When Charlie died, we made the choice to celebrate him. While we had a small memorial for immediate family in our church’s chapel, it was so important for us that his friends had the opportunity to grieve for him in an age-appropriate way. No child should have to experience death at the age Charlie’s friends were exposed to it. But they were and it was our feeling that instead of hiding death, the sadness and all the questions that would come with such a traumatic experience, it would be healthier for families to have an avenue to embrace it with honesty in a way that made sense for these kiddos. So the day after the memorial service, we had a Celebration of Life to honor Charlie.
I remember waking up on the day of Charlie’s Celebration of Life with a pit in my stomach, different from the one on the days prior. I knew the stomach pain of not having eaten a meal since his death and the nausea of being in a state of disbelief that Charlie was actually gone. But this was fear, worry… That no one would come. What parent wouldn’t want to protect their child from death? I thought of all of the people Charlie loved, their parents, teachers, classmates. Would they know that this was a day of love for Charlie and for their own little people?
But when I walked down the street to the field outside our neighborhood community space, I was blown away… blown away by the children, the families and the laughter I heard. There were bounce houses, face painting, crafts. People were eating Krispy Kreme donuts, pancakes and cupcakes… Charlie’s favorite foods. There was music playing as Charlie’s classmates ran around. And hugs, lots and lots of hugs. We were all there together, all there to celebrate Charlie.
As I looked back on Charlie’s Celebration of Life, I knew I could not have organized that day without my people, my community. In fact, I didn’t do anything. I just said what I wanted and needed for our family and for Charlie. Our neighbors, family, preschool, and colleagues planned and executed the event. And it was beautiful.
That day was just one example of the community that has surrounded our family since Charlie died. Our neighbors, family, friends, and even people we did not know, lifted us up and continued to do so for several months after that. Charlie’s death was a trauma, an unexpected jolt in our life and we had no choice but to face it. But we did not face it alone. We did not struggle alone. Our people let us cry on their shoulders, brought us meals and cared for us when we could not care for ourselves.
Not everyone has that kind of network, the support of a community, family, and friends that can intervene when life circumstances and crisis attempt to dismantle you. That is one of the many reasons we started Charlie’s Heart Foundation. We wanted to support nonprofits who are working directly with families to be that community for them, that friend who encourages them to get out of bed and put one step in front of the other when all feels lost.
Out of the beautiful celebration of Charlie’s life came Charlie’s Carnival. The event is a celebration of family and our desire to keep the family unit strong even in the face of turmoil and crisis. We saw how our community surrounded and supported us when our world was in a tailspin and we want to do that for others, those that face circumstances we can never imagine. Charlie’s carnival is a day for fun, laughter, and play with our own families; while raising funds to support families whose futures are in jeopardy.
Each year at Charlie’s Carnival, I am reminded of how strong the bond of family can be. I see children jumping on bounce houses, riding the trackless train and playing carnival games. Then I look around them and hear their parents, siblings or extended family members encouraging them to be and do their best because that is what family does. That is what I hope for Charlie’s Heart Foundation. That we can be that encouragement, that support, for families just as our community was for us.