Each of us can relate to the experience of loss and grief that threatens to overwhelm our lives.
I can deal with my normal life of doctor appointments, therapies and scheduling aides which would probably put most people in a padded cell. But still, it’s the nagging grief that drags me down. There is a grief that comes with realizing your child will never live independently. Few people, except caregivers who are honest with themselves, can understand that grief.
In the past year, that sense of grief deepened with the deaths of my sister and my mom. Both deaths hit me very hard. Since I have to keep moving forward to care for my daughter, I sometimes forget how hard the impact of their passing has been on my life. Then, just a year after my sister died, and months after mom’s death, my husband’s sister died suddenly. I witnessed again this profound grief as it affects my family.
My life as a mother of a child with special needs, and definitely my eternal perspective, keeps me focused and remembering that heaven is the final goal. But there is another gift inherent in grief which I have found helps me to breathe even while it threatens to drown me: compassion.
Compassion literally means “with passion” for another’s concern. Empathy. People are moved to tears at wakes and funerals, experiencing loss, even if we don’t know the person who passed. We have compassion and empathy for those who are left behind, missing their loved ones.
When we suffer losses, either through death or tragic circumstances in our lives, reaching out to others helps to soothe our own grief. It doesn’t take away the pain of loss, but it helps us to find a relief outside ourselves, rather than turning inward in despair.
When we help others through hard times, it gives purpose to our own grief.
In this past year, I have been acutely aware of those around me who were experiencing grief. I’ve shared here, how embarking on our pilgrimage of mercy was partially motivated by the loss of life in acts of terrorism around the world. But closer to home, I silently grieved with those who lost mothers, fathers and even children.
The son of friends of ours died suddenly just before Thanksgiving. It was a terrible loss felt by the whole community. We know the family through our connections to Canine Companions for Independence. They were the first puppy-raisers I met after my daughter Johanna received her service dog.
Even though I didn’t know the Dellaquila family outside the local community and CCI events, I felt a deep sense of loss for them. Last weekend, I was privileged to witness this family transforming lives through their grief expressed in compassion.
Friends and relatives gathered on the green at New Suffolk Beach to honor the memory of Matthew Dellaquila, the 24-year-old resident of Mattituck who died suddenly on November 25, 2015.
A picnic bench was dedicated at the beach where Matt loved to swim and hang out with his friends and family. The bench was one of three items purchased through crowdfunding started by his dear friend and college classmate, Agata Adamczuk, who most remembers Matt for his great sense of humor.
Smiling in the bright morning sun, Agata mused, “I think we are all still affected by Matt’s sense of humor.”
Humor, mixed with many tears, pervaded the memorial service and the brief reflections shared by friends and family who remembered Matt’s funny perspective on life, his practical jokes, confident nature and his zest for life.
Robert DiDomenico, Matt’s cousin, shared some “fun facts about Matt” written by Matt’s mother, Dee Dellaquila. The warm and interesting facts included how Matt, an avid reader from a very young age, would wake up his mom at 5:30 a.m. to read to him.
Robert personally remembers Matt for his spirit. “He had a boundless spirit like no one else and he did what he wanted,” Robert recalled.
The family also shared a letter written by John Burk, a longtime high school friend of Matt and a West Point graduate currently serving in the United States Army. Burk wrote about how Matt’s personal encouragement, his sense of humor and his hand on Burk’s shoulder, pushed Burk on in the pairs’ rigorous workouts for their high school wrestling team. Burk recalled that dedication while serving in Afghanistan.
“I was climbing a mountain in Afghanistan in late September 2015,” he began. “I swear to you on the brink of exhaustion I thought I couldn’t go another step – I thought of Matt and his arm around my shoulder doing the Irish Jig – prompting a smile on my face and the drive to finish the mission. He literally saved my life and the lives of my men that day. I will never forget that day.”
Matt’s love for reading inspired the family to inscribe a quote on the picnic bench, which now sits on the green near the flagpole at New Suffolk Beach. The J.K. Rowling quote attributed to the character Albus Dumbledore reads, “All to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
In addition to the bench, the overwhelming financial support of friends and family displayed in the crowdfunding enabled the Dellaquila family to purchase a large rock, which Matt’s mom affectionately describes as “the resting rock.”
With tears and a smile, Dee said that the rock sits beneath a flag pole on their property, just a few miles from the beach, as an invitation to Matt’s friends and anyone who just needs a place to sit and rest. Dee says, “And they use it too.
Sometimes Matt’s friends will just come and sit, even at one o’clock in the morning. We wanted it there to remind them of Matt, and as a place for all to come, to sit and rest.”
The final gift offered at the memorial in honor of Matt Dellaquila, was a very generous donation to CCI. The donation was accepted by local veteran Sam Cila, of Riverhead, on behalf of CCI. Sam was injured in combat in Iraq and lost most of his left arm. He is paired with CCI service dog, Jillian, who not only assists him with tasks of daily living but also helps Sam to motivate other wounded vets to move on with their healing through participation in sports and other life changing activities.
The Dellaquila family, dedicated to the mission of CCI to pair highly trained service dogs with people with disabilities, has been raising puppies for CCI for 20 years. They are currently raising a beautiful golden retriever, Wellington, who wooed and comforted the crowd with her smiling face, warm brown eyes and golden fur which waved in the beach breeze.
Towards the end of the service, Matt’s mother and his father, Frank and sister, Francesca, handed small velvet pouches which held tiny rocks adorned with a heart and Matthew’s name. Dee read a message from inside the pouch which read, “Free to keep me or exuberantly toss me into the sea. Always remember I am free, I will always be with Thee.” Then she invited the crowd to follow her to the ocean that Matt loved, to either toss the rock or keep it as a remembrance of Matt and his love for friends, his family and the Peconic Bay.
When I asked Dee what she loved best and missed the most about her son, she replied, “everything.”
And even while they miss everything about Matt, the Dellaquila family reaches out in compassion to transform the lives of others. They are honoring the memory of their vibrant son, Matthew, whose life was cut too short, by providing others with a place to rest on a rock or at the beach and by giving hope to people with disabilities.
The gift of compassion, motivated by grief, doesn’t take away the pain of losing our loved ones. But it does transform the struggle into a reason to go on and a motivation to help others who are in need.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.