Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is his duty.
Most everyone agrees the worst loss any parent can face is the loss of a child. Marc and Jeanne Schupan of Kalamazoo, MI, parents of 4, faced that nightmare. In 2002, Seth, their oldest son, along with Jeanne’s parents were killed in a car crash. It was morning. Seth was driving his grandparents across state to join the family for Thanksgiving dinner that night. Seth’s car was hit by a van at a country crossroad. He was 23.
Seth was a recent graduate of Northwood U. in Midland, MI, a Phi Delt and a hockey player. “Though physically strong, he was always gentle and kind. He brought warmth to people young and old,” his obituary reads.
When Seth died, Marc and Jeanne received over 1200 notes and letters. Some revealed aspects of their son’s life they hadn’t known. There was a letter from a classmate who’d been bullied. Seth stood up for him, he said, and the bullying stopped. A different classmate, a girl with Lupus, wrote, “Seth made a point of asking me about my health. He was one of the few who showed genuine interest and concern.”
Seth’s club hockey coach from Northwood mentioned the time Seth, then a junior, broke his ankle. “No one expected him to play again,” he said. “But he came back his senior year and was an inspiration to younger teammates.”
Marc was no stranger to loss. At 26, he took a leave from his job as a high school teacher and coach to work for his dad’s small scrap metal company. 3 weeks later, his father Nelson, 53, died of a stroke. Marc had 3 younger siblings. His dad’s funeral was on a Sunday; Marc took over the business on Monday.
Marc has since built Schupan & Sons manufacturing companies from a firm with 6 employees to a powerhouse that employs 500. Among its various recycling activities, Schupan & Sons is the largest recycler of redeemable aluminum containers in deposit states.
Despite the business challenges Marc had overcome, dealing with the loss of his son was nearly insurmountable. Two years after Seth’s accident, having read dozens of self-help books, Marc was still unable to cope with his grief. He began a practice which helped console him: writing letters to his late son.
In hope of supporting others who are grieving, Marc shared his letters. They’re honest, informative and, at times, heart-breaking. They trace Marc’s emotional arc and give him a way to feel still somehow connected to his son.
Letters begin Dear Seth…
December, 2004. “I’ve become more functional on the outside, but the pain internally is sometimes even more severe. The stages, shock and numbness, have led me to the present stage of reality—in some ways the hardest. Understanding the permanence of your absence is the worst reality… Mom is taking care of everyone and shows more strength than any of us, but I do worry about her. We are going to be the exception to the 85% rule.” (Some studies claim as many as 85% of couples who lose a child end up divorced.)
September, 2006. “The closer we get to your birthday, the harder it is not to have you a part of our physical life. …How we appreciate each other and value life itself is your gift to us.”
November, 2006. Marc writes that he and Jeanne attended son Jordan’s hockey game in N.H. After, they walked the beach and enjoyed a seafood dinner. “It was one of the most positive days your Mom and I have had together since the accident. When we went to bed that night… I started to think of you. I went from 70 to 0 in about two minutes. I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I could not understand how I could ever be as happy without you as I had been that day.”
February, 2008. Marc and Jeanne’s daughter Shayna had a second child. “You now have a namesake, Benjamin Seth Barry. Watch over him for us. My only hope is he grows to be the man his uncle Seth turned out to be. I know I always tell you how proud I am of you. I only wish I’d have told you more often.” Marc tells Seth he’s begun supporting other families who’ve lost children. “I’m not sure how much I really help, but I try.”
September 9, 2009. “Today, would have been your 30th birthday. Besides painfully missing you, I think of all you are missing.” Marc’s niece Tori got married. At the rehearsal dinner, a slide presentation showed several shots of Seth. It featured the Beatles’ song, ‘There are places I remember.’ Lyrics include the line: Some are dead and some are living. In my life I loved them all. Marc admits, “I sort of lost it and had to go to a corner away from everyone.”
September, 2010. “Mom and I are doing pretty well. I still think she is the most beautiful woman there is, inside and out. I think about you probably even more than I should. As each day goes by, I appreciate you more. Your values, what a joy it was just to be around you, what a warm, unselfish person you were.”
November, 2012. Marc mentions various activities linked to Seth’s name. A Big Brothers facility, a Northwood Institute hockey tournament and scholarship, a Kalamazoo Foundation memorial fund, all of which have made “a positive difference” for others. “There is no doubt there is an empty place in our lives that will never be filled. …We are trying to appreciate the good. I believe that we as a family and individually have continued our lives in directions that would make you proud. …You were a terrific young man, respected and loved by many. I am proud to have had you as a son and appreciate infinitely the years we had together. I love you son and always will, even more as each day passes.”
Marc still writes to Seth. He details family activities and milestones. His letters aren’t only a source of comfort for him, they provide ongoing family history. Along with copies of his letters, Marc also sent a touching little book by Kathryn and Ross Petras. Don’t Forget to Sing in the Lifeboats is a compilation of inspiring quotes. The title comes from Voltaire: “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”
I flipped open the book to a quote from the playwright Moliere: “If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble.”
I flipped again to one from diplomat Dag Hammarskjold: “Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible—not to run away.”
Thanks, Marc, for not running away. Thanks for sharing your lifeboat. May it help save others as well.