1 Year. 1 Month. 1 Day... Ten Years Later
It’s been TEN YEARS…
Sometimes I can’t even wrap my head around all that has happened, even just in my own family life since 2011: We moved from Rockville to Clarksburg, Maryland. We had our third baby, Mason… moved to Smithfield, Virginia. We started new jobs… moved to Suffolk, Virginia. Renewed our marriage vows. Had our fourth baby, Evelyn. Made new, lifelong friends. Wrote SIX books (that's on Adrian). Changed careers. Travelled extensively. Moved to Tennessee. Started a podcast with two of the best girlfriends ever.
These are the high notes. It feels like it has been a long ten years full of incredibly wonderful blessings, that in many ways feel like have passed in the blink of an eye.
As our lives have changed so much over the past decade, I realize that there are so many new friends that know very little about the significance of September 17, 2011.
Because on that September day, ten years ago, a careless and negligent driver killed my baby niece, Olivia Anne Hellwig, in a crosswalk at a little league field in Georgia.
She was 1 Year, 1 Month, and 1 Day old.
My sister and brother-in-law had their four kids at a ball game; Brooke had taken Olivia in her stroller back to the car to grab a sippy cup. She looked both ways and walked into the crosswalk. For some reason a car that had already passed decided to reverse—quickly and obviously with no regard for pedestrians—hitting my sister and niece, knocking the stroller over and sending Brooke flying in the other direction.
Brooke could hear Liv cry—she was crying for mama. And she was alive. As Brooke struggled to get up off the ground with a hundred cuts and bruises and a broken ankle, dragging herself to get to Olivia, she watched as the driver reversed over the stroller and then pulled forward again, crushing her, silencing her sweet little voice forever.
My sister and brother-in-law. My surviving niece and nephews. My parents. My grandparents. Our extended family. The paramedics. The ER doctors. The witnesses. The coaches. The other parents. The kids. So many lives touched and destroyed in an instant of bad decisions by a careless driver, a fellow mom, who would never even get out of her minivan to render aid.
One Year. One Month. One Day. That’s how old she was.
Ten Years. That’s how long it’s been.
No one's grief comes close to that of a parent, or a grandparent, but I personally spent a lot of years very angry, very helpless, very guilty—guilty that my parents were in DC with us when she died. Guilty that my own kids were healthy and alive. Guilty that we couldn’t be there instantly when Brooke needed us the most. For me, the guilt eventually turned to anger, and the anger turned to desperate sadness, and the sadness gave way to extreme, and in some cases utterly debilitating, anxiety. Experiencing tragedy like this is hard enough, but an equally brutal reality is the realization that absolutely nothing keeps it from happening to you again. Enter, anxiety.
As a family, we’ve been privy to some of the worst moments life has to offer; if not experiencing them firsthand, watching those you love wade through uncharted waters of desperate sadness and repetitive refrains of 'what if.' We’ve been through grief therapy, we’ve been through exposure therapy, we’ve been in marriage therapy, we’ve had our kids in play therapy. You name it, we’ve tried it. There aren’t words enough to talk about it fully sometimes—yet we don't want people to think that her death is taboo, it’s not something that should be whispered about or glossed over—it’s a piece of her very short story. Olivia is part of us, part of my sister and brother-in-law’s legacy, and it’s important to keep her flame alive, to remind people of how fleeting life is; how quickly it can all change.
That was her final gift to us: Awareness. Presence.
As you can tell from the list of positives I led with, I also am privy to the daily gratitude and immeasurable blessings that have been bestowed upon our family, and they are never--even in my own moments of frustration and being overwhelmed in the abyss of parenting--lost on me. Grief gives each person a special pair of glasses… I treasure my children in a way that, sadly, most people can’t quite understand—I have these four beautiful children, yet at the same time I’m hyper aware that that could change in an instant for absolutely any one of us. I often wonder what it would be like to wade through the waters of parenthood blessedly oblivious to that thin line between life and death.
Over the past ten years, I have never stopped being an advocate for parking lot safety. And although these next thoughts have nothing to do with the circumstances surrounding Liv’s death, I never, ever want another parent or family member to experience what our family did on that day in 2011. You head to the ballfields for a game as a family doing everything right, and come home with one less child all because of someone else’s carelessness.
I see parents “doing the parking lot thing wrong” all the time and I hardly ever stop to talk to them, because honestly telling Liv’s story is just too heavy for me sometimes. But if sharing can help one mom, then I owe it to her to talk about it more often. So if you’re reading this, I hope you can use my words as an opportunity to share with other moms a few points that, although not connected to Liv’s death, are things I’ve learned through the years as I’ve worked through my own parking lot anxiety …
1) STOP hugging the backs of cars in the parking lot. Walk down the MIDDLE of the aisle. Drivers often begin to back up, even a milli-second, without looking up into their rearview mirrors or cameras. Cars driving down the center of a parking lot aisle have a far greater chance of seeing you and stopping.
2) Remember that strollers behind cars are low, so are toddlers walking next to, or God forbid, in front of or behind their parents. Drivers looking and doing everything correctly might even actually see YOU and completely miss your child.
3) Your groceries can wait. Say that with me: Your. Groceries. Can. Wait. The number of parents that I see in grocery store or Target parking lots with their children in the carts as they pack their cars full of bags is crazy. Put your child in the car FIRST. Secure them FIRST—carts can roll away, drivers can clip them. They're not safe.
So moms, tonight give your babies an extra hug and kiss. Read them a second book. Snuggle with them a little while longer. Rock them to sleep. Memorize their faces, their sounds, their smells. Say yes--yes to more time in your bed, yes to ice cream after dinner, yes to staying up later with you. And tomorrow, pay forward an act of kindness to someone in memory of Olivia.
Rest in Peace, our beautiful Guardian Angel.