How Could This Happen?. By Timna Sheffey | by Timna Sheffey | May, 2023

By Timna Sheffey

This will be different from my previous posts. While chronicling my grieving process, I have not allowed myself to “go there.” I have not allowed myself to express the questions and thoughts that have been plaguing me all this time when trying to understand why my youngest daughter died. This will be the only time (I hope) that I write about this. I don’t think it is healthy for me to focus on what is not factually known and what cannot be changed. I hope that by writing down these previously unexpressed thoughts I will be able to move forward instead of remaining in this unbearable limbo of doubts, regrets, questions, and ruminations. I hope too that this will serve as a comfort for parents who are grieving their children and a guide for parents who are raising children. This is not meant to scare parents but rather to inform, promote awareness, encourage questions, and take nothing for granted. Things are not always what they seem and sadly, clarity often comes too late. That being said, sometimes things happen that are beyond our control. Sometimes bad things just happen–yes, even to good people.

In three months my daughter, Orli, should be turning 21. She was the youngest of three sisters and she hated having to do and get everything last. She was always in such a hurry! She complained about having an August birthday. She was always the last of her friends to achieve milestones. The last to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, the last to get a driver’s license, the last to have the right to vote, and should have been the last to be able to get into a bar legally. Instead, she was the first to die. All those things that seemed so important and frustratingly far away to her are milestones I wish were still in her future. Instead,15 months ago my youngest daughter died.

When we were informed of her death (after accepting that it was not just some terrible mistake) we thought she was murdered. We really did. We thought foul play must have been involved. Nobody could believe she died. The shockwaves across her college campus, our community, her friends, and her teachers, among everyone who knew her, reverberated without respite and continue to this day. How was it possible? She was kind, popular, brilliant, beautiful, ambitious, tenacious, successful, resilient, strong, stubborn, determined, and resolute. She took it upon herself to right all wrongs and make things better for everyone. She had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met.

Yet, she was troubled. The pandemic had robbed her of many happy milestones and opportunities. At the beginning of her sophomore year in college, she suffered a traumatic brain injury, just when things were starting to feel more normal. She worked hard to heal and told us she was fully recovered. She not only got A’s and A+s on her first-semester report card but she had also taken leadership roles in the school newspaper, worked as a teaching assistant, was accepted into a mentoring program to help students in crisis, and was in leadership positions in Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. She seemed unstoppable!

But she was also vulnerable. Effects from her concussion affected her sleep and her mental health. Mental health services were insufficient and lacking on her campus (which I surmise is quite common across the country). Adults on the newspaper board pressured her to become Editor-in-Chief, despite her attempt to resign due to the toxic environment on the paper as well as the need for her to physically heal. She felt bullied and pressured (by adults) while in a fragile state. She had numerous health problems that she bore with such grace that no one knew how painful and difficult some of her days were. She didn’t want to worry her family or friends, she wasn’t able to say no to anyone who asked, and she didn’t know how to ask for help because our culture makes doing so a sign of weakness and failure.

We will never really know what happened in those early sleepless hours of February 11, 2022. The toxicology report showed a mixture of medications she was taking and had taken in the past, and some Ambien. None by themselves should have killed her, but an unfortunate combination and very bad luck caused an electrical shock to her heart that stopped it. Was it on purpose or was it an accident? Knowing how deliberate and precise she was in her actions, I think if she intended to die she would have taken a more substantial amount of meds to ensure the outcome.

Was it just a momentary impulse that caused her to swallow some pills in desperation for just a few hours of sleep? Does it matter? After all, whatever her intentions were, the dire result is still the same. I have lost her forever. It matters to me. It matters to me. I cannot bear the thought that she was so unhappy, so depressed, so ill, and still couldn’t come to me for help! It matters to me if she felt so alone that no one could help her or if she felt unable to ask for help. It matters to me to think that life had become so unbearable for her and nobody noticed. Not her parents, not her sisters, not her friends, not her teachers, not her doctors, no one. No one had a clue! One thing I do not doubt. She was a person who had a passion for life. She energized every room she entered. She had plans upon plans for the future. So many plans that she was always figuring out how to do them all. This is a person who did not plan to die. She had way too much to do and accomplish.

Some might say these ruminations are unhealthy. That they provide no answers, no comfort, and that they are impeding my healing process. This is my process and this is what I must do. I cannot rest until I figure out for myself that I had done everything that I could do. That she knew that I loved her unconditionally. That nothing she could do would change that. That I loved her despite her accomplishments. I wish she had said to me, “Mom this is too much. I’m so tired. I can’t sleep. Everyone wants everything from me and I have nothing left to give.” She had so much to give by just being herself. She was loved for who she was inside, her way of making everyone she touched feel special and important. That is a gift that not many people have.

While most of my writing is a process of self-examination to help me understand what I’m feeling, I’ve come to some other insights that may be of value to parents of college-age children. College today is not the same as the colleges we went to. Our children today are facing unprecedented pressures. They have lived through three years of a pandemic (that will probably always remain to some extent) that turned their lives upside down. They have lost important opportunities to socialize and learn basic skills and social interactions. They have lived months and for some years seeing life pass through Zoom. They have seen the horrors of school shootings and massacres leaving them feeling unsafe and on edge. They have witnessed democracy at risk and they cannot anymore be sure that their inalienable rights are inalienable anymore. They have lost their innocence and many have lost hope for the future in the face of an increasingly cruel world. We might comfort ourselves that our kids are too self-absorbed to see or care about what is happening in our society. Or that they are resilient enough to survive. But they see, they feel, they care, and they worry.

I remember college as one of the best times of my life. It was a time to explore interests, make friends, enjoy new freedoms, learn responsibility, and make choices. Today, college is just another stepping stone in building that ever-important resume. It doesn’t start at college. It starts in middle school and sometimes even earlier. Middle school grades and testing decide what track in high school they are in. These tracks decide what AP classes they can take. Everything is calculated and decided not out of curiosity or interest, but what will look good on a college application. Clubs and teams are joined or created to show colleges leadership skills and commitment. ACTs, SATs, GPAs, essays, grades, tutors, etc. are the focus. Not the building of friendships, not expanding the mindset, not taking chances, not daring to fail, not just having fun. Failure is no longer an option. Internships are chosen based on what will most likely help find a job after college or look good on graduate school applications. And on and on. These poor kids are like mice on a wheel. Running, running, running, so fast and getting nowhere.

Western culture is mainly to blame. Our society values achievement and money. Success is not about fulfillment but about money and stature. This individualistic mentality tends to prevent social cohesion and promotes inequality. To be best someone has to be worst. To win, others have to lose. This never-ending quest for more means others will have less, thus risking community, relationships, and our environment. Of course, I’m painting this stark ugly picture to make a point. I’m not saying that it is always this way, or that it has to be this way. But it happens often enough that it degrades our worldview, quashes our true ambitions, and leaves us unsatisfied and always wanting more. Even though most of us raise our children with good values and encourage them to dream and find their bliss, they are not inured to societal pressures, stigmas, labels, and expectations. And as toxic as all this is, is it reasonable for us to ask or demand that our kids drop out or be the only ones who don’t care? As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote, “A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.” And so it goes.

We as parents must work doubly hard to convey to our children what is of value, what is important, and what is meaningful. This can seem futile when society is constantly telling them to do more, work harder, think bigger, never stop, and never be satisfied with what they have. Social media presents them with a plastic imaginary world that does not exist. We do the best we can, we try to model a positive mindset, and we make mistakes, many small some big, but we love our kids with all our hearts, with our entire beings. All our hopes and dreams go towards our children, and maybe that is a pressure for them too. We can’t see the future. What some kids can handle and take in stride will crush others. We are complex beings. There is no cookie-cutter recipe for being a good parent. We can only do the best we can, love them fully and unconditionally, and accept them for who they are. In most cases, that’s enough, in others, it is not.

I do wish I had sent her a letter (though I would not write quite as eloquently) like the one Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to his daughter Ellen in 1854:

Finish every day and be done with it. For manners and for wise living it is a vice to remember. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered by your old nonsense. This day, for all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.

I wish she could have left those “rotten” days behind. I wished so many things for her. I will never be able to leave “yesterday” behind now. My daughter was still alive then. But I hope I can move forward with what I have learned and continue her work of making a meaningful difference.

When tragedy strikes people say hug your children tighter and tell them you love them. I hate when I see posts on social media (yes, I’ve seen them) where people take that as the “lesson” from Orli’s death–because my husband and I did that. Not a day went by that we didn’t tell our girls we loved them and were proud of them. My husband would text Orli every night and tell her “I love you”; the last time she texted back, “I love you too”, was the night before she died. Orli knew she was loved not just by her family but by all her many friends. She knew she made a difference because she saw in real-time all the people who benefitted from her actions. Maybe it just got to be too much, maybe the burden of so many suffering people overwhelmed her, or maybe she was just very tired. We will never know exactly what led to her death, and we will never know what she was thinking. She never told us. Or anyone.

But at least I know there was not much else I could have done differently based on what I knew at the time. I couldn’t possibly love her more, support her more, cherish her more. Something terrible happened to her and our family. No one could have predicted it and a very bad chain of events led to unforeseen tragedy. This is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life. Some days are easier than others. Some days are very bad. But sharing my thoughts and feelings has helped me recognize that there is nothing left for me to do now other than heal myself and learn to live with this terrible loss, and to accept emotionally what I accept rationally: It was not my fault.

I hope that I will spend August 14, Orli’s birthday, remembering the amazing child I raised and how much she inspired me and others. I hope instead of tears, though they will come, I will also remember the joy she brought us. I hope I will look through all the pictures and celebrate her magnificent life. A life that was too brief but so worthy, so worthwhile. I hope I will stop the wondering, the what ifs the should’ves, and could’ves, and remember what really was. It was special. It was important. It was beautiful. I’m so lucky I got to be part of it. How could it happen? I will never know. What matters is that for 19 and one-half years I had her in my life.

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