A Decade of Unexpected Gifts
By Elizabeth Bennett
As we embark on this next decade, the significance of this time is especially poignant for KinderMourn families, who have experienced incredible loss yet also have made great strides towards healing. As a grief parent, I also personally appreciate how, during our seemingly lowest points, this is often when blessings reveal themselves in the most unexpected ways. This is the first in a series of stories we will feature to spotlight the gifts that can come from loss.
Todd and Sydney Gaylord and Shannon and Scott Railing were a lot like most 30 somethings, settling into the rhythm that comes with early adulthood; happily married with kids, enjoying personal and professional success. Todd and his wife, Sydney, were living in Charlotte with two girls, Vail and Haven, and a boy, Boone. Shannon and her husband, Scott, were living in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, with their son, Carson.
Sydney Gaylord was adored by friends and family for her magnetic, vivacious personality. Always laughing, donning bright clothes, Sydney was the type who never met a stranger, a complement to Todd’s more introverted demeanor. Whether it was new neighbors across the street, or visitors at their church, Todd fondly recalls how Sydney simply had a natural gift for making sure newcomers were not strangers for long. She was also fearless. During a weekend trip to the mountains, a friend said he would give $50 to the first person to jump into the six feet of snow with minimal clothing and make snow angels. Not only was Sydney the first one in, she refused the $50 because the thrill of the act was simply enough.
Which is why when Sydney was diagnosed with a brain tumor in December 2008, it seemed unfathomable it could happen to someone so full of life. Within two years the cancer became more aggressive, requiring frequent stays in the ICU. For some months she rebounded, giving Sydney cherished time with family, including outings to her favorite Vietnamese restaurant. It also gave the Gaylords the opportunity to discuss the sensitive topic of her funeral. On Thursday, August 25, Todd and Sydney met with their pastor. Todd would later blog about how nervous he was to approach the subject, but how Sydney’s faith guided her. “The conversation was a home run. It didn’t trigger fear at all. In fact, she genuinely became excited about the possibility of seeing Jesus face to face,” Todd wrote. Four days later, on August 29, 2011, Sydney passed away at the age of 35.
Meanwhile, 394 miles away in Jacksonville Beach, the Railings were focusing on expanding their family. Like the Gaylords, the Railings were a family of faith, and Scott confessed to Shannon that ever since their 4-year-old son Carson was born, he had prayed for him to have a brother close in age. As more time passed without a sibling for Carson, the Railings knew it was time to seek help through a fertility clinic.
Todd and Sydney with their children Haven, Boone and Vail.
On the morning of April 2, 2012, 39-year-old Scott, an avid golfer, was heading out to play in a tournament. Shannon was still half asleep when Scott leaned over, kissed her goodbye and told her he loved her. Later that morning, Shannon took 4-year-old Carson to school and then to an appointment with a fertility specialist. That afternoon, Scott called her from the golf course, saying they were having a good time, letting her know he was picking up takeout on his way home.
But as dinner time passed and Scott’s cell phone went unanswered, Shannon knew something was terribly wrong. In their 10 years of marriage, Scott had never been late without calling or texting. When the clock approached 10 p.m. with still no word from Scott, even though she was not a runner, Shannon had so much pent up adrenaline, once she made sure Carson was safely asleep, she locked the house and ran through the streets of their neighborhood.
“Everything felt out of control and I felt panicked as I cried out to God,” Shannon said. But at some point, amidst the noise, she said she heard a voice deep in her soul telling her she was not abandoned. A sense of peace came over her, giving her the strength to return to the house. She called her parents and asked them to pray. Around midnight, the doorbell rang, and it was three state patrolmen telling her that Scott had been fatally injured in a car crash when he left the tournament.
Back in Charlotte, Todd had not only felt the weight of losing his wife, but also the mother of their three children, who were only 8, 5 and 2 at the time of her death. Todd had heard about KinderMourn through friends and enrolled the entire family in group sessions, with the kids attending children’s program, and Todd attending the adult meetings with others who lost spouses. He says those Monday night sessions at KinderMourn were significant to their healing, because it allowed him and the kids a safe place to share their feelings.
“In addition to the grief, there is also this great sense of isolation you feel,” Todd shared. “KinderMourn understands what it is like to feel different. The minute you step into that house, you feel comfort, you feel a sense of renewal,” he said. Todd recalls how meaningful it was for the girls to connect with other kids who had lost parents. Todd said he was brought to tears when Haven said she wanted to spend more time there because it helped her remember her mom. Todd said he believed KinderMourn gave him the tools to move through the grief.
Shannon and Scott Railing with their son Carson
As Shannon tried to pick up the pieces in Florida, she realized she needed to be closer to family in Charlotte but felt overwhelmed at the thought of coordinating a move. She prayed for guidance and was soon contacted with a job offer in the Charlotte area she never even applied for, and shortly after, a friend contacted her about a house in her neighborhood that had just gone on the market. By the end of May 2012, Shannon and Carson had moved to Charlotte.
Months later, the former owner of Shannon’s house who happened to know the Gaylords, contacted Shannon, suggesting that her and Todd connect. When they met up a little while later, there was an instant connection on many levels, beginning with the shared connection of loss and faith. Todd knew that Shannon needed more time to grieve Scott, so they agreed to spend some time apart. Over the course of several months, Todd instead wrote letters to Shannon, communicating his thoughts and gratitude for getting to know her. He gave her the letters when they reconnected in person in 2013. As Shannon and Todd grew in their relationship, they focused a great deal on ensuring the children also had the time and space they needed to grieve as well as adjust to the idea of their potential partnership. Todd writes about how his girls particularly had mixed views of the idea of their father dating again, but as they spent more time together, the bonds began to form.
Todd refers to Shannon as “a gift from heaven” and it’s clear how their steadfast faith and their courage to grieve was instrumental in bringing them together. Personality wise, it’s also evident how they complement each other so well: Todd is more introverted like Scott, and Shannon is more extroverted like Sydney. Shannon chuckles talking about the fact that the four of them – her and Sydney, and Scott and Todd – have the same Myers Brigg personality profiles.
Shannon and Todd were married on December 28, 2013. While life is far from perfect for their blended family of six, they cherish the blessings born from their tragedies. Shannon is involved in a widow’s group and Todd regularly connects with other men who have lost spouses. Todd
relishes having much more time with family since changing careers. Both Vail and Haven are mentors at school, a program that helps newcomers adjust; something that would have certainly been right up Sydney’s alley. Shannon is sharing her testimonial to help others through their faith journey, and especially likes to think about Scott smiling down at Carson and Boone playing together – brothers who are just a year apart – Scott’s prayer answered.
Todd and Shannon believe they have a deeper connection with each other, their children and others since the passing of Sydney and Scott. They also believe there is a much bigger force at work that brought their families together. As Shannon so eloquently put it, “God sees how your story weaves into the story of others; he sees the grander scheme of how it all ties together.”
As we move into 2020, our KinderMourn families can take comfort in their shared connections, becoming stronger as our stories weave together, lifting each other up in this decade ahead.
Todd and Shannon Gaylord with Haven, Vail, Carson and Boone