11 Aug Life After Loss: Creating Meaning
By Dahlia Guttman, In memory of my daughter Ronnie Joy Hollander (9/27/17 – 1/13/20)
January 13th, 2020 was the day life ended. Or life as we knew it. Like the year zero in the Gregorian calendar. There is only life before and life after. We were a happy family of five. Myself, my husband Michael and our three young children; Ari age 7.5, Lielle just shy of her 5th birthday, and Ronnie, 2 years, 3 months of age. Ronnie died suddenly and unexpectedly at home, with me, on a cold winter morning. She was awake. We played, she ate, I stepped out to grab something and came back to… essentially nothing. That was the day all our lives stopped. Yet, as much as I willed it, time didn’t stand still. Life continued to move forward. All we could do was rebuild once again. I am a physician. I work in acute hospital and outpatient primary care settings. I could imagine a handful of reasons a healthy toddler could die suddenly and unexpectedly, but never did I know such a thing as SUDC existed, that there was a whole world of children who fell under the same umbrella as Ronnie. Unexplained. Why had I never heard of this? Why had so many of my pediatric colleagues never heard of this either? Why did finding the SUDC foundation have to be on my family’s own accord? And ultimately, why is family support after child loss so poor even among professionals? Was it the lack of knowledge? Lack of resources? Lack of funding? Lack of interest in this less than trendy form of support?
As any SUDC parent knows all too well, I was left again with so many questions and so few answers. But, in time… and I promise it took time, I was ready to take action. I could not be stuck in the endless circle of why. Why did Ronnie die, why me, why us… I needed to create meaning FROM the loss. I will admit my main drive was a selfish one; I wanted to create a legacy for Ronnie, to continue her name and her memory for myself, for my family, for my community and most importantly for my living children who are today ages 11, 8 and 2. Our newest baby girl Levana was born in June 2021, almost 17 months after Ronnie died.
To name a few of our greatest achievements, we’ve established a foundation in Ronnie’s name and memory, Ronnie’s Joy Foundation, whose mission is to bring joy and smiles to sick children, support bereaved families, and raise awareness and advocacy for SUDC. With money raised in Ronnie’s name, we successfully helped fund the pet therapy program at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, adding a second therapy dog to reach more patients, including outpatient clinics such as the hematology-oncology and autism clinics which were out of reach for the previous only inpatient service. Pet therapy was chosen specifically because Ronnie had such a deep love and innate bond with animals. Given my medical background, I reached out to colleagues expressing my interest in raising awareness about SUDC among the pediatric community. I am forever thankful for their willingness to give me the time and platform to do so and, in conjunction with the SUDC foundation, I delivered Grand Rounds at the Montreal Children’s Hospital in February 2022. The newest project underway fulfills the third piece of our foundation mission. Ronnie’s Joy Foundation has spearheaded the creation of the “caring for grieving families” bereavement service at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. While I am aware that it was likely my connections and medical degree that gave me the respect and confidence to voice my opinion on the lack of family direction and support after a child’s death at the hospital and illicit the flaws in the current system, I am continuously thankful that my thoughts and feelings were recognized and validated by the Montreal Children’s Hospital staff and foundation members. It took 2.5 years; but, the hospital is now in the early stages of designing a dedicated bereavement support program with an infrastructure that will hopefully be built to last a lifetime.
I, like many of you, still feel like I’m at the beginning of my journey. That 3.5 years in, I still have a lifetime of “life after loss” to go. I am by no means a philanthropist, a fundraiser or an outgoing people’s person; but, as a parent, I can and will do anything for my child. While Ronnie is no longer here in the present, I am still her parent and, as such, I will continue to parent her in the only way I now know how. By carrying her name and memory along with us, by not leaving her in the past and by generating something positive from our terrible loss. Despite the tears, the persistence and the endless energy invested, energy, I have so little of at times, I need to take my pain and cultivate meaning for myself and my family in order to still see a life worth living. Be kind. Be patient. Be present in the ups and downs. You are your own and your child’s best advocate.