a gentle soul

On September 26th, our team, Choosing Grace, will participate in our 4th Out of the Darkness Community Walk in Chicago. What started as a small group of friends coming together to honor a few loved ones, has grown into several people honoring many, many lives lost to suicide.

As we get ready for this year’s Walk, we remain committed to the AFSP’s mission and to telling our loved ones’ stories.

We remember them.

We honor them.

We hope their stories help others.

This is John’s story…

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Well, this page has been sitting in draft mode for several weeks. I’ve tried many times to write about John, our relationship and/or the events that occurred, but I just cannot do it.

It still hurts so much.

I have decided to post an edited version of the eulogy (it’s still long though!) I gave at his funeral. For me, it captures John, his love for his family and friends and how Choosing Grace came to be.

I don’t know about my two sisters, Julie and Bridget, but when I first met John over 17 years ago, I didn’t want to like him…of course, I wanted my mom to be happy, but still, I didn’t want to like him. In all honestly, that lasted all of about 15 minutes. How could you not like John right away?

In those early days, I remember describing John to close friends and family as an angel who fell into my mother’s life after our brother, Brian, died. I often thought, was this somehow carefully orchestrated from up above?

All I knew was that my mom was happy after a long, difficult time of deep sorrow. And that brought me peace.

 After my mom and John had been married a few years, I found myself on their doorstep while going through a particularly difficult time. While the door was clearly open, I did not want to go in. I was in my late-twenties and the thought of moving back home with my mom and sleeping in a twin bed made me feel like a loser and I didn’t want to like it. Again, John made it easy.

John and Mom spent so many hours laughing as they watched their favorite t.v. programs, played Scrabble and popped popcorn. It was hard not to be happy. Although I was struggling at the time, it was a good year. It felt like home.

One thing my mom always says is that John and I had more of a brother-sister relationship than a step-father step-daughter relationship. It may have been the way we interacted with one another – he’d elbow me and say “I’m teasing” when debating very important issues- such as the rivalry between the Bears vs. Packers, should we order pan or thin pizza for dinner or should you grill or steam asparagus? I imagine that most of you had that same easy type of relationship with him. John was a Gentle soul.

I also remember looking at some family pictures with him a few years ago. He was so proud to be one of four brothers. He pointed to his brothers Tom, Dave and Steve, talked about their wives, children and grandchildren and where they all currently lived. John was like a kid a Christmastime when the cards came in the mail. He and my mom would point to the cards they had proudly displayed, so that I could see all the new babies and how all of his nieces and nephews had grown. A couple of them also stayed with John and Mom while attending various programs or just visiting the area. I’m sure they can also attest to the loud laughing. He loved his family so much and it was obvious that he was very sad about the recent loss of his “big” brother Tom. In addition, he is step-father to Julie, Bridget and me and he adored my sisters’ husbands, and my husband and all of our children. He is “Papa John” to our three children and our dog, Bailey….whose ears promptly perk up when they hear Papa John’s name. Bailey’s been a little sad…

The thing about John was that even though we didn’t talk all that often, I still felt close to him and knew that I he’d be there whenever I needed him. And when we hadn’t seen each other in awhile, it didn’t matter, we’d pick up right where had we left off. If you were a lucky member of his email list, you’d hear from him on a somewhat regular basis with jokes, pictures, interesting articles and holiday greetings.

Over the past several days, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many, many people who knew John – some for a short period of time and some who have known him since his childhood. It was clear, John was Loved. Everyone described him as, “THE nicest guy!!!” and then most people would describe his hearty laugh that you could hear from about a block away!

As most of you know, John was an architect and he LOVED his work. He taught me, through a number of moves, to look at a house through his eyes. Instead of paying attention to the ugly paint colors and nasty carpet, look at the foundation, the roof, the architectural details, and ask…when were the plumbing and electrical updated? I see the world differently when I look at it through his eyes.

There were some other important lessons I learned from John…like, (and I know this may sound gross) but, garlic and anchovy pizza really does taste pretty good with a cold beer.

He also taught me how to kill a mouse…with a tennis racket. I would never do it…I’d call him, but at least I knew how to, in a pinch.

He taught me that I couldn’t keep a straight face, no matter how tired and cranky I was, when he was singing, “These Are A Few of My Favorite Things” in the backseat of the minivan with the kids.

He also taught me that even though he liked the Green Bay Packers…we could still be friends. And even though I’ve always been a Bears fan, I found myself routing for GB in last year’s SuperBowl because I knew it would make him so happy if they won. And it did.

But…after all this time…I really believe that the most important lessons that I learned from John took place over the past several days while we searched and searched and later learned the sad news…

Every person has a story. Everyone needs to be heard. Every life has meaning. Everyone looks at a problem from a different angle and you must respect that and you must choose what works for you.

Now…I have been through all of the various options and know that I have to make a choice about how I’m going to move forward…now that John was brought home to us. The situation is still so unimaginable to me…and I know that everyone in his family, his friends, acquaintances…everyone will probably always have questions. And that’s okay. For me, I know after losing my brother in a very similar manner, that sometimes you have to move through a traumatic experience and not get answers. It’s not easy by any means, but you can do it. It is not easy…but you do have a choice.   As I see it, there are many choices on how we can move forward.

We can choose to be angry. We can choose to be resentful of the situation. We can choose to feel guilt. We can choose to feel betrayed. We can choose to feel scared. We can choose to ask the questions – “How could this happen?!?!?!?!” “And what could I have done to stop it?????”

We can choose to put all of this information and emotions aside for now. Maybe, it’s just too big to take in right now.

We can also choose to see beauty in the most seemingly unimaginable, tragic and horrible situations. We can choose grace. I try to think of how John lived his life and, while he was by no means a saint, he did seem to look at many things through “rose-colored” glasses. Like…if it was raining and I was complaining about having a bad hair day, he’d say, “Yeah Liz, but it’s great for everyone’s gardens.” Or when it was snowing and I’d complain about the drive or shoveling, he’d say, “But Liz, it’s great on the slopes!”. It was actually kinda annoying sometimes to be honest…I mean, we weren’t going skiing, but he was right, sometimes it’s all in the way you choose to look at things.

While we moved through this search, I spoke with many people, and I’d like to acknowledge the following people for their efforts in our search: Joe Glunz, Clar Krusinski, Mary O’Callaghan, MaryKay and Shawn Post, my husband, Dave Riggs, Sgt.Gold and the Chicago Police Department and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. In addition to John’s amazing family, our friends and family, I also made contact with bank tellers and mailroom clerks – one of whom was willing to go door to door with the missing person flyer after an 8 hour shift. As the weeks have gone by, one thing became perfectly clear…people are there to help you.

People want to help one another….especially in tragedy and that’s pretty cool, if you allow yourself to be helped. I was struck by one particular conversation that took place shortly after the search was over. I was speaking with an investigator down in Florida and said,

“Our family and friends really want to thank you for everything you did. John loved his wife, Gail, his family, friends and work and he deserved to be treated with care… And maybe you spend your life working on cases night after night day after day and maybe sometimes you question, why did I even get into this business…but from my perspective, you were critical to giving our family closure…and I thank you.”

I didn’t hear anything on the other line and thought… “Shoot, I dropped the call while I was rambling on and on” (as usual)… But no, the investigator cleared his throat and said, “Thank you…no one has ever said that to me.”

And I said, “Well you need to know it’s very true. Your contribution to this investigation was very, very important and I’m sorry if I’m being cheesy, but….” And he cut me off.

He kinda chuckled and said, “You’re reminding me of that commercial…you know the one…the person opens the door for someone, someone else notices…it’s for insurance or something?” and I’m like “OF COURSE I know that commercial!…everyone pretends not to like it, but you always stop what you’re doing to watch it because it’s kinda cool…that whole paying it forward thing.”

We both laughed and then we said our goodbyes, but despite the sad situation, we both hung up the phones with smiles on our faces.

I’ve now shared that story with a couple of people and it usually gets the same reaction, there’s usually an eye-roll and then, “Oh boy, here she goes again”, but when I continue to explain…people seem to recognize that commercial…and always chuckle. If you don’t know what I’m talking about…go onto YouTube and enter “Liberty Mutual”…it’s worth it.

As you know, you have a choice about how you’re going to deal with this difficult situation. This is not a typical multiple choice question, there can be so many answers…you don’t have to make your choice at the end of this service…or in even a year from now.

But…it IS a test. There is sadness and pain and sorrow and anger and sometimes there’s just…no feeling at all. You can fall apart, you can laugh, you can feel like punching a wall. You can feel like you’re losing your mind.

After a lot of searching, I’ve made the choice that I believe John made throughout his entire beautiful life.  

After a lot of searching, I am choosing what my mom has exemplified throughout her beautiful life, as well.

 After a lot of searching…

I am choosing GRACE.

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