers, churches, schools, neighbors, and clubs all joined together in supporting efforts to heal Lainie. Unfortunately, in the end, the disease proved too aggressive, and their first-born, 12-year-old daughter died. '
Left to cope with such tragedy, her parents and younger sisters, pre-schooler Alex and fifth-grader Samantha, rose to the task of grieving in a healthy manner.
The actions they’ve taken to heal from this overwhelming loss are worthy of a textbook. Amazingly, many of them have been instinctive. Extensive social supports surround and feed them. Part of a large Greek family and religious community, they’ve embraced a deep spirituality as they try to make sense of their loss.
In the process, Lainie’s life has provided great meaning and future promises for others who cope with cancer. Her parents have resolved to keep her memory alive. As a result, the significance of her life will continue in the Lainie’s Angels Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to providing a network of ongoing support for families of children with cancer and blood disorders. The entire family has focused its energy on this mission of mercy, a huge endeavor that provides the cornerstone of their grief work.
Equally important are the healthy decisions they’ve made in their journey through grief. Six major actions stand out. The Afendoulis family decided to:
From the very beginning, Alex and Samantha were informed about what was happening to Lainie and their family. When Lainie ate a special diet, the whole family tried that food. After she died, Alex questioned her mother, “Mom, if Lainie’s dead and in heaven, she won’t need her bed anymore. But wait, she’s not really in heaven. She’s lying there on the couch.” Each concrete question from this inquisitive four-year-old was answered patiently and in a way that was appropriate for her age.
Split the difference.
The family chose to appreciate the different needs and personalities of their surviving children. While irrepressible, dramatic Alex’s observations provide comic relief, serious Samantha’s responses bring home the gravity and reality of Lainie’s death. Alex still makes comments like, “Lainie’s watching us right now, but maybe we need a magnifying glass to see her.” She bounces from feeling sad to laughing over happy memories. At the cemetery, she breezily shouts, “Hi Lainie! Bye Lainie!” Samantha, however, needs quiet, away time, simply to think. She cries until, fully exhausted, she cannot shed one more tear. Her hardship is in not having close friends who have experienced a similar loss. Fortunately, her parents are addressing this need.
Express emotions openly.
Here is a family who cries when they’re sad, adults and children alike. They hug and console. They are present to each other in the midst of painful feelings. They talk about how each one is feeling at any given moment. Mother Emily runs out her emotions. Dad Stathi cries copiously. Samantha writes in a journal. And Alex emotes like a drama queen and chatters away. Perhaps because so little has been “stuffed,” they have maintained healthy lives during these past two years.
Keep a normal daily routine.
Blessedly, school has to be attended. Work at the store needs to be done. Dinners cooked, clothes washed. Each day, however, Lainie’s name is mentioned. Shared memories keep her a part of the family circle. Sometimes the girls even sleep together in Lainie’s bed. They also wear her favorite hats and use many of her treasures. Wisely, flexibility is permitted within the routine schedule, as when the children missed school for a memorial tribute.
Do fun things as a family.
Trips into New York City to see a show (limousine transport and all) continue to give everyone a perk. Especially for the first year, holidays found the family visiting relatives in Michigan, where lots of cousins gave lots of love. Getaway vacations are still chosen in family meetings.
Find the positives in the loss.
It is virtually impossible to imagine being in a situation like the Afendoulis’. The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. Yet, here is a father who believes that Lainie’s life and death led him to discover his authentic self. This child, who had a disease that no one could save her from, managed to save him.
As his words eloquently express, “Lainie gave me an epiphany about myself. I learned so much from watching her deal with her disease. She was true to herself in the face of her illness and the gift she gave me was the understanding that I had to change. She taught me to see who I really am. She taught me to be true to who I really am. And now that she’s gone, I am learning to reinvest in doing what feels right for me.”
Lainie showed her mother how to deal with a devastating life experience with dignity and grace. Emily now appreciates each day as a gift. She has learned not to worry about the little things in life, but rather to focus on the big thing: to be happy and live fully. Remember.
Listen to Emily’s words: “We talk about Lainie all the time. She’s not here physically, but she still is part of our emotional life. She’s always in our minds and hearts and on our lips. We live to honor her life and all lives. We know her short years on earth had significance. Her goodness continues to live on in Lainie’s Angels.”
Has this journey been easy? No way. The suffering these five people have endured is immeasurable. Life dealt them an unspeakable problem, which they chose to view as a challenge … and they met that challenge every step of the way.
Before this tragedy, we viewed the Afendoulis family as fine, good people. Now, those who know their story see them as courageous heroes from whom a certain beauty shines forth.
Perhaps historian Roy Nichols describes them best when he says, “The most beautiful people I have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
The world certainly needs such beautiful people. May this family and their Lainie’s Angels Foundation continue to foster healing and peace.
If you'd like to learn more about the Lainie's Angels Foundation, here's how you may contact them:
Lainie's Angels Foundation
24 Oak Grove Lane
Edison, New Jersey 08820