Bitter-sweet chronicle of a father’s grief

Special to the CJN

This first thing you notice about Stacey’s room is how warm it is.

The walls are off-white with soft, blue stripes. The shelves are full of books and photos of her with her friends, in frames.

The blown-up pictures on the walls and the bulletin board are framed and everything about them is joyful.

And then her father, Ned Levitt, points out the boxes filled with her clothes and remembers the day his wife told him that Stacey’s clothes didn’t smell of her any more.

This is the effect of Ned Levitt’s story, which he has chronicled in his book No Mountain Too High (ECW Press, 2004): it is at once bitter and sweet. Bitter as he looks at the last nine years of his life since his 18-year-old daughter was killed when she was hit by a car, and recounts the trauma and devastation he and his family felt.

Sweet as he incredulously speaks of the joy he now experiences helping other people who are similarly affected by grief. A joy, he says, he couldn’t even conceive of when his daughter was alive.

“I was a good person before Stacey died,” Levitt says. “Family was always highest on my priority list. But I did not connect with people the way I do now. I didn’t know the unbelievable joy of helping people. I had to bring meaning to the loss. I’ve been all about making sure her death wasn’t meaningless.”

He says that determination was part of what fuelled him to write his book, subtitled A father’s inspiring journey through grief. A lawyer by profession, he is both soft-spoken and animated when he talks about his daughter and his experience. He speaks of the writing process being therapeutic and, as an aside, adds that he wanted to create something as a legacy for his future grandchildren so that they will know about their aunt.

But more than that, after experiencing the death of a child and working as a volunteer bereavement counsellor for eight years with Bereaved Families of Ontario and then Bereaved Jewish Families, Levitt says he has developed some really strong feelings about dealing with devastation.

“I wanted to tell the world my strong beliefs, my philosophies, and show how some people can rise above the crush.”

No Mountain Too High follows Levitt from the moment he found out about his daughter’s death, to dealing with the immediate shock, to the painful months that followed. Levitt also shows how the memorials he and his family chose to commemorate Stacey’s life have helped him deal with the tragedy.

The family had her poetry published in a book titled I Am a Rose through a self-publisher (it is available now through ECW Press), and gave copies of the book to people who made donations to the fund they had set up in her name.

A year after her death, Levitt decided to climb Mt. Ixta in Mexico, a climb Stacey had attempted but was not able to complete because of bad weather. Levitt not only completed the climb, but also placed a fiberglass box on the mountain, which contained her poetry and a blank journal in which others could write messages. His climb was filmed and made into a documentary which aired in 1999 on CBC Newsworld and Vision TV.

All of this, Levitt says, was part of his own healing process.

“I am an extrovert. I have been from the day I was born…. You grieve as individuals, but there are recognized patterns. Men tend to throw themselves into activities. Women are more likely to talk it out. The contact with others, the doing, the climbing the mountain, these are very male things to do.”

Grieving, Levitt says, is like being on a wave. There are times when parents crash, pull themselves up, and then crash again.

“You are continually being wounded for months on end,” Levitt says. “Not less wounded, more wounded. You believe that you will never be well.”

Levitt says it was a five to seven year process before he began “investing in life again.” He credits his wife and his other two daughters for giving him the freedom to grieve as he felt he needed to.

“It’s wonderful to be a parent again. My daughters lost me for a while.”

One of the key points people need to recognize when a parent loses a child, Levitt says, is that parents need to heal before they can be effective parents again. This is something he stresses through his work with Bereaved Jewish Families.

“If you were injured like this physically, you would be in intensive care. But this is an emotional crush. [At Bereaved Jewish Families] we give parents permission to do, or not do, all kinds of things. To get off the parenting wheel so they can get healthy again. It’s like the oxygen mask on the airplane. They always say you put it on yourself first and then your child. This is not a time to be heroic.”

Time has helped, Levitt says. Whereas there was a time he felt he would never feel well, he says he no longer walks around in pain.

“I’ve cried my river, my ocean. It isn’t pain anymore, but that’s hard for people to understand. You know you are carrying around a burden. A momentary ache. But you do get better.”

The book has garnered a lot of media attention, including radio interviews with CBC and a guest spot on the Vicky Gabreau Show. Levitt says he hopes to continue doing public speaking and helping others through his experience. His book is another way he can reach out to people who are grieving and need help.

“If I had an aspiration with the book, it will thrill me if people see it for something to be helpful in any situation, if they see it as a book about life. Trauma, death, pain – they teach you about life. You can’t appreciate fresh air until you have struggled to breathe.”

He pauses and then adds he wants people to recognize that healing is a journey, not a destination. And it is possible to discover joy which outweighs pain.

“I don’t know how I’d be now if Stacey had lived. But I suspect I have more purpose in life than most people my age.”

Ned Levitt will be speaking at Temple Sinai, Nov. 23 at 8 p.m. on the topic “The Power of Memorials When Coping with Loss.”

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