Sean

Gravity feels a little more forceful today. Back in my high school physics class, Father Fred taught us that gravity pulls us down at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared. Today feels like a double-digit day. It’s harder to do just about everything. You see, today would have been my son Sean’s 29th birthday.

Damn.

Many of you reading don’t know this side of me. Answering the “tell me about your kids” question is always a quandary. How deep do I want to go into this answer? It’s easy to talk about Ryan and Dawson. They are wonderful, interesting, funny, and inspiring. I consider them to be my closest friends, and I love them fiercely. But I don’t have two children. I have three.

Sean Michael Matthews was just four years old when he died in a drowning accident on July 31, 1997. This year will be the 25th anniversary of that miserable day. I won’t go into the details, but just know that the feeling of guilt remains, and the heartache is a million times worse.

Many of you reading this knew and loved Sean. Many of you wrapped your arms around Sean’s mom Kelley, Sean’s brother Ryan, and me after his death, helping us all more than you know. It seemed like half of Malibu attended Sean’s memorial service, held in Malibu’s Bluff’s Park – and I barely remember it. Gravity was in triple digits in those days. The pain was searing and truly relentless. All I know is that the love and support helped. I did not read all of the sympathy cards until months after they arrived. And even then, I could only do it for a few minutes at a time. But they were wonderful, and they provided comfort. Thank you. Those acts of kindness made a lasting impact on me. Of all the human attributes I appreciate, kindness ranks at the very top. It’s something I try to include throughout my day, because I know how much it helped me.

Months after Sean died, Kelley convinced me to join her in attending a support group for grieving parents called Compassionate Friends. I knew that it would not be helpful, because no one else could possibly have experienced anything that rivaled our heartache. But I went anyway, bad attitude and all. It was quite the welcoming group, and as I listened, I realized that I was incredibly wrong. Terrible things happen to people all too often. Heartbreak and anguish are everywhere. You just have to take a moment to listen and notice. The mantra at Compassionate Friends is, “You are not alone.” They helped me to get out of the comparison business. All of this suffering is real, and there’s no benefit or reality to trying to figure out whose pain is worse. I have known a few people whose loved ones died after leading long and full lives, enabling them to be much more accepting of their deaths.  But far more common are those who die before they are supposed to, leaving their loved ones to live with the torment of missing them. I’m sorry for all of us. But we are not alone. Others have prevailed, and found strength and purpose in their lives despite their losses, and for whatever reason, knowing that helps me.

The heartache will never be gone. If someone asks me how often it impacts me, 25 years later, I will smile and say, “It’s only every day.” But it is worse some days. Like today.

I remember speaking with a father who had lost his son in a senseless shooting at least 20 years before our conversation. I asked him what the pain felt like so many years later. He said that it was still there every day, “but it is softer most of the time.” A few years ago, Kelley posted a picture of a sculpture on Facebook that took my breath away. The hole in our grieving hearts never fills, and we will never be whole again.

Love is the greatest risk of all. There are no guarantees beyond today. While I was Superintendent in Manhattan Beach, one of our most beloved teachers at Manhattan Beach Middle School was one of the people tragically killed at the Route 91 Music Festival in Las Vegas. Her name was Sandy Casey, and she taught some of our most impacted students. She had a saying: “Today is a good day for a good day.” In the wake of our loss, we remembered those words, and if you look around, you can see that saying written in cursive on doors throughout the school district. Sandy continues to teach us to find ways to make the most of each day. I love it. As Brad Paisley sings, “Bring on tomorrow, I’ve got today.”

In those first few years after Sean’s death, I wondered about how the rest of my life would be. Would it ever feel normal again? Well, the answer is no. I miss his laughter, his spirit, his loving nature . . . I just miss him so much. But what still is surprising to me is that the answer is also that I am continually amazed at how beautiful and wonderful life is. In spite of everything. I am beyond grateful for the love, humor, meaning, and beauty in my life. And in spite of gravity pulling me down with more force today, I’ll do my best to remember that it’s still a good day for a good day.

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Notes

The sculpture above is called Melancolie and is created by Albert György. It can be found in Geneva in a small park on the promenade along the shore of Lake Geneva. Read more about the piece and artist here –> https://totallybuffalo.com/a-sculpture-that-creates-intens…/

64 thoughts on “Sean

  1. Mike
    I’m so sorry. Losing a child is every parent’s nightmare. May you continue on your journey of recovery with the support of families and friends.

  2. Dear Mike,
    You are so brave to share your story. I can’t begin to imagine your pain. I’m so grateful you allowed yourself to find a way to carry on and inspire so many educators and other children. My prayers are with you today.
    Warmly, Wysh

  3. Dear Mike, Thank you for sharing your most poignant post because you are not alone, today or any day. I am sending supportive thoughts your way with the hope that they will lessen the gravitational pull.
    I am truly sorry for your loss of such a sweet little spirit… you can see it in his smile. Be well, my friend

  4. Mike,
    Thank you for sharing your words and for sharing Sean’s beautiful smile with all of us,. Your words help more people than you can probably imagine. It also made me so grateful of the community that came together to wrap your family in so much love when you needed it most !!!

    1. People don’t think of this type of community when they think of Malibu. I too am proud to be a part of it.

  5. Mike. Heavy. Thank you for sharing. I remember how heavy my heart felt for you when you shared this story with me a few years ago. Reading your blog today brings those feelings back all over again. Yet, today is a good day to have a good day. You inspire me with your ability to put one foot in front of the other even in the toughest of times – and the ability to find the silver lining in every cloud. Thank you for showing me how to lead a better life.

    1. Thanks, Mitch. Sharing my story happened because you shared yours first. Thanks for being human and for modeling your strength too. Wishing us both strength and love.

  6. Dear Mike, I wasn’t lucky enough to meet Sean, but did attend the memorial at Bluffs, you are right the majority of Malibu was there. Although I didn’t know him, I think of him often as I see the tree, we all planted in his memory, grow and thrive. The students are always around that tree, sometimes quietly reading, often laughing and enjoying the day. Many don’t know the history of that tree, but it is always a welcoming spot on campus for us all .

    1. To have a southern Magnolia tree gracing the early graduations of Malibu High School always made me smile. Thanks for helping others know the story behind it.

  7. Thank you for sharing. It stopped me in my tracks. Be gentle with yourself today. In honor of Sean, I will make the most of today and make it a good day.

  8. Mike,
    Well said.
    Writing your own personal thoughts on your experience grieving, for others, especially those who may be grieving or will be in the future, to read and comprehend is act of kindness on its own. Doing so in the memory of Sean to help others is blessing to his soul.

    1. Look at you, Billy Richards, giving a thoughtful and somber response. I love it. But I also very much appreciate your irreverence and humor. Thanks for all of it.

  9. Mike:

    I well remember 1997 and your tragic loss. As you know my business sometimes involves such tragedies and I have shared with several people, and less directly with you, every parent’s worst nightmare, the loss of a child. You’ve had a remarkable life – it’s a tribute to your spirit in the face of the most horrible of losses. Thanks for sharing with us.

    May I share your posting of today with our mutual friend Chris Erskine?

    Bill

  10. You’ve contributed mightily, you live by your principles every day. I know I’m lucky, and appreciative to call you my friend. There aren’t words that can actually help here, but I send support, and love your way Mike.

    Bittersweet, that’s what we get, it’s better than getting nothing.

    A friend sent me an email a few days ago with the following:

    I’m meeting my son for a wedding of a dear family friend in the south of France (he and his son live 6,000 miles apart). As if that’s not good enough, he’ll get to meet his son’s serious girlfriend for the first time! Next paragraph, his dad is in the ICU, he had a stroke.

    Bittersweet. But we move forward, if we’re the lucky ones, hang in there Mike, we’re all with you.

    Much Love,

    Seth

    1. You don’t know what life is going to bring tomorrow, Seth Finn. Thanks for our friendship, and I look forward to sharing a few more tomorrows together.

  11. Mike, Thank you for sharing. Your words help all of us and, what a great piece of writing. I am so very sorry for your loss and admire your courage and honesty. What a beautiful little boy! You can see and feel his spirit in the photos you have shared. You are an amazing man. It is shares such as this one that show our human we are as well as how our humanity and kindness can make all the difference in the world!

    1. Liz – Thanks so much. Yes – Kindness is at the root of helping all of us through our lives.

  12. Mike,

    Thank you for opening your heart in this amazing post. You continue to be an inspiration to me and so many others. Today is a good day!

    Dan Stepenosky

  13. Dearest Mike,
    Such a difficult day for you to go through…..please know that I am with you in love, spirit, and prayer. I miss my sweet grandson Sean so very much. He brought many days of love, sunshine and laughter into our lives. May God hold you close today…..
    Love,
    Mama

    1. Thanks, Mom. It’s been your loss too, yet you have done nothing but support me through the years. Every bit of it has helped.

  14. Mike, I recall the tragedy with deep sorrow to this day, and many times when I’m with Paige, Seans buddy, how much the loss lingers. Thank you for your strength, it is boundless, and your friendship absolute treasure. When you and Kelley created something so beautiful and it physically disappears the outcome of the loss is beyond measure. No other loss can compare, as I hold you up to be the most wonderful Parent that I know, the fortitude you displayed during those awful days of sadness are Olympic in stature, which is a lesson for us all.

    1. When it comes to arms wrapping around us after this tragedy, yours were among the strongest and most embracing, Dermot Stoker. Thank you. You’ve spent a lifetime doing just that for countless people. It’s a life well lived, my friend.

  15. Sending you much love and feeling grateful for the happy memories of our young families together. I am so moved you did write about this most painful loss and the depth of your love. I admire your courage in sharing.

    I am sure your words here will help others find some small measure of peace, as I hope they have brought to you. Writing can be such a powerful assistant in the lifelong grieving and healing process.
    This is a beautiful piece, Mike.

    1. Our young families shared a lot of joy together, Mary Smathers. Those were wonderful days, and I too am beyond grateful to have those memories. Thanks so much, Mary.

  16. Mike,
    There are no words to describe the indescribable, yet I imagine writing and sharing this post helps you continue to shoulder the unimaginable burdens of grief’s ever-present gravity. From our first meeting way back in 2003, in my eyes you’ve always been a celebrator of life who tries hard to take nothing for granted but instead searches equally hard to find gratitude in even the darkest of days. That’s a probably a tall order today, but I also know you’ll continue, as you said, to appreciate and be amazed at how beautiful and wonderful life is.
    Rick

    1. Thanks Rick. We’ve made the most of many days together. Thanks for being a supportive part of that ride.

  17. My heart breaks for you and your family. Thank you for sharing such a painful time in your lives.

  18. Mike:

    I was far away from you during that painful, tragic time but mourned for your family. Thank you for sharing your pain and suffering. You should know that so many people want to help make gravity just a little bit lighter, please God.

    KS

    1. Thanks, Kevin. I’m glad we are less far away these days, and I appreciate all the ways you support so many people with your kindness. I’m happy to be one of them.

  19. And I’m crying. Mike I had never heard the story. I cannot imagine the gravity of such a thing. You amaze me with your sunny, positive spirit. I’m not sure how you do it, but you’re an inspiration, on so many levels. Thank you for sharing your private and painful journey. You now have a lot of readers who will carry that pain with you. I am grateful that you have family and friends who love you so. I’m honored to know you.

    I, too, have a friend who has experienced such a loss. I would love to share this with him, if I may?

    1. Thank you, Kim. Please share with anyone that it might help. You’re very kind, and your spirit always lifts me up too.

  20. I knew of Sean from the plaque in your office. Though not visible to anyone who came to a meeting and sat at your conference table, I noticed that it was placed in a way where you could see it when sitting behind your desk. We never spoke of it, but I always thought that was pretty cool. It told me you didn’t want it to be a part of your conversation, but it was definitely a part of who you are. I always respected that.

    1. What were you doing behind my desk? Ha! Yes – I wasn’t trying to hide it, but it’s a lot. It was there for me, and it helped. My friend Dermot made that plaque, and he has commented below. A lot of amazing people, including you, have made my life much better.

  21. I was a student at Juan Cabrillo when you were the principal. The loss of Sean was felt so deeply by the school and the entire community then AND now. I didn’t know your family well but , now, as a 35 year old mother of two young boys I think about you and Sean and your family many many times throughout a year. I have wept for your loss as I just did after reading your beautiful words. Thank you for sharing them. It’s unthinkable it’s unfair it’s unbearably sad. I’m sure it’s much worse than that , I can’t imagine. How you went on as you did and do is truly a Miracle in my mind. As an adult I have found the work of Dr Brian L Weiss on death , life, love and reincarnation life changing for me and very helpful to cope with life’s difficulties. I am so happy to hear you are still loving and appreciating life. I’m sure Sean is so proud of you and your family and you will see him soon enough. As I truly believe we can’t not fathom how fast our lifespan is in this life and when you go with god and are with Sean you will understand that the time you spent away from him was infinitely shorter than the time you will spend with Sean (which is actually forever)

    I will leave you will a quote – “Grief is the price we pay for love”

    Best,
    Rachel Roberts Stoker & Family

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Rachel, and mostly thank you for remembering. Enjoy this special time in your life. It sounds like you’re pretty good at that. And thanks for the book recommendation.

  22. So sorry, Mike. You are an example of a true human… love, loss, ups, downs – and moving forward graciously through it all. Sean’s life was much too short, so it is even more rewarding to know he was (and still is) so loved by you and your family.

    1. You’ve gotten to see a lot of that in person, Carol. Thanks for always being supportive, ready to work, and even more ready to smile. It all helps.

  23. I am so grateful that you have shared more of yourself and Sean with us. You strengthen the bonds of love between all of us.Big heart hug.

  24. Mike, Anne forwarded this beautiful reflection. Thanks for writing it and thanks for the way you are seeking to live every day as a good day. There is a Psalm that a friend reworked a little, “This is the day our God is making” instead of “the Lord has made.”(Ps 118:24). Each day we join God in making it as good as we can and you are right, some days are easier than others. You are not alone. Peace and blessings.

    1. Thank you, Larry, and thanks for your your lifetime devoted to providing comfort and inspiration for thousands. I’m lucky to be in that group.

  25. Mike,
    Loss is the first thing I remember remembering. My sister died at age 7 on a school playground. I was one. Then my mother died and others. It is part of our family’s history; it is who I am. I understand living with a hole. I am so grateful for people like you who share what this is like. I find it nearly impossible.
    Life is so full, and love can be so deep, even when there is loss. We carry on. We rewrite our narrative, our story. Thanks for sharing what is so hard to share.

    1. Susan – So good to hear from you. This is what I’m talking about. This pain is all around us. “Loss is the first thing I remember remembering.” That is so powerful. And yet, you are one of the most kind and joyful people I know. Thanks to you for also sharing.

  26. Mike,
    Your words and truth are beyond inspiring.

    Although Sean may not be physically with us, he is part of us in many ways. Every year, on May 4th, I wake up and say a prayer to my friend. For 25 years, I’ve taken countless moments to think about Sean, share his story with others, look through old photos, and smile, feeling grateful I was one of the lucky ones to know & love him. As someone who was just a few months younger than Sean when he passed, it’s a powerful thing to realize the impact he made on my life at just 4 years old. Something I have carried on and will continue to indefinitely.

    Sending love to you and your family, always

    1. Julia Wisnicki. You were one of Sean’s very favorite friends. He loved going to play at your house as much as he loved anything. Thank you for all of the moments you have taken to remember. It makes me happy and gives me comfort to know that. – Mike

  27. Mike. Your tribute to darling Sean on his 29th birthday is just what I needed. So touching. May is a heavy month indeed. It is Atticus’ birthday month too! You reflect so beautifully on our mission to appreciate this wonderful life in the wake of such catastrophic losses. That challenge alone defines every day. I am so appreciative of your eloquent reminder that there will be tough days where we just have to keep the flames of wonder, awe and joy going, in time they will burn brighter and lighten those heavy days. So great to read your words.

    1. Thank you, Heather. I’m so sorry that you understand all too well. Thanks for your kindness, and know that Atticus is remembered often and with a lot of love on our family.

  28. I’m so sorry for your loss Mike. I know it doesn’t feel like much to say those words, but having come close to losing a child during COVID and experiencing that anguish, that I cannot imagine what you have gone through and can only offer you my sincere condolences. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

    1. Thank you, Christine. That was a painful process for you, and I’m so happy it wasn’t worse than it was. I appreciate you reaching out.

  29. Dear Mike,
    I’ve returned to your blog after a long time and just read this. I cried for you loss, as I did the first time you told me. I’m grateful for your ability and willingness to share wisdom from pain to support others around you who are struggling through life. This is beautiful and kind.
    I found myself using one of your stories about swim to get my son through a “I just want to quit” moment last week. It helped.
    Thank you for sharing the pictures of Sean. He emanates joy, love and mischief.
    I’m sending you and your family love and strength.
    Farnaz

  30. I did see the blog but didn’t see your generous post until today. Your response to people asking about how many children you have resonated with me. After my first cousin passed away at 21, when my aunt was asked how many children she had, she would always respond that she had three children. How could it not be so? Despite all the sadness, loss, and challenge in our lives, if we as educators, keep in mind the words of CSNY to “Teach y(our) children well” when we show up each day, today will be a good day for a good day. This afternoon I am honored to attend a performance of one of my students, performing in a heavy metalish band, for friends and family at the TROUBADOR, and for me this is a good day.

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