In 2005, I wrote about Sue Wintz, a hospital chaplain whose 17-year-old daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Wintz, was killed in a Phoenix car accident on Dec. 2, 2003. Almost nine years later, she asked me to share how she has survived and thrived after such a horrendous loss.
“We name our blessings.”
Nine years later, Sue still longs for her daughter and while she still has moments of deep sadness, she has “learned to grieve mindfully, to incorporate my new relationship with Sarah into how I see the world, and to embrace the newness and joy of each day. I am blessed.”
Amazing things have happened since the accident. Sarah’s boyfriend, Brian Northrup, survived “life-altering injuries” and graduated from college. He found work as a software developer manager and the Wintzes call him “the son of our heart.”
Their son, Matt, finished college and graduate school. At his recent wedding, he and wife Amelia designed a special vase with Sarah’s picture. Prior to the processional, roses were placed in the vase in a touching way that added to the importance of her brother’s day.
Sarah also has a namesake. Karl Tilleman witnessed the accident, holding Sarah’s hand and praying as she died. He promised Sarah he would look after her family. In 2004, he and wife Holly named their daughter Sarah Elizabeth.
“We survive with meaningful rituals.”
Every Dec. 2, family friends light a candle and say Sarah’s name aloud. Additionally, the Wintzes hang Sarah’s Christmas stocking.
On Sara’s birthday, the Wintzes encourage people to make a donation equal to the age she would have been. This year, friends donated $26.
The Wintzes participate in the International Kindness Project Day where bereaved parents do a random act of kindness in memory of their child.
“We share our lessons with others.”
“People argue against making quick changes when you’re grieving,” Sue says, “but don’t listen to well-meaning advice. Discuss with close friends, but listen to your heart.”
Sue warns grieving parents that “some people will treat you as if grief is contagious. They will avoid you in belief that if it happened to you, it might happen to them. Let those people go,” she says. “Don’t try to measure up to their expectations.”
As a chaplain, Sue knows support groups can be invaluable, but she advises people to research the group first. “Go with an open mind, but if you leave feeling worse than when you came, try another group.”
Sue was warned that bereaved couples will often divorce. “That’s a myth,” she counters. “Men and women grieve differently. A strong marriage recognizes those differences and keeps communication open, allowing each spouse to grieve individually as well as collectively.” Sue and husband Mike will celebrate their 31st anniversary next month.
To those who support grieving parents:
“No matter how long it’s been since a child’s death, share your memories with their parents,” Sue says. “Don’t be afraid to say their name. There’s a saying, ‘Mentioning my child’s name may make me cry. Not mentioning my child’s name will break my heart.’ ”
Don’t push people to move on. A year after Sarah’s death, Sue’s supervisor told her to move on and that the honeymoon was over.
There is no moving on from the death of a child. “You learn to live with it, but you are changed forever by it,” says Sue. “Sarah is still very much in my heart and I miss her with every breath I take.”