Sheffield — There is a darkness about winter that is bittersweet; while the solstice marks the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year, it also ushers in a return to light — one that waxes bit by bit in anticipation of spring. For Libby and John Moritz, formerly of Sheffield, winter can be especially dark. On January 9, 1992, all three of the couple’s children were killed in a car accident as they made their way home from school in a carpool. “All the strength left my body,” Libby Moritz recalls of the afternoon she received the devastating news. “I thought I was broken beyond repair,” she added. The couple’s ensuing journey has taken shape through helping others as a means of healing their own broken hearts; in addition to the nonprofit they began in 1995, Hearts of the Father Outreach, they are starting The Compassionate Friends of the Berkshires to offer support for families that have suffered the death of a child; their first meeting will be January 5th in Sheffield.
Moritz reflects on the depths of her own darkness — nearly 26 years ago — and remembers a community in shock. While many were loving in gestures to remember her children, most people had no idea what to do when encountering the grieving mother one-on-one. At the local elementary school, three trees were decorated in memory of Joshua, 12; Kristen, 9; and Daniel, 8. But in town, friends shied away out of fear of what to say, and what not to say, and others would literally run from Libby at the grocery store; there was a pervasive sense that if something so tragic could happen to such good people, anything was possible. Moritz did not know what to do with this response and, being sensitive to other parents’ fears, left the Berkshires for the whole first year after her children’s death. Through the generosity of customers (the family owns Aquatic Designs in Sheffield) the couple sought solace in one another by the water — which they found restorative — and looked for some healing.
Libby recounts the first Christmas without her children; she was hurting and angry but didn’t want Christmas stolen. To fill a gaping void, she would go shopping for toys and fill entire carts with Barbies and teddy bears –”thousands of dollars worth of Barbies,” she said. She and her husband spent their first Christmas together, after the tragic accident, giving out toys in memory of their children. “We [were] not going to let [the] spirit of Christmas — of giving — be stolen from us,” Moritz recalls, recounting the 15 army bags stuffed with toys that they took with them on their trip to the island of Grenada. Before long, their vision for the future became clear: as parents without children they would ease the pain of children without parents.
With time, the couple’s own healing process led them to helping orphaned, abandoned and abused children around the world. As Libby and John focused on these children and their pain, the grieving parents’ own pain was lessened. “Not until we lost our children — and started to travel — did we realize how many children do not have parents,” Libby says. As they visited third world countries — among them Ghana, India and Mexico — they found comfort in one simple fact: in places where loss is a way of life, a fellowship of suffering exists. A proverbial spring came to Libby and John Moritz in 1997: Lily Joy, the daughter they adopted from China, joined their family. They signed the official papers on the first day of spring. With the arrival of Lily, meaning “life,” much of the Moritz’ sorrow would be turned to joy. “Life started again with the arrival of Lily,” says Libby Moritz.
This new lease did not mean forgetting the trio of blonde haired siblings who paved the way; rather, keeping their memory alive became instrumental in the important work ahead of Libby and John. The JoshKrisDan Home of Refuge in Ghana is the Hearts of the Father Outreach flagship program; its name is drawn from the combined names of the Moritz’ three children. Hundreds of children have new life in homes and programs that HFO supports, and tens of thousand of children have received gifts and bags filled with toys, school supplies, and a message of love. And now, after more than 25 years of sowing seeds of love around the world, these veritable Good Samaritans are bringing their hopeful outlook to Sheffield, where they were living when tragedy struck. The Compassionate Friends (TCF) of the Berkshires, a national self-help organization for families that have had a child die, will hold its first monthly meeting on Friday January 5th at 7 p.m. at 275 Main Street in Sheffield. Meetings will be held each month on the first Friday at the same time and location (the HFO offices).
“After your child dies, no one wants to talk with you about your child because they are afraid of making you feel bad. The irony is that talking about your child helps you — no one wants their child forgotten,” says Libby Moritz, new chapter leader. This group is a place where families can talk confidentially about their loss without feeling out-of-place. That said, “it takes courage to come to the first meeting,” says Moritz. “To be in a public setting when your heart is breaking.” She goes on, “I don’t want any mom to really understand.” And then she trails off; for those who do, this remarkably big-hearted couple has decided to help other parents on their journey following the loss of a child.
The Compassionate Friends is a national nonprofit organization with more than 850 chapters in the United States. Chapters welcome immediate family members to attend meetings, including adult siblings. Meetings are for all families regardless of race, religious affiliation, economic background, or the cause and age of the child at death. “Through our shared experience, we will be able to talk about the loss and learn coping techniques that will help us in our journey toward the positive resolution of our grief,” says TCF Executive Director Debbie Rambis. She adds, “When a child dies, at any age, the family suffers intense pain and may feel hopeless and isolated. The Compassionate Friends provided highly personal comfort, hope, and support to every family experiencing the death of a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, or a grandchild, and helps others better assist the grieving family. The Berkshires chapter will help us toward that mission.”
For Libby Moritz, the greatest gift that never wears out is faith and hope. And her advice — particularly at this time of year — when encountering individuals who have suffered the loss of a child? “Be intentional – pause — especially during seasons of celebration,” she shares. “Be slow to speak and quick to listen. Show love in action,” she adds quietly. This translates to doing something in a child’s memory to serve as comfort during what can be an especially dark time. Whether by writing a simple card, releasing a balloon, or acknowledging the empty seat at the table — parents want to know that their child has not been forgotten. “When you comfort and give back to others, you bring back life,” she says. “[This work] is nothing I aspired to do, but it has been life giving and affirming to help others.” For more information about TCF Berkshires, call Libby Moritz at 413-429-1749.