Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 2004 / 14 Tishrei, 5765

Russell Friedman

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Lowering our hearts to half mast | The headline on my homepage said, "Paralympic Games Close on Somber Note."

I had to see what the headline meant. I clicked on the Associated Press article and read that, "Seven teenagers died in northern Greece on Monday and 30 other passengers were injured when a bus taking students to watch the Paralympics crashed into an oncoming truck."

This tragic event cast a pall on the closing ceremonies of what had been a heartwarming competition. The AP article went on to say that the, "Athens organizers also canceled the festive segment of the ceremony, including a firework display, the release of balloons and a 30-minute concert."

My head and my heart collided as I instinctively tried to recall what I knew about the Paralympics. My first thought was of courageous people from all over the world, challenging the deficiencies of their bodies to participate in sporting events that many of us take for granted.

But that seemed too simple, I wanted to know more. The glory of our modern age, where information is accessible at warp speed, brought me instantly to the home page of The International Paralympic Committee from which I clipped the following history.

In 1948, Sir Ludwig Guttmann organized a sports competition involving World War II veterans with a spinal cord injury in Stoke Mandeville, England. Four years later, competitors from the Netherlands joined the games and an international movement was born. Olympic style games for athletes with a disability were organized for the first time in Rome in 1960, now called Paralympics. In Toronto in 1976, other disability groups were added and the idea of merging together different disability groups for international sport competitions was born. In the same year, the first Paralympic Winter Games took place in Sweden.

Today, the Paralympics are elite sport events for athletes from six different disability groups. They emphasize, however, the participants' athletic achievements rather than their disability. The movement has grown dramatically since its first days. The number of athletes participating in Summer Paralympic Games has increased from 400 athletes in Rome in 1960 to 3843 in Sydney in 2000. In Sydney, a record number of 122 countries, or 123 delegations including independent athletes from East Timor, participated at the Paralympics, making this the largest Games in Paralympic history.

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I felt better for knowing more, but I was still immensely affected by the news. Something about the negative convergence of the glory of those games and the tragedy of the deaths of the young people who were on their way to attend the closing ceremonies, hit me very hard.

At The Grief Recovery Institute, I deal with death and other major losses every day of my life - it is what I do. Of course I am sadly affected by all the losses I hear about, while at the same time feeling good that we can help people whose hearts have been broken.

Death and mayhem all over the globe make up a majority of the headlines. But some losses affect me more than others. Sometimes I have to throw down my keys and quit, and take a long walk around the block. Ten minutes later I come back and rehire myself.

The story about the deaths of the teenagers heading for the Paralympic games one was one of those stories that made me toss my keys across the floor in reaction to the unfairness of it all. I had to take a very long walk.

I'm back, but my heart is flying at half-staff today, for those who perished and the families who mourn them.

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Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, CA [ ] and co-author of "The Grief Recovery Handbook & "When Children Grieve. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, Russell P. Friedman