Police Chief Remembers His Son

By Brian Uhler, Guest Column, Tahoe Daily Tribune
October 25, 2012
The Tahoe Daily Tribune is located at South Lake Tahoe, California

Editor’s note: South Lake Tahoe police chief Brian Uhler’s son, Alex, died last week. He has asked that this be shared with the community.

I thought it of value to write colleagues in public safety about my son so you might recognize our important role in helping families and people with addiction problems. I do not ask for specific action but hope you seek to make a positive difference in your own way when the opportunity comes.

Alex was the rare sort of person, having a pure and good heart who truly cared about others even more than he did about himself. Those who met Alex casually would know him as a highly regarded student at Queens University where he worked on special projects involving gene mutation and the probable pigmentation of the eyes on dinosaurs. One professor recently wrote, “I’ll remember Alex for his unending curiosity and his wonderfully dry wit.” He added that Alex “had a love of learning that was unsurpassed by his peers.” He explained that he liked Alex for his “sharp mind, his interest in science, his interest in issues of the world, but also for his unassuming manner.”

When he was about 10 years old, I was driving past a homeless man holding a sign “hungry, please help.” Alex asked, “daddy, can we give him some money?” To this, I explained, that giving him money will just lead to him buying beer or something. Being quick of mind, even at this young age, Alex said, “well, can we buy him a hamburger then?” Touched by his sweet nature, I said “sure, son,” and we helped that homeless man with a burger.

As a boy scout, Alex would take special care of the younger scouts. He would never belittle or make fun and was known to help the “underdog” without second thought.

One day, about two years ago, Alex came home beaming that he had just eaten 10 tacos at Taco Bell. When I asked, he explained that he was driving in San Francisco and he saw a man trying to push his broken-down Cadillac from the road. The man couldn’t push hard enough so Alex stopped his car and offered a helping hand. When they finished, the man unexpectedly and insisted that Alex take $20 dollars for his kindness. Alex immediately rewarded himself with as many Tacos that he could eat.

Growing up, Alex was always a great helper, ever ready to help lift something or participate in a project. I came to respect his intellectual abilities many times over. Typically, I would be struggling with a problem and Alex would glance at it, without any effort at all, and say, “maybe you can…” Sure enough, more often than not, his suggestion would be right. When he was young, I would tend to dismiss his ideas, but as I progressed in life, I learned that I should listen to Alex.

His sharp mind and amazing ability to recall information was very clear to people who knew him well. You could ask Alex a question about some obscure fact and chances are he would recite an answer like he was reading it from a textbook. As we who were closest to Alex have come to know, his brilliant mind was often racing and restless. Even as a young child, he found it difficult to go to sleep. His mother and I would take turns laying with him combing our fingers through his hair until he would drift off to sleep.

Many years ago, when Alex was young, he said, “Mommy, I think there’s something wrong with me.” We didn’t think much of it because every visible indication was that Alex was fine (good grades, scouting, sports, etc.). Later in life, we learned that Alex struggled with anxiety that was most troubling when he was alone. As a family we helped him in many different ways. Unfortunately, each time we did things to help Alex, we unintentionally burdened him with an inner conviction and determination that he would not hurt us more.

This is what led Alex to conceal his addiction to virtually everyone. I believe with all my heart that he didn’t want to be the cause of anyone’s pain, let alone those he loved most.

On the day the photo was taken, Alex and I started the hike at about 5 p.m. We took a little less than three hours to make it to the top. At first, he took the lead, boldly making progress up the mountain. Each time I’d fall a little behind, Alex would stop and wait patiently. This happened a couple times, then he stopped and fell in behind me. After about an hour of more hiking, I asked, “Hey, buddy, you staying back there so you don’t make your old man feel bad, right?” He said, “Yeah, dad, something like that.” Later that evening, it got cold, we got lost and had only cell phones to light the way. At one point, he said we should find shelter and wait for daylight. Stubbornly, I refused. Now, I’d give anything to huddle with my buddy on the side of a cold mountain.

Specific Information about the memorial service to be held this Sunday will be forwarded later. The family asks that no flowers be sent. Instead, a donation in Alex’s name to a Queens University scholarship fund will be appreciated. This information will be forthcoming.

—Brian Uhler is the chief of the South Lake Tahoe police and fire departments.

[From Deanna Uhler, Alex’’s mother: “My son was a thriving PreMed student at Queens University in Charlotte. He was well regarded at the university by his peers and his professors. Everyone was in complete disbelief when they heard of what took my son’s life. No one would have ever guessed that he would do any type of drugs let alone die from a (Black Tar) heroin overdose.”]

Why Does My Husband Not Hurt Like I Do?

Written by Jimmy Hinton | March 11, 2008

Do you ever wonder why your husband sits, almost robotically, absorbed in his newspaper or television while you cry? Do you ever talk to him or —pour your heart out to him only to get a blank stare back from him when what you so desperately needed was for him to comfort you? Have you ever wanted to shake him and ask, “”Would you just feel the pain I’’m feeling for one second?””

Grief is like a chameleon and scorpion bred together. It blends into our lives so deviously that we almost don’’t know how it rooted itself so deeply into our being. We hardly can see when it comes and goes. All we know is that it’’s there, it’’s complicated, and it’’s real. Then when we put our guard down and things seem like they are going ok, it strikes us without warning. And it hurts.

This is partly why men seem like they’’re “not with it” when grief strikes. From the beginning of time, men have been hardwired to be rough, gruff, hunting, farming, hands-on, work-things-out kind of people. Furthermore, men are hardwired to want to rescue their ladies. Women long to be rescued by a hero and that is why they need someone to listen, to care, and to comfort! Men, however, are completely thrown into confusion when grief strikes because there is no easy way to rescue a person from grief! I can listen to my wife for hours when she’’s telling me about all the good things that happened to her throughout the day. But as soon as she starts sharing things that really hurt her, I clam up. I don’’t know what to say or how to say it. So unfortunately, I usually say. . . Nothing. Grief has no magical cure. A husband cannot come in and sweep his wife off her feet and lift her up to happiness. Grief completely confuses the man’’s world.

Men, for the most part, are mechanical. By this I don’’t mean mechanically inclined. A mechanical man, though he likes adventure and taking risks, needs life to run smoothly. He likes to know he can provide for his family, that he is secure in his job and relationships, and that his family respects him. When his wife is grieving a tremendous loss, his world is thrown so far out of balance that he literally doesn’’t know how to function. This is when men slide into their default mode of working with their hands. They pick up the paper, they turn on the television or they go out to work in the garage.

Women, please understand that if a man is quiet or removes himself from the house, this does not mean that he isn’’t hurting as bad as you are. In fact, chances are that he’’s hurting worse. Men hate seeing their wives hurt. Men grieve in different ways —mostly they have to physically vent their frustration through different hobbies and they absolutely need some alone time.

Men, please understand that grief confuses the woman’’s world as much as it confuses yours. The irony is that women need a shoulder to cry on, someone who listens, and for their husbands to be vulnerable and express their emotions —the very things most of us aren’’t comfortable doing for them! Even if you don’’t know what to say, I promise that if you take time to listen and cry with your wives, you will be their hero and new avenues for healing will be opened.

How to Handle Mother’s Day

Written by Clara Hinton | April 27, 2003

Special days of any kind can be especially difficult for anyone who has lost a child. The first year following the loss of a child is often filled with days of dread and fear when anniversary dates and holidays approach. Mother’’s Day is a holiday that is one of the most dreaded holidays of all. A mother grieving the loss of her precious child often spends weeks in fearful waiting of the day, wondering how she will every make it through.

There is no real way of avoiding Mother’’s Day. The stores are filled with gifts made and designed especially for mothers and children. Advertisements for gifts on the radio and in the newspaper bombard us every day for weeks prior to Mother’’s Day. Card and flower shops experience their busiest season of the year on Mother’’s Day. Reminders of this special holiday are everywhere!

The pain of facing Mother’’s Day without a child can be the most lonely pain a mother will every know. There is an empty ache that becomes increasingly more evident as the day approaches, and there seems to be no way to find relief. It is wise to share these feelings with other family members and friends rather than to avoid the topic. By sharing how you feel, you can alert others to be more sensitive to your needs during this painful day of sad reminders. Sit down with your family and discuss what you would like to do for Mother’’s Day. Remember that this is not a time to worry about hurting other’s’ feelings, but rather a time to make your wishes known.

Remind yourself often that there is no right or wrong way to handle Mother’’s Day. Some mothers have found it helpful to go away on a mini weekend trip, totally avoiding any church service, special meals, or family gatherings that will be too painful to attend.

Other mothers choose to do something special in memory of their child such as take a walk to a quiet place, read a special poem, and then release a balloon in memory of their child. The actual releasing of the balloon is known to give mothers a sense of letting go that is quite healing.

Many choose to use Mother’’s Day as a special day to plant a flower or a tree in memory of their child who has died. Seeing something growing is often a visible reminder of the ongoing love a mother has for her child.

Whatever you choose to do, remember not to set expectations too high for the day. Plan to do something that is healing for you, but realize that you will still experience a wide gamut of emotions, and many tears will fall.

Because grief is exhausting mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, be sure to eat nutritious food for the day, hydrate yourself with lots of fluids, and allow yourself time to rest and be replenished. Grief work is the hardest work you will ever do!

By planning ahead for Mother’’s Day, you have already crossed a big hurdle in your walk through child loss. Telling others that this is going to be a difficult day for you is a way of building up a support system that will help you get through the day. Remind yourself often that you will make it through Mother’’s Day, and when you do, you will be one step farther along in this difficult journey we call grief.

www.silentgrief.com

They’ll Come

“They’ll come.” I kept hearing a voice say. “But, they’ve been avoiding me,” I said. “They’ll come because they want to help, but don’t know how. This party will give them the chance they need to help you and themselves. You need people who care to be with you on that day.” “That Day” was the first anniversary of the deaths of my two sons, Leon and Wayne. They were 29 and 28 when they were killed together in a car accident.

“Lord, if this voice I hear is really you and you want it to happen, give me hymns and scriptures to read. But Lord I need a sign from you.” The voice kept talking, “They will come and I will help you.” “Lord, I need fifty people to come. Then I will know you planned it and will let other people know in order to praise your Holy Name.”

At first my family thought I was crazy. A celebration at a time like that – they were afraid no one would come. They skeptically went along as I felt so strongly. Friends helped me call other friends and those of my sons. Some said they would come, even though they knew it would be a sad occasion.

I asked every guest to bring a plant bulb that we would put in a little memorial garden in our front yard. I also asked that they write any special memory of Leon or Wayne to be saved in a scrapbook. This was the first time I’d asked anyone to do anything for us since the funeral. I asked my pastor for a simple service to dedicate the garden.

Friends offered to prepare food, and a former employer donated money for napkins, plates and drinks. A balloon warehouse gave me discounts on 50 light sticks and balloons. The light sticks were to be attached to the balloons.

A friend of mind typed up notices for everyone to use and keep as a remembrance. Each one had a bookmark with a scripture verse attached to it. Pastor Tim read the Scripture verses that God wanted us to use: John 11:25, John 5:24 and Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. We dedicated the garden where we had planted the two dogwood trees, sang hymns and praised the Lord. We released the balloons on the last verse of “Amazing Grace”. The light sticks on the balloons glowed with a beautiful radiance.

Then everyone came inside for refreshments. I counted exactly 50 people, the number I had requested, PRAISE GOD! The house was full of laughter and everyone had a good time visiting and reading the memories of Wayne and Leon. I thought to myself that this house needed to hear laughter again. Family and friends came up and gave me a hug because they could finally do something for me and my family. I learned that the only way to really get help from family and friends is to let them know how they can help you in your grief.

I needed to know someone cared – August 2003

Our only two sons went to be with the Lord in a tragic and horrible car accident on Friday, October 26, 1990. That date will be etched in my heart and memory forever. The life of our family will never be the same again.

That night, my husband (Leon Jonas Sr.) and I went out to eat supper and passed near an accident on the interstate as we were heading home. When we saw that the traffic was heavy because of a tractor trailer accident, we went off the exit ramp to avoid it. I guess God was protecting us from having to live from now on with the nightmare of seeing our dead sons in their car.

About 11:15 PM, my husband and I were watching the late night news and saw a picture of a 1969 red Ford pinned under the front end of a tractor trailer on the television screen. We instantly knew it belonged to our son Leon Jr., even though we later learned that over a hundred people called the police thinking it was their relative. The reporter said three young men were killed when their car crossed the median into oncoming traffic and was hit by the tractor trailer after the car came up in front of it.

As we waited for the police to come let us know officially, I went to our bedroom, fell down on my knees and through tears gave them back to the Lord. I also thanked Him for the wonderful and fulfilling years our sons gave us. The Lord had given us Leon Jr. for 29 years and Wayne for 28. Some parents don’t even have that many years with their children.

Then I asked the Lord to give my family the strength to get through the next few hours and days, especially my husband, daughter, daughter-in-law (Emma, Wayne’s wife), and grandson Richard. Next I went into the kitchen to join my husband and daughter. I felt we would need a servant of the Lord to help give us strength and called our pastor to come help us go through the next few hours.

The pastor came after the police came who told us officially what they knew had happened. He only told us what we already knew except that the name of the young man in the backseat who was killed was Keith Lyle, who was a close friend of my sons. The one question we desperately needed an answer to was why Leon Jr. crossed the median. That question will never be answered on this side of heaven.

After the police left, the pastor, my husband and I went down to my son Wayne’s house to tell his wife. We had to wake her up to tell her Wayne was in an accident. She thought he was just hurt; when it finally sunk in that Wayne was dead, Emma screamed. I jumped up and held her in my arms. After she calmed down some, I went into their bedroom, picked up my precious grandson Richard and hugged him real tight with tears running down my face. He is all that we have left of our two sons and I know that Wayne will always live through him. Leon Jr. lived at home and never got married, but I feel a part of him is in Richard too.

By 4:00 AM, we finally were able to get to bed and try to sleep. I kept calling Wayne’s name when Wayne suddenly answered, “Mom, I’m alright.” I relaxed a little; God had allowed Wayne to let me know that he was with Him.

The next day, friends and relatives kept coming in. I was still tired from so little sleep, so my sisters told me to go into our bedroom and lay down for a while. I couldn’t get Leon Jr. off my mind, so I kept calling, “Leon Jr., where are you?” Then the Lord allowed Leon Jr. to speak to me. “Mom, I’m home.” He said. With his words in my heart and mind, I knew the Lord was reassuring me that the boys were with Him. My Lord knew that all mothers need to know where their children are. I went to my knees and thanked Him for the assurance that they were in Heaven with Him. Now I realize that the Lord used the boys’ voices to reassure me.

One of my sisters who knew I had always had a strong faith in the Lord made the remark that the Lord allowed this to happen to me because He knew I could take it and my sister couldn’t. Her words really hurt me more because then I wished I wasn’t so strong so I would still have my sons.

The only pain I could feel was when I took a bath, turned on the hot water as hot as I could stand; then I would sit in it and cry my heart out.

After about eight months, the shock wore off and the horrible agonizing pain of never being able to hold or touch my sons again set in. My sons would always kiss and hug me when they left for the evening or to go home. I will never again have that expression of their love. On Sundays, I went to church and cried through the whole service. I wanted so desperately for people to show they cared but only one lady stopped me in the parking lot and gave me a hug.

I could feel the devil was finally pulling my spirits down by telling me that people really didn’t care if I lived or died. I didn’t want to kill myself but I wanted to die so I could hold my sons again. I was losing the will to keep living even though I still loved the Lord. I began feeling like a modern day Job. I felt most of my friends had deserted me and people that I had always taken care of during their bad times were not there for me when I needed them most.

Once when a friend’s husband left her after twenty years of marriage, and took her children, she fell apart. When she couldn’t sleep, she would call me in the middle of the night to help her and read some Psalms to her. I was there for her night and day, giving her support. But now, when I needed her, she wasn’t there for me.

Then June 29, 1991, I was at my lowest point and wished I had cancer and could die and join my sons, God allowed a light to shine through. My pastor called to check on how I was doing and I really let him have it. I told him that I felt like he and the church members did not care about me since they didn’t show it. I couldn’t believe I could talk to our pastor like that. Here he was taking a vacation that he really needed and I was giving him a hard time before he left.

As we talked, I asked him how a friend of ours named Marilyn was doing. She was also a church member. He said she was in bad shape. When I hung up, I called my friend to check up on her. She had been talking about killing herself for almost two years. She didn’t seem to want to live since her husband died. I called, someone seemed to pick up the phone and then hang up. I felt God wanted me to go check on her and try to give her some reason to live, even though I wanted to die.

It was on the way there that God spoke to me through my sons saying, “You can’t come now, Mom, you have work to do.” Then I started thinking about what my friend and I both needed. It was to know that someone cares. Then I felt God telling me that He wanted me to help people who have not gone through what we have by showing them some ways they can aid people like us. It finally dawned on me that my friends didn’t come around because they didn’t know what to say or how to help.

Someone once wrote, “We all need to know that someone cares. There is that inconsolable something within each of us that cries out for assurance that we do not stand alone in our hour of trouble.”

I finally felt a sense of peace that I had not felt since the boys died. In some miraculous way I feel my sons are still living through me as I help people learn how to show they care for grieving friends and loved ones. My sons were always the kind of young men who were there when anyone needed help, especially working for free on people’s cars that broke down. Helping people and their friends with their cars was why they went into auto mechanics. They really cared about people. I know that I will never be the same person I once was, but I hope I am now a more compassionate and caring person especially to people who lose their children.

Some ways that you can help someone who has lost a child or loved one are:

1. LISTEN:

Grieving parents usually want to talk about their children, so just be there to listen. If you knew their child, it would help if you would share a good memory of their child. Also, don’t worry if they cry while listening to you or when they are talking about their child. It helps to release their tensions inside of them and get their feelings out. Tears will probably be a part of their life from now on.

2. TOUCH:

Touching and hugging are important elements in the expression of caring. When you can’t think of the right words to say, just give them a hug. A hug communicates warmth, caring and love at a time that they feel very lonely and unloved. Sometimes grieving parents feel like they have a disease that drives people away, so a hug conveys compassion that they desperately need.

3. RESPOND:

Just being there for them really helps. Ask them for specific ways you can help, such as preparing a meal for them. They may be so depressed they don’t feel like cooking for their family.  Send a card, especially when you can remember their child’s birthday, Mother’s & Father’s Days, Thanksgiving, Easter and especially Christmas, which may be the most depressing of all holidays. Christmas and my sons’ death date are especially hard on me. Just a card that says you care may be just the words they need that day. Calling them once in awhile to say, “I’m here for you” can brighten their day also.

4. WHAT NOT TO SAY:

“You’ll get over it in time.”
“At least your child is not suffering anymore.”
“God doesn’t make mistakes.”
“God doesn’t give you any more than you can bear.”
“It’s God’s will that this happened.”
“You can always have another child.”

Statements such as these don’t help and may really increase their pain & anger.

5. BE PATIENT:

A key concept in helping someone going through grief is to be patient with him or her. They may show feelings of rage, anger, frustration and guilt. Knowing that they need to work through their feelings can help you in helping them. Do not tell them their feelings are wrong because an individual’s feelings are their own and neither right nor wrong.

Recognize that grieving can take anywhere from a year to many years. There is really no timetable on when it is over; it all depends on the individual. Even then they probably never will be the same person they were before their child’s death. Someone has said that when you lose your child, you lose your future. There is no way your life will ever go back to what it once was because as parents, we all live and work to give our children a future. For parents who lose their children, that future is no longer there.

Footnote: This was written within a few years of my sons’ death. Since then, my first husband died in 1995. Before then, Footprints Ministry was formed as a support group for Christian mothers who had lost a child; now Footprints Ministry is for grieving families. The “Choices” program, to help young people consider their choices, was formed later. Footprints Ministry spearheaded the drive for Our Children’s Memorial Walkway, now located in Frazier Park in downtown Charlotte. Skip Mudge, a widower, and I were married in ’97. We also conduct the 13-week GriefShare series throughout the Charlotte NC area.