A Path Forward

A Path Forward
Ian Sandler

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” Thomas Campbell   

The night I learned my father, Julian, was dying is vividly seared in my memory. It was during the darkest days of the Great Recession. As it turned out, his unbearable indigestion was Stage four stomach cancer. He was given a few months to live. I broke down that evening.

My Dad arrived in America with nothing but a great accent and an even better mind. He was warm and kind to everyone he met. My father taught my brother and me to show up for people when it mattered. Dad loved a good party but never missed a funeral. Dad was always doing too many things and would sometimes forget basic necessities. He was driving to the airport one time to catch a plane to Houston to attend a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah and his car ran out of gas. While walking to a gas station, he was hit by a car. After spending a night in a hospital to be treated for a broken left arm and other injuries, Dad got on the next plane to Houston and made it in time for the Bar Mitzvah.

Julian was a kind business leader in a world where kindness isn’t always the lauded, celebrated trait. But my Dad didn’t care. He put principle over power. During his lifetime, he received a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics in less than three years and then built a half-dozen computer and technology-enabled businesses, selling the last one for much less than the top offer to ensure no jobs were lost and to partner with a new friend. That was just who Dad was.

It was my wife Mackenzie who rescued me that evening. “Cry it out but then get it together. You can spend your entire life in that hole if you let yourself. This is not what your Dad would want.” I had to find a way forward.

While he taught me many things, Dad saved his best lesson for last. He gave us a list of people he wished to see as he was transitioning from this life. For one hour each day, he was his old self, smiling, laughing, telling jokes, giving stock tips, and sharing sage advice. When the hour was done and his friends were gone, he’d slump back into his bed in excruciating pain, a struggle he was unable to hide from me. He did this each day until every name was off his list and then he removed his feeding tube. Dad taught me what kindness looked like in even the direst of circumstances.

I thought my Dad’s passing was my ultimate test, but then there was Riley.

Riley was our firstborn. She reminded me of my Dad in a myriad of ways. As a bubbly six-year-old, she encouraged her new school head to always wear a smile on his face. She took her own advice, too. It’s almost impossible to find a picture of her without a smile. Riley was a true friend with a kind heart; she loved meeting and connecting with people. We witnessed this loving spirit on visiting day during her first year of sleep-away camp.

As we were leaving, we turned and watched Riley comforting two homesick friends.

We never imagined…

The following words were written by her bunkmates on a scrap of paper stashed inside Riley’s duffel bag. She was supposed to open it when she got home.

You are always one of the girls who included everyone in your games and never had only one best friend. I like that you are always nice to people even if they aren’t nice to you. You are always happy and such a kind and amazing girl. You are an awesome friend to everyone. I love that you are always comforting your friends. You always try to include as many people as possible. 

Life changes in the blink of an eye.

I will never forget: the phone ringing in the middle of the night…the kind Uber driver, a fellow parent, speeding the entire four hours so I could make it up to the hospital…the agony of having to tell my wife, Mackenzie, who was traveling just hours behind me, the news of Riley’s passing…how beautiful my baby girl looked, as she was kept breathing by machines.

Attitude is a choice. The easiest thing in the world would have been to crawl deeper into the hole I found myself in yet again, five years after I had to say goodbye to my Dad.

This time there was no goodbye and the hole seemed miles deeper. However, wallowing in self-pity would’ve been antithetical to the way my Dad and Riley lived.

With time, I began to learn that there was a lesson for me amid my sorrow.

Riley’s Way was born out of indescribable pain, as a love letter to our magical nine-year-old girl. Our nonprofit connects young leaders from across the nation who are leading in their communities through the lens of kindness and empathy—values that Riley exhibited often in her short yet profound and meaningful life.

A paradox in loss is that you come out of the haze with a different lens on the world.

In my prior existence, I chased extrinsic rewards. My ongoing healing process has involved tremendous amounts of self-reflection and a desire to honor Riley, by building a youth-led kindness movement focused on what she loved most—forging meaningful connections among her friends. Through this work, I have been able to find a sense of purpose, my superpower, by shifting toward intrinsic rewards.

We have made such an impact in supporting emerging kind leaders at Riley’s Way, but our youth leaders and our entire community have had an even bigger impact on me.

I’ve been blessed to see and feel the magic that exudes from connecting and encouraging our amazing young leaders. I have learned what it means to be present—and incorporate kindness in everything we do at Riley’s Way. These young leaders have taught me, by their fearlessness, how to stop worrying incessantly and embrace the moment. By sharing our own experiences, trials, and triumphs, they have taught me by example to live and lead with kindness. Where once I only felt pain and self-pity, I now find joy watching Riley’s friends, whom she loved so dearly, leading our group networking meetings or watching my friends’ children flourish as young leaders in our community.

I am forever indebted to all those who continue to bestow my family with the gift of hearing Riley’s name spoken and seeing her spirit carried forward in the movement for kindness, empathy, and connection-making that we are building at Riley’s Way. While I always loved my friends, many of whom I have known since childhood, I now realize that our relationship is different, deeper, and more meaningful. Riley has managed to make us all closer, more connected.

The more you love, the more it hurts. Grief is life-shattering and can destroy you if given power. Your departed loved ones would never want this. While there is no panacea for this life-altering type of pain, my hope for anyone struggling with the loss of a loved one is to channel your pain by finding meaningful ways to honor those gone too soon. Carry your loved ones in your heart and celebrate them each day by finding ways to shine brightly in their honor. If nothing else, start by making it impossible, as Riley did, to find a picture of you where there isn’t a smile on your face—it can be the soothing balm for the loved ones you will someday leave behind.

“We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the worldthe company of those who have known suffering.” Helen Keller