JOLIET – Benjamin Scott Allen remembers dipping his hands in the water off the coast of Northern California as he watched the residual ashes of his two sons – Bryan and Matt – fade into the movement of the waves.
“It was my last act as a father,” Allen said Wednesday night, explaining how in that quiet moment, he embraced grief for what it was: ever-evolving but ever-present.
After the death of his wife – who accidentally received a blood transfusion with HIV during the birth of their first child – and his two sons, Allen said he “followed grief.”
“I learned to follow every emotion. To follow everything, wherever it took me. If I was angry, I was angry. If I was sad, I was sad,” Allen said. “And I promised myself to lean into everything and whatever showed up, and that I would not resist.”
Allen was among the featured inspirational speakers who shared stories of loss and love at the inaugural “Night of Hope” event Wednesday night in Joliet. The event, held at the Jacob Henry Mansion, was organized by Sherry Anicich, a Plainfield woman whose daughter and unborn granddaughter were murdered three years ago Wednesday.
Anicich’s daughter, Alisha N. Bromfield, was strangled to death by an ex-boyfriend in August 2012 while attending a wedding in Wisconsin. Bromfield was six months pregnant with a girl she planned to name Ava. The man has since been found guilty and sentenced in her murder.
“After Alisha and Ava died, I was numb. After the numbness wore off, I had so much anger,” Anicich told attendees Wednesday night. “Although the person that took my daughter and granddaughter’s lives was arrested and convicted for murder, I was still left with the aftermath.”
She later realized she wanted to live “a different way in honor of my daughter,” she said. “That was when I started to see how tragedy can be turned into purpose.”
That’s how Wednesday’s event was born, Anicich said, noting she plans to make it an annual event. It was sponsored by the Purple Project, a nonprofit she and her husband, Joe, founded and named after her daughter’s favorite color.
More than 20 vendors had counseling and social service resources available for attendees and a candlelight vigil ended the night, which also included speakers.
One of those speakers was Scarlett Lewis, who lost her 6-year-old son Jesse in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012. The shooter killed her son and 25 others, including 20 first-grader students.
“My personal tragedy began in 2012 when an angry young man shot through the glass doors of Sandy Hook Elementary,” Lewis said. “It seems, as people say to me, so unbelievable.”
Since the death of her son, she said she founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, aimed at helping teachers and educators identify students who “fall through the cracks” like Adam Lanza did. Her book, “Nurturing Healing Love,” is a story about Lewis’ decision to turn personal tragedy into something positive.
“I knew that if our killer, our murderer Adam Lanza had had nurturing, healing and love in his own life, that this tragedy would never have happened,” she said.
She told attendees that she’s since forgiven Lanza, and that even though “we can’t always choose what happens to us, we can choose how we react.”
Lewis said the day before the shooting, her son, Jesse, had etching the words “I love you,” with his fingernail on her frost-covered car.
Knowing it “was a moment,” Lewis said she ran to get her phone to take a photo of him.
“I have that as my goodbye message. ‘I love you,’” she said.