Released in 1981, the movie Fort Apache, starring Paul Newman, portrayed life in one of the most run-down neighborhoods in the Bronx. Filmed mostly on scene, it depicted the horrific conditions of this extremely crime ridden area of New York City. The locals weren’t happy about Hollywood walking in and making millions at their expense but the film crew didn’t ask anyone’s permission. One scene was supposed to be shot in a vacant lot in the neighborhood. The crew was more than a little surprised when a group of locals, headed by my sister Megan Charlop, forced their way onto the set. A short red-headed dynamic Megan convinced the producers that they were illegally filming on community owned property. (Exactly how accurate this was is questionable.) The producers, pressed to film the scene, wrote a check for $15,000 which Megan used for an organization she helped found to keep Bronx properties in the hands of the local residents.
Dubbed “the Mother Theresa of the Bronx,” my sister was an inspiration for thousands. As a co-worker said of her: “We were like moths around the light and Megan was the light”. “Everyone has a Megan story” was echoed by hundreds throughout her career.
And since she was my sister, I had a lot of stories. I had so many that I wrote a book about her, Connecting Two Worlds (Mosaica Press). I want to share one major part of the book even though it’s a truly sad story.
Ten years ago, I got the saddest call of my life. One day when Megan was riding her bicycle to work (she was a big health and exercise advocate) a lightning fast series of events occurred. I got the call from my brother Gordon about the accident informing me that she died immediately. The news was shocking, the impact staggering.
In the ten years since Megan left this world a lot of internal processing has taken place. I’m sure Megan would have wanted me to share my thoughts to help others who may, unfortunately, find themselves in a situation of loss or challenge. Allow me to share some personal reflections about mourning and wrestling with faith.
Experiencing the loss
When Megan passed away there were thousands of us who mourned. The tears ran like rivers and the pain was excruciating. Our minds were on shutdown and we lived in the tragedy. If someone suffers a loss, (and each is personal, there’s no chart ranking what’s major or minor) one needs to let go of having to react a certain way and shouldn’t worry about what others think or say. If you need to cry, cry. If you can’t cry, don’t worry. The world of emotions has its own rules and timing.
Observing the Mourning Period
Afterward, the family “sat shiva”. For seven days we stayed home and tried to work through our feelings with the help of friends and family. Megan’s shiva allowed her husband, Richie, her four children, my brother, and myself to process the devastating loss and, believe me, as horrific as it was, it was vital. Everyone who was part of the shiva, religious and non-religious, Jew and non-Jew, praised a system that has been part of Jewish living for thousands of years. People need time to heal and they need others who will help them do so. A lot of love, stories, and hope were shared that week. It was essential before rejoining the world.
Living with the Loss
Whether one practices shiva or not, there will be a time when the friends and family return home and one is basically alone to make sense of the loss and a lot of very raw emotions. I have shared with friends who suffered similar experiences that this period is like living in a bubble. You go out, talk with people, resume work, and yet you’re in your own reality. It’s important to know that these feelings are totally normal. During shiva, it’s clear that mourning is appropriate but afterwards when many people assume they’re ready to return to their daily activities, it’s often not true. A good friend or relative who can help you when you’re feeling alone and need support is a gift beyond words. Fortunately, my brother Gordon was that person.
Hopefully there will come a time when you’ll be ready to get back to living. It probably won’t happen overnight but, at some point, our internal clock is ready to move on. I wrote my book at the crossroads of wanting to get back to living, still needing to process, and wanting to share the gift that was Megan. And that’s where anyone who is mourning hopes to get to, however long it takes. We want to incorporate the love, the lessons, the caring that the person we loved, and love, gave to us….to cry with others, to laugh, to dance, to embrace life.
Another Megan story: At a certain point in her work with the underprivileged, Megan moved to the Fort Apache neighborhood mentioned earlier (much to the chagrin of my parents). The area looked like a battle zone. Emergency medical care for the residents was substandard so Megan organized yet another project and recruited a group of friends to become the neighborhood’s first responders. The residents’ initial excitement turned to dismay when a multi-colored, psychedelic bus rolled into the neighborhood with a bunch of rag-tag hippies. Even Megan was hard pressed to convince the residents to accept the newcomers and simultaneously appease her long-haired buddies to stick around. In the end, the Bronx got a major boost in emergency medical care and a new group of unlikely friends developed. These stories emphasize her incredible uniqueness.
Her death would have been hard enough but her specialness only intensified the depth of the loss. How did I deal with this tragedy? I want to share some words from my book that were written from the gut, not from the head, because that’s where mourning and the real emotions take place.
“As long as man has a sense that we basically understand life and control our own destiny, then issues of belief in G-d are not terribly challenging. He is being good to me and I truly appreciate that and am thankful for His bounty. But what happens when something happens that seemingly makes no sense? Then what? Does G-d just disappear because things are not going well?
In the struggle, I came to a sense of internal clarity. Faith isn’t when you get it; it’s when you don’t get it. Faith when you’re feeling in charge is kid’s stuff. Daddy’s smiling at me; I like that.
“Not getting it” became the greatest possible revelation and relief. Not that there aren’t answers. Faith says there are. The phrase “not getting it” means living with the questions, but knowing that G-d is still there and that there is a plan.”
As I wrote this, I sensed Megan was sharing some final thoughts with me. It was her final gift to me.
Allow yourself to mourn the loss, to cry, to be comforted, to share stories and tears. And, when you’re ready, live the dream your loved one shared with you, share the love they gave to you, and let their memory not be something of the past, but part of you to take with you into a fuller, more caring life. That’s what Megan taught me.