by John “Hans” Gilderbloom
Every year, Compassionate Friends puts down bricks to remember friends and family members who have had their lives tragically shortened. It is a very powerful approach to healing the heart but the scars on the heart are forever. The theme of the garden is: ‘you do not walk alone’. Many others in our community have experienced the same loss and fate with losing a loved one too soon. This year about 150 people helped placed 42 bricks to remember a son or daughter, friend or worker.
The Butterfly Garden will not bring back our children, but it might save the lives of others who visit. The death of a loved one does not mean that your life is over, wasted, or destroyed. As Saint Francis Assisi said, “Stop worrying about whether you are good enough and stop worrying about what others think whether you are good or not.” Back away from negative energy and grasp the gestalt of early death that is caused by multiple choices, chances and circumstances. You are not to blame. You are not alone in your grief and loss as the Butterfly Garden shows. You can bounce back and live a full life while caring the pain of loss. The Butterfly Garden’s healing power helps so many of us courageously choose “life” over death.
Our own Kentucky-born President, Abraham Lincoln, once said that losing his son created more sadness, hurt and pain than any other event in his life. I know that pain so well. The day after Mother’s Day at 3:28 a.m. in 2011, I was awakened by ferocious banging and knocking on my door. It was scary. It was the police. My son, Max, had died from a gunshot to his head—the gun was sold illegally from a pawn shop. The next few months and years were a mixture of disbelief, shock, terror and horror.
I never dreamed this could happen to me: my wife and I were loving parents with good values of health, work, spiritualism, and education. The grief and sadness for us was beyond what any human could ever imagine Despite all of our efforts to support her, Max’s mother committed suicide 16 months later. She could not stand the pain or the blame that was needlessly put upon her. Patty often said: “I died the moment Max died.” But in truth what really caused Patty to check out was strangers and friends who somehow wanted to put the “blame game” on her lifestyle, parenting and values. For a year and half I held her hand, to tell her to stop the “what ifs.” Losing a child rips apart families and we need to be more caring, kind and sensitive to those parents, brothers and sisters. 90% of marriages end, spouses get sick and still others take their life hoping to end the pain. Perhaps I was a little tougher because I lost my best childhood friend and Mother while going to college.
When we lose a child we needlessly beat ourselves up. Why me? Why me, God? What could I have done differently? The odds feel like a million to one that this could happen. Yet the truth is we lose hundreds of thousands of our children every year for various reasons: choices, chance and circumstances.
For me the best prescription was not a pill, vacation, church, or a doctor but visiting this beautiful garden of renewal. Louisville’s Butterfly Garden, right outside to the east of the Zoo, was lovingly designed to tell mourners that they are not alone in their grief. When I first came to the garden, it was a powerful epiphany: I realized this happens to many other good parents. The hundreds of bricks placed carefully around the garden made me feel less freakish and ashamed.
The tragedy of loss happens to people in all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, carpenters, waiters, soldiers, teachers, nurses, janitors, painters, poets, Ambassadors, elected officials, and even a Baptist Minister whose son is on on the Butterfly bricks.
This garden helps mourners to rekindle their lives and to move the blame game away from the voices of despair, anger and hopelessness. The Butterfly Garden is not for the dead but a message to families to move forward.
Art can heal. Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. is widely acknowledged as the most powerful example of healing for its ability to repair broken families and a nation.
We wanted to contribute to building in this memorial a mixed media stone butterfly. The butterfly is known for being transformative and it symbolizes the renewal of life. Our family worked with MarJi Ryan, one of Louisville’s finest public mural artists whose work is spread around the city celebrating life over death, Compassionate Friends; and the Louisville Zoo to build this memorial. It is a Louisville original, unique and spellbinding. Many people have donated and designed the Butterfly Garden (including the Arts and Sciences and Urban Planning Program at University of Louisville, Patty and Max Gilderbloom estate, Coral Turk-Davis).
We pulled large stones out of a mosquito infested local creek and arranged them in the shape of a butterfly. We split rock that revealed clear crystals with a touch of white and gold, much like a butterfly. The hands of local children were used to help place the rock crystals in the wings. In the Spring, colorful Dutch Tulips are in in full bloom.
Its symbolism is powerful. Its power of persuasion makes MarJi Ryan’s art stand as one of Louisville’s great art pieces because it touches hearts and minds.
It is also strategically placed next to the zoo where so many of our children have had happy times. Even more powerful, the garden is next to where school buses park; it is a somber reminder to teach children that life is fragile. The Butterfly Garden helps to heal our wounds but the scar tissue on our hearts will never go away. We will grieve forever.
Today’s ceremony is for the living. It’s a celebration of life, the life of our loved ones. “Those we love don’t go away they walk beside us every day. Unseen, unheard, but always near so loved, so missed, so very dear.” Do not worry what others think, whether you are good, but pursue good acts that help others live a fuller life. We can choose gratitude that they were in our lives even for a short while. We can choose grateful for the cherished memories. We can choose grateful for all we have loved and learned.
Editor’s note: The Butterfly Garden Memorial Ceremony took place this past Sunday (September 18) at the Louisville Zoo Butterfly Garden. These edited words were spoken by John Gilderbloom. If you want to add someone very special to a brick, contact Compassionate Friends on facebook or website in June of next year. A donation of around $100 or more per brick is suggested. John “Hans” Gilderbloom is a Professor in School of Planning, Public Administration, Urban Affairs and Public Health at the University of Louisville http://sun.louisville.edu