I signed up for my first fundraising walk five months after my mom, Joanie, died. I had never participated in an event like that before. I felt nervous, but confident it was something I needed to do. When my mom died, I felt like a shadow of my old self, walking around in a life that was no longer familiar to me. My mom had struggled for years with alcoholism and mental illness and ended up taking her own life on July 19, 2011. I was shocked by her death and by my new knowledge of the statistics surrounding suicide. Signing up to participate in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk was my way of honoring my mom and making sense of her suicide. What I didn’t know was signing up in my first charity walk would ignite my most sacred ritual connected with my mom. That ritual is service.
The first year I participated in the Out of the Darkness Walk, I created a group called Mom Squad dedicated to inspiring those who had lost mothers to suicide to unite together and be a positive force in the world. The most surprising thing I learned from Mom Squad was that my role as founder was actually quite simple. All I had to do was introduce some people who had similar stories and watch the magic happen. Originally I saw this group of motherless adults as victims, but I quickly learned they are actually full of strength, humanity and empathy. They wanted to help others by telling their stories. Almost every email or phone call I received from a new “Mom Squader” began with “how can I help?”
This revelation is what inspired me to take my ritual of service and expand it to help many others, through what we're calling Hope After. We create community service experiences on or around the birthday or anniversary of someone who has died, helping families feel connected to their deceased loved one while doing something productive in their own lives. This gives them hope for the life they must continue to live in without the person they love.
Community service is the only way my mom’s death makes sense to me. My mother’s life was complicated and our relationship was often very confusing for me, but one thing I know for sure is that she taught me the importance of helping others whenever you have the chance. My mother took in our neighbors when their house burned down. She was a pediatric nurse practitioner who adored children and was known for taking calls from concerned parents at all hours of the day. This year, on the second anniversary of her death, I went and painted an elementary school with a group of volunteers. The experience took me out of my own grief and made me think of others. I knew with certainty that I would not be standing at that elementary school painting if my mom hadn’t died. And although that doesn’t ease the pain of her suicide completely it helps my world make a little more sense. I believe that grief is a very powerful energy that, after some time has gone by and the heart is getting stronger, can be harnessed to create something really beautiful in the world. I’ll continue my ritual of community service in memory of my mom, to honor her legacy of giving to others and to create a legacy of my own.
Jennifer White is the founder of Hope After Project, a program that creates community service experiences in memory of extraordinary people who have died. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband, two cats and dog.
Interested in setting up your own community service project or learning more? Email Jennifer at HopeAfterProject@gmail.com.