When Your Friends’ Kids Become Adults but Not Yours

How to Share in the Joy and in the Sadness

Photo by Leandro Cavinatto

Each year in America, hundreds of thousands of young men and women prepare to begin their adult lives as they turn 18. They rattle off their accomplishments — debate team championships, AP credits earned, and varsity letters. They discuss their college plans in a matter-of-fact way, as if predetermined or predestined. They drive.

In the fall of 2021, my daughter Michaela would have turned 18, and should have been one of those young adults. Instead, on May 23, 2009, Michaela passed away, leaving my wife Gabriella and I to imagine what growing up could have been like for her.

In actuality, from the time of Michaela’s birth, during which she suffered a brain injury and subsequent seizures, I never did imagine Michaela achieving a conventional sequence of milestones. Instead, my dreams for her were much more basic, yet no less profound. Each of her small steps towards activities of daily living — eating, walking, and talking —were met with a near euphoric joy by my wife and I.

In other words, when Michaela was alive, so was I — vividly experiencing the in-the-moment ups and downs of being a special needs parent.

With Michaela gone, our parental focus has shifted to our other three daughters, and at times my wife and I have struggled to approach their developmental needs with the same drive and enthusiasm that we did Michaela’s.

Our now oldest living child, 15 year old Ayelet, will be starting Driver’s Ed next week. I’m excited for her that she is on the cusp of a personal milestone, while at the same time I am sad that her older sister never had the opportunity.

For years, as a bereaved father, I have struggled with this fundamental question:

How do I celebrate the milestones of mine and other children, while at the same time honoring my daughter who will never get there?

The final part of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony consists of the newly married husband stomping on a glass cup wrapped in a white bag to shouts of “Mazal Tov” from the audience. The symbolism of this act is profound; at the apex of our joy, we must not forget that our world is still broken.

Parents whose children have died don’t seek regular reminders that the world needs repairing. What we do require is the willingness to see the signs of repair themselves. When I watch my daughter Ayelet get behind the wheel for the first time, I will choose to see that progress — blanketed by the warmth of my beloved Michaela there by my side.

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Married father of 4 daughters. Loved the 80s. Purple is my favorite color.

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Adam Kaplan

Married father of 4 daughters. Loved the 80s. Purple is my favorite color.