Like many, I tend to use Facebook as a social network pulse check—career moves, political debates, videos of an ex-coworker's daughter's piano recital. It's all there, and often serves as a welcome reprieve from the stresses of our own busy lives, especially for parents. It's a curtain-less window into the worlds of those we've connected with over the years, including the joys and sorrows. After leaving a casual work event on the evening of June 24, 2015, I pulled up Facebook on my phone and was met with a piece of news that wiped the smile off my face in an instant.
An old friend of mine, Chris D'Amico, had tragically lost his 10-year-old son, Chris, Jr., in a pontoon boating accident in Lake Hopatcong, N.J. Facebook then became the epicenter for sorrow, grief, and tribute as thousands mourned the loss of an exceptional young man.
I sat down with Chris six months after the tragic accident that took his son's life to discuss how he's coping and to hear how his community and network responded to the loss.
"I am not the norm, Joe," Chris whispered, smiling through tears, and before saying anything else. In fact, he said this no fewer than five times throughout the course of our conversation, each time with increased fervor. Initially, I wasn't entirely sure what he meant. But it became clear.
"Once he hit the water, there was nothing I could have done. He was gone. I couldn't comprehend it at first. How I was having a beautiful day on the lake with my kids one minute and planning a funeral for my son the next day. Think about that. Think of all the things you do with your children on an average day and now think about never coming home with one of them again," Chris said.
Chris Sr. regularly went on Facebook to express his grief following the tragedy, establishing a loyal group of readers that ranged from close friends to complete strangers, who were all captivated by the heartbreaking power of his transparency.
"Most parents get to witness their child's first breath. I've done that. But I've also witnessed my son's last," Chris said, somberly. Unsurprisingly, Chris has a great deal to say about grief. "Grief is a disease. It has flare-ups. It has symptoms. And my wife, my daughter, they go through the same process I do. We wake up, go to work or school, and at least once a day we 'have a moment' where we cry. Then it passes, and we move on."
Aside from his inspirational personal strength, the manner in which his community has rallied around his family—and the astonishing amount of positivity that has stemmed from this tragedy—is nothing short of extraordinary.
"He donated his organs and has already saved eight lives," Chris started, with a proud grin. "So many things have happened because of his passing. Eleven different youth football teams wear his number on their helmets as a tribute. I've given speeches to various teams. And here's the thing, Christopher only played one season," he stated, proudly. "I often feel like one of those snow globes they sell in New York of the Statue of Liberty. I'm the statue, and the snow is all the things happening around me in Christopher's name. Some of them I'm aware of. Some of them I'm not."
It was then that I was reminded by Chris Sr. that, although his life only spanned from 2005-2015, Chris Jr. had made more of an impact in that dash than most could make in two lifetimes.
Perhaps the most significant development to arise from this tragedy has been the Kindness for Christopher movement, which was originally intended as a local, feel-good initiative, but it rapidly gained momentum on a global scale. The D'Amico family launched the movement in July 2015 with one simple ask: Do something thoughtful for a stranger on the 24th of each month in Chris Jr.'s name. They established a Facebook and Twitter presence, with the hashtag #KindnessforChristopher, and seemingly overnight, captured the attention of a nation. The Kindness for Christopher story was picked up by Fox News. To date, the Facebook page has more than 10,000 likes, and people in Italy, England, and Switzerland have posted acts of kindness to the page.
"A Dunkin' Donuts in Hackettstown had so many customers purchase coffee for others in line that they posted Christopher's story in front of the cash registers, so as to avoid retelling it again and again," Chris said.
Beyond the kindness movement, the D'Amico family is also spreading happiness in other areas. They started a drive to collect their son's favorite article of clothing, pajamas, to be donated to children's hospitals. Their initial goal was 1,000 pairs. They've far exceeded that and now have more pajamas in their basement than they know what to do with.
And now, New Jersey Sen. Anthony Bucco is in the process of having a new bill passed, called Christopher's Law, that would require pontoon boating rental businesses to post warning signs and offer verbal instructions on the proper use of equipment. The bill is currently on the governor's desk.
"I'm not the norm, Joe," Chris reminded me, one last time. We were both smiling, glossy-eyed, and in that moment, I was proud to be a small piece of fake snow, falling around the Statue of Liberty, standing tall and defiant in the most treacherous, darkest hour of the night.
If only the level of support and love the D'Amico family has received from family, friends, and total strangers was the norm. If only...