Brittany Ford still remembers the acts of kindness in the weeks after her brother Zachary took his life on February 27, 2011. Something as simple as a shoveled sidewalk would touch her and her family. “It might only have been a half hour of help, but it would mean everything.”
Even more powerful were the stories pouring in about Zachary himself, the acts of kindness that were part of his nature. Some of the cards and letters depicted little things he’d done on the baseball field, where he’d starred for the Jesse Burkett team that went to the Little League World Series finals.
“For example, this kid was 16 when Zach passed, but when he was much younger, he was on the Jesse Burkett [baseball] field and told Zach he didn’t have a place there, and Zach took him under his arm and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be fine, you’re going to be great.’ That was Zach, he was always doing things like that.
“I always thought of him as an old soul. When someone else hurt, he hurt. He’d take other people’s hurt and put it on himself. … Some people have a very open heart and take on other people’s emotions, and it gets to be so heavy and they don’t know what to do with it. That’s very hard.”
In Zach’s case, a friend had taken his life two weeks earlier, sending him into a tailspin that culminated in him drinking while much of the family was gone to Florida for a marathon. Just before, he’d called Brittany in Florida to encourage her on the eve of her marathon, and had mentioned going into the military as a way for him to get through his grief.
At the memorial service, Brittany shared a poem that came to her late one night that week, while her mother provided a movingly positive account of what Zach meant to the people around him. The family eventually contemplated how to funnel their loss into a more lasting tribute – involving something to help others. While they found suicide-related organizations very helpful, they felt Zachary’s death might have been accidental — that he didn’t intend to go through with it – and they wanted to tie his name to something that focused “less on how he died than how he lived.”
Then came an invitation. Quinsigamond Community College professor Paul LaCava asked Brittany’s mother, Rosemary Ford, to speak about her son to course, “Death and Dying.” The course was geared toward nurses who have to deal with dying patients and traumatized families as part of their work.
“She was asked, ‘how do you deal with that on an everyday basis, and the first thing Mom said was, ‘Well, I wake up first thing in the morning and I don’t believe it’s true. I guess when I believe that it’s true, I’m crippled with grief. But then I think of the spirit of my son, the heart that he had, so I try to do one act of kindness every single day. And if at the end of the year, I’ve done one act of kindness a day, I’ve done 365. And if I do more, it’s a bonus.’
“The professor was very moved by it. He’d started organizations in Worcester, and he said, ‘I think we should start an association promoting acts of kindness.’” Naturally, they named it 365Z.
Now is the part where you come in.
For its May 10th kickoff event, 365Z is inviting people to create a book of 100 stories of kindness, acts large or small, in a variety of forms, from essays and poems to pictures. The event will be from 6-11 p.m. at Wachusett Country Club. Tickets are $40 per person. They’re available through two means: Writing to 907 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602 or e-mailing at email@example.com.
Brittany herself is a talented writer who majored in literature at Assumption College, where I was lucky enough to teach her in Literature of Social Responsibility course that involved volunteerism. In fact, a photo of Brittany on a class Habitat for Humanity build still appears on some posters and flyers at AC.
Naturally, I asked if she’d written her own act of kindness story for the book.
Turns out she’s been too busy reading the stories of others. Often the stories involve multiple acts of kindness. For instance, a terminally ill man said one of his wishes was to meet New England Patriot Ted Bruschi. First, a woman he didn’t know that well took it upon herself to write Bruschi, figuring she probably wouldn’t hear back. Second, she did hear back, and in a big way – Bruschi invited him to the stadium, and dined with him as well.
Even if she hasn’t settled on a story yet, Brittany has reflected deeply on the quality of kindness, particularly in regard to yoga. She turned to yoga as a discipline to get her through her grief – “it was the only peace I experienced all day” – and then naturally wanted to share its healing power with others. She teaches some classes for free, just to meet the need.
She had one male novice come up to her after class and say yoga hade changed his life. “Then he started crying. Of course, I’ve cried in yoga a million times, but no one has ever expressed that same kind of emotion. I guess it came full circle from where I started when I signed up for the yoga teaching program, from me wanting to change people’s lives, to help them feel better about selves, to see it actually happening. That was amazing.”
Brittany has done more dramatic service work such as mucking out houses in post-Katrina New Orleans, without the satisfaction of knowing whether the house would be lived in or torn down – a service that forced her away from gratification of guaranteed results. But yoga helped attune her to the daring acts of kindness that come in something as simple as a smile.
“I think that to be kind makes you vulnerable. To smile at a stranger instead of just walking by, even if they don’t smile back; to write a letter saying how much you love someone, even if you don’t get that kindness back, is important.”
Yoga makes her more likely to be kind in those little ways: The more you can have compassion with yourself, she says, the more you can extend that compassion to others.
“When you repress your feelings, it causes dis-ease in your body, which then causes disease in your body, but by allowing those feeling, allowing yourself to cry or laugh or dance or do whatever you need to do in that moment, it will benefit you. It’s hard. It would be very easy to wake up every morning and curl up into a little ball, or try to forget everything that happened. The hard work is trying to move on in a productive way, try to be happy, and to know wherever Zach is, he’s in a good place, and I have faith I will see him again some day.”
Meanwhile, focusing on those daily acts of kindness goes along way. 365Z invites you to reflect on the acts you have experienced – and to submit entries at Brittany.firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I think this could be something really great, something really big,” Brittany said, smiling. “Something to remind us to be kind to others, but to be kind to yourself, too.”