editor’s note: This post was originally published in July of 2014 but has been updated to include recent events.

The first few weeks of grief after losing a child are a mixture of rage, sadness, helplessness and fear: An unstable concoction that can react and explode at any given moment.  As someone who can now count himself among the unfortunate fraternity of those who lost a child I am sometimes asked by people to reach out to others who have recently suffered the same loss.  The almost universal inquiry that follows is if I can say something , anything, that will help them or guide them along their path.  Sadly, it is in those early days that words will have little or no effect.  I cannot describe the hysteria that is felt in the immediate aftermath other than to say it is a wheel of emotions in perpetual flux.  You are in an unnerving state of constant emotional change and nothing can stop that wheel from making its revolutions.  One thing I do tell these grieving parents is that it is important to feel every single one of those emotions in order to begin the process of healing.  Just as in chemistry, the reactants must come together to form a new product.  As the reaction proceed energy is released – sometimes furiously.  The products can only form in the wake of tumult and chaos. There is no other way to produce the end product.  Similarly, the grieving parent must experience and acknowledge every ounce of rage, sadness, helplessness and fear, as those feelings catalyze the synthesis of the “new normal”  they will eventually find themselves in.

Often times when I speak to grieving parents  (myself included) they recognize the fact that their friends and family want to help them – either through actions or words, but that very little resonates; at least at first.  Most people’s instinct in the wake of child-loss is to say things that they think will help the grieving parents. Paradoxically, at least to those who never suffered the loss and don’t truly understand it, those first few weeks are the worst time to hear advice on grief.   The reaction that child-loss generates is so volatile that our first thought is to “help” our hurting loved ones  and try to say anything (and often everything) that we think will “make it all better”.  In a way, our loved ones try in vain to keep the reactants of sadness, anger, rage and hopelessness away from the grieving as a means to avoid the combustion that follows.  Although the intentions of our loved ones is pure, they really can’t fathom what the grieving parent is going through.   For our loved ones recognizing the magnitude of the loss you experienced, coupled with their intrinsic fear of it happening to them,  results in the subconscious thought that they don’t want to even imagine what you are going through.  This is not an indictment of those we love, rather it is simply a function of the brain’s coping mechanism for something often described as unimaginable.

Outliving our children is not unimaginable, every parent has imagined that scenario and then tucked the thought away as quickly as it appeared.  No, losing a child is simply nature’s greatest cruelty and it represents a primal fear we simply do not ever want to face ourselves.  When a loved one loses a child there is no hiding, no tucking away of the thought.  We are forced to witness a reaction that is explosive and violent:  Of course we want to put out the flames, it’s only natural.  This natural need to try and fix that which is broken in those we care about leads to statements like:  “Look for the signs and you will see he is with you…”.  Those very words were uttered by countless people in the wake of Rees’ death.  To be honest, at the time and from my perspective, they offered very little comfort and often times just deepened the wound his absence caused.  I remember resenting hearing those words from people.  I knew they meant well.  I know they said it because they cared. Continue reading

One single click on the following link and choosing ReesSpecht Life will help us win $2500 from NEFCU this year!  Last year we won a similar contest from them and proceeded to donate our winnings AND match the same for the two charities that finished in second and third place (that contest only paid the winner!).  This year we are hoping your support will allow us to win again!  Simply click on the following link and choose ReesSpecht Life as the charity!  You can vote 1 time per day over the next ten days!  Help us win $2500 and keep spreading the seeds of kindness in 2018!

Here is the link: https://poll.fbapp.io/nefcu-seasons-of-giving/xnzLS8xO

Thank you!

Help support the ReesSpecht Life Foundation with this year’s t-shirt fundraiser!  These shirts are only available for purchase until 12/6/17 and will not be available after.  Our goal is to sell 150 to meet our fundraising goal for 2017.  Your donations to the foundation are tax-deductible as well!  Help us continue to spread the seeds of kindness in 2018.  Thank you so much!


Rich and Sam Specht

This past Thursday, September 14th, our producer Nick Byassee and Actor, Singer, Songwriter James Maslow pitched the idea for a children’s animated series based on our children’s book to NICK JR!  The video below explains everything.  We are asking that you like and share the video on Facebook and Youtube to help prove to Nick Jr. that this is something people want!  Our video on Facebook already has over 22 thousand views in a little over 24 hours!  We can do this!  Kindness does matter!


Imagining the “unimaginable”

There are three words that every parent of an angel hears all too often:  “I can’t imagine”.  Whenever I hear those words from others my response is always the same… Yes, you can absolutely imagine losing your child.  In fact, you most likely do it more than you are willing to admit.  More often than not, the thought is fleeting; washed away from the shores of your mind in a reassuring glance at your child.  Yes, you imagine it all the time. The truth is you are fearful of the very real possibility of what you imagine becoming reality…

For parents who lost a child the dynamic is completely reversed.  Fleeting moments of fear are replaced with innumerable moments wishing that our child was playing that game, singing in that choir, opening a Christmas gift or blowing out those birthday candles.  Everyday moments become unwelcome reminders of our loss.  Our fleeting moments are the happy ones; washed away from the shores of our minds by the sad tides of reality.

Child-loss is incredibly isolating.  As recently as just a century ago, it was highly likely (expected even) that a family would lose a child. It was rare for a family to never experience the pain of burying a child.  A hundred years ago the families that didn’t lose a child were the “lucky” ones. Those who lost a child were the norm and had a large support group to share their pain with. That is not the case today.

Modern medicine has completely flipped the dynamic, making child-loss the “rare” occurrence.  The end result is that families that have experienced this loss have very few people to share their pain with.  For the rest of us,  a family that has lost a child becomes a realization of the fear we all tuck away in the recesses of our mind.  We tend to avoid the things we fear…

First things first…

Nowhere is that statement more true than in the avoidance I engaged in for the past four years.  We lost our little boy, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht, on October 27th, 2012 to a drowning.  It would seem natural for us to start a foundation about water safety, but the reality is that neither my wife Samantha nor I were interested in doing that at all.  We both felt that doing so would simply make us hypocrites telling others to do that which we failed at.  In fact, we originally had no plans to start a foundation at all.  We simply wanted to thank the people who bestowed amazing acts of kindness upon our family in the wake of our most desperate hour.

It turns out that not a single person would let us pay them back.  Family, friends and even complete strangers, such as the Kelly Brothers Landscaping company that cleaned and re-designed our landscape free of charge after we lost Rees, would not allow us to pay them back.  When no one allowed us to pay them back, we simply decided to “pay it forward”.  We had 5000 “ReesSpecht Life”  pay it forward cards printed up with the hopes of doing 500 random acts of kindness (if you are wondering if I made a mistake with the zeroes, I did not.  I ordered 5,000 cards because, well, I’m a guy and 5,000 is better than 500, right?).

The first act of kindness we ever did was at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru pictured.  I simply paid for the car behind me and left the card.  When I did it, I recall thinking that it was “1 down, 499 more to go”.  It turns out my estimation was way off.  A chain reaction of kindness began with our original act that resulted in cars paying for each the entire morning.  Shortly afterwards we started getting requests for our cards, and the rest is history.  As of this moment we have now distributed over 430,000 cards to every continent on Earth.

As requests for our cards started to grow, my wife and I realized we needed to make our movement “official”.  We applied for non-profit status and were denied.  It turns out that “kindness” isn’t something the government finds tangible.  We were instructed that we needed a “real” reason to be granted non-profit status.  For my family and friends the answer seemed obvious: Drowning prevention.  Samantha and I did not agree.  We still couldn’t do it.

ReesSpecht the Water

We did eventually get our 501(c)(3) status; but as an educational foundation dedicated to promoting kindness in the form of a memorial scholarship in Rees’ name and educator grants.  It wasn’t until almost a year later,  upon meeting Bobby Hazen from the Long Island Drowning Prevention Task Force, that we got involved in drowning prevention and water safety.  I’ll admit, my commitment was halfhearted.  I was amazed at Bobby’s commitment to water safety and found his enthusiasm contagious.  I felt his dedication more than made up for my lackluster approach.  Partnering with him was a natural; especially after I saw the motto for the Saf-T-Swim swim schools he manages:  “Where children learn to love and RESPECT the water.”

Thus was born “ReesSpecht the Water” – a campaign to bring awareness to drowning prevention and water safety to Long Island schools.  At my suggestion, Bobby renamed the LIDPTF to something simpler and to the point: End Drowning Now.  As our relationship grew, Bobby kept trying to get me involved in the bigger world of drowning prevention.  I continued to resist.  In my mind, the work he was doing for the foundation was enough.  I still couldn’t commit to water safety.  I was still too afraid to face my fears…

That all changed this past week.  After much prodding, and a minimal amount of cajoling, Bobby convinced me to join him at the National Drowning Prevention Alliance conference in Pittsburgh Pa.  As soon as we arrived I was overwhelmed.  Pardon the pun, but I felt like a fish out of water.  Bobby rapidly introduced me to so many people that my head began to spin.  All I wanted to do was escape to my room and hide out.  The ever growing pit in my stomach indicated I made a colossal mistake.

That feeling continued into the evening.  I tried my best to remain as inconspicuous as possible; attempting to just “blend in” and make it through the evening.  I had been invited to meet with the Family’s United to Prevent Drowning to help put together their “Not One More” book that contained the stories of 32 children (including Rees) from 31 families that had a child drown.  I almost didn’t make it there, but something  (someone?) nudged me to go.

I was one of the last ones to make it to the room.  I walked in trying again to hide in plain sight only to find my plan foiled when Bobby announced me to the whole group.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but whatever it was it filled me with dread. I felt like I didn’t belong.  No, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there.  My nerves continued to build and I felt that overwhelming urge to run away and then it happened.  In an instant my fears were completely washed away.  A sense of calm flowed over me as I was welcomed by everyone to the party that no parent ever wants to attend.  As I looked around, the understanding eyes and acknowledging looks on everyone’s faces made me feel instantly at peace.

Almost immediately a beautiful soul named TC came up to me to introduce herself and her husband Matthew.  She told me she was excited (well not quite “excited”) that I was there because both her and her husband shared Rees’ love for tractors.  She talked about her angel Casey and I talked about Rees.  As our conversation wound down a realization struck me:  Our mutual pain made our exchange completely natural.  I didn’t need to “frame” how I talked about Rees and his accident because she and Matthew completely understood.  It was eye opening and liberating.

Free to be who I am.

My eyes weren’t the only things opened after that.  I soon found myself talking to other parents, shaking their hands, their eyes meeting my eyes with a reaffirming glint that confirmed they “knew” too.  I recall stopping for a moment and looking around the entire room. As I gazed at my fellow members of our unfortunate fraternity something struck me…  Almost everyone had a silicon armband on their wrists emblazoned with the name of their child and/or their movement’s name.  They came in different styles, shapes and colors; every single one of them as unique as their lost child.

I’ll be honest, up until that moment, I never really gave much thought to those ubiquitous silicone armbands before.  Almost everyone I know wears one for one cause or another. That moment made me realize that each one of those bands means everything to someone.  Every band in that room represented each parent’s undying love for a child they will never hold again.  I immediately grasped my own armband, purposely placed on my left arm so as to keep it as close to my heart as possible, and began to weep with a realization that took four years to materialize:  I wasn’t alone anymore.

I took one of the “Not one more drowning” books back to my room that night.  I read each story while simultaneously trying to fight back the torrent of tears streaming down my face.  Each story was different, but the pain was the same.  Every story I read brought back the agony of losing my little boy all over again.  31 stories.  32 children.  Different circumstances, but the same pain.  My heart was aching yet I, confusingly, felt at ease.

The confusion ended the very next day.  After several interesting seminars on different aspects of water safety we all gathered to hear a special address from the acting chairperson of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Ann Marie Buerkle.  After the address, chairperson Buerkle asked to meet with all the families from Families United to Prevent Drowning.  She sat and listened for over two and half hours as we all took turns sharing the most awful moment of our lives.  Even though I knew all the stories from having read them the night before, hearing them told by the parents of these angels was beyond emotional.

Chairperson Buerkle in the room with the Families United.

Just like the night before, I felt my heart aching, yet I was totally at ease.  Looking around the room I realized why…  The armbands.  I began to see those armbands for what they really are: Links in a chain that bound us all together.  The reason I was at ease was because I knew everyone of those links were as strong as mine was.  Every one of those links represented parents that felt the way I did.  Those links bound us together in a place we didn’t want to be, but wouldn’t be anywhere else considering the circumstances.  And, most importantly, every single one of those bands represented someone who would be there to lift the other up if we felt like we were weakening.

The reason I felt at ease is because I knew I was safe. There was no walking on eggshells.  Everyone understood and we all knew each other’s pain.  I imagined that this was probably a microcosm of what life was like for everyone centuries ago.  Our shared grief meant every person in that room wanted to make sure that no new families come to join us in the future.  We had all been given the sourest of lemons and were trying to make the best damn lemonade we could.

Not one more drowning!

Whatever reservations I had about promoting water safety and drowning prevention are gone now.  I left the convention buttressed by the strength of my fellow brothers and sisters in armbands.  While the ReesSpecht Life Foundation will always be about kindness, I realized the greatest kindness is preventing another family from becoming a link in our chain.  I hope you join us in our renewed commitment to End Drowning Now.

Together we can teach children and their families to ReesSpecht the Water and stop drowning from being the number one cause of accidental death for children ages 1-4.  I want people to come up to me one day and I say “I can’t imagine” – but have it be in reference to believing that at one time we lost children to drowning.  I believe we can do this – one Rees’ piece at a time…

We don’t want to add any more children to this list…

The Families United to Prevent Drowning

RICH SPECHT is an author, public speaker and advocate for kindness.  Rich authored the award winning children’s book  A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness.  He and his wife, Samantha, are the co-founders of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation which they formed in the wake of the loss of their only son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht at 22 months old.  The acts of kindness that the family received after Rees’ passing inspired them to “pay forward” that kindness; which the foundation does in the form of scholarships for High School seniors who demonstrate a commitment to their community, compassion and respect, as well as the distribution of more than four hundred thousand ReesSpecht Life “pay it forward” cards.  An animated television series featuring the themes and characters from Rich’s books is in the works.  The book and television adaptations of A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness represents the culmination of Rich’s goal to help make this world a little better, one Rees’ piece at a time.  Rich currently resides in Sound Beach, New York with his wife, Samantha, daughters, Abigail, Lorilei and Melina as well as his angel above, Rees.

There are many statistics on childhood bullying that are readily available:

According to the most recent studies from American SPCC

  • Been Bullied
    28% of U.S. students in grades 6–12 experienced bullying.
    20% of U.S. students in grades 9–12 experienced bullying.10
  • Bullied Others
    Approximately 30% of young people admit to bullying others in surveys.
  • Seen Bullying
    70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.
    70.4% of school staff have seen bullying. 62% witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month and 41% witness bullying once a week or more.

Clearly, bullying is a problem for school age children – but with all these statistics there are almost none that address:

When bullies “grow up”

I am a heavy man.  I was an overweight child. Having been this way almost my entire life, I have had my fair share of up-close exposure to bullies.  If you name it I can probably say that I have been called it… Fatty, fatso, fat-ass, lard-ass, blimp, wide-load, etc.  I’ve heard them all and then some.  

One rather creative term that I specifically remember was “chibbles and tits”.  No morning bus ride was complete without a serenade from the back of the bus of “chibbles and tits” set to the theme from the kibbles and bits dog food commercials.  I recall feeling as if the whole bus was a part of the chorus with me powerless to stop them.  

Those words, and many others, were like a punch in the gut every single day.  Most mornings I would arrive at school trying desperately to hide the tears welling up in my eyes so as to not give my tormentors the satisfaction of knowing they had hurt me.  The terrible truth is those words did hurt me.  I soon began to believe what they were telling me: I was a worthless fat pile of garbage – deserving of every name they bestowed upon me.  I couldn’t hold back the flood of tears indefinitely.  Most nights I cried myself to sleep; wishing for dreams where I possessed the power to fight back…

My childhood was filled to the brim with many moments similar to that.  Thankfully, although the weight has remained, the memories and their effects have faded.  I was fortunate to have a support system of two parents and extended family and friends who helped me develop the strength of character I needed to not allow the taunting to cause any long term effects.  The real solution, I found, was kindness.  “Kill ’em with kindness” my father used to say to me. The support of my family and friends granted me the ability to rise above the taunting and accept who I was.

The flip side of the coin

Unfortunately, whereas I was able to rise above my negative body image, my older sister Kim was not so lucky.  She dealt with many of the issues I did as well,  and I can only assume that my parents provided my sister with the same advice they did to me.   Sadly, for whatever reason, the taunting she received (complete with her own personal commercial inspired slur of “double bubble”) had a much more deleterious effect on her.  What’s even sadder is the fact that her suffering went unnoticed for years.  

By the time she reached high school, Kim seemed to be the model of the adolescent body image success story.  In a short period of time she blossomed from the stereotypical awkward, overweight band geek, to a stunning, athletic beauty who seemed to have everything going for her.  In what seemed like an instant, my big sister became everything that I wasn’t.  She was gorgeous, popular and had a social circle whose circumference seemed astronomical to my twelve year old, chubby and nerdy self.  

From the outside looking in, she appeared as though she had it all. But, looks can be – and more often than not are – deceiving. It turns out that the image she saw in every mirror was a much darker reflection than anyone in my family could have comprehended. Unbeknownst to us, Kim had been suffering from bulimia, a terrible fact that she had successfully hidden for years.  For most of this time, we were none the wiser of her binging and subsequent purges.  It wasn’t until I sneaked into her room one day and found her “stash” that her secret was uncovered.

With her secret out, the time for healing was at hand; but true healing only happens when those suffering the injury are willing to help themselves.  Sadly, my sister was not in the right place to see it that way and she naturally rebelled against my mother’s (and to a lesser extent my father’s) attempts to get her treatment.  She half-heartedly attempted to deal with the bulimia only as a means by which to placate them.

Although it appeared she was on the road to recovery, she was simply discovering other ways to hide her pain.  Feeling a sense of disapproval from my parents, my sister started reckless choices as she sought out affirmation and acceptance.  In response to my parents’ disapproval, Kim desperately sought out someone who would enable her…

“You’re going out with WHO?” were the first words uttered from my mouth when my sister told me she was going out on a date with a guy I had known since grade school.  Unbeknownst to her, he was part of a group of people who had bullied me when I was younger.  I was crushed.  The only saving grace I had was the knowledge that, sooner or later, his true colors would eventually come out.

That day took almost twenty years to arrive.  Her now boyfriend eventually convinced her she needed to get away from her family and they moved out to Arizona in the summer of 1993, and they married shortly after.   I am ashamed to admit that I had very little contact with my sister during her marriage.  I made a couple of visits out to see her, but they were few and far between. Her now husband had succeeded in separating her from her family and I was complicit in it.  We gave the bully all of the control he wanted.

Bullies love control

The very act of bullying someone is a means by which to exert control.  My sister, with her diminished self esteem and the ramifications of bulimia, proved to be an easy mark. Throughout their marriage he would constantly berate and belittle her, reminding her of how his support (i.e. control) was the only reason she had a roof over her head.  

He was clearly a master manipulator; a fact lost on my sister.  She only realized it when he had opened several lines of credit in her name without permission.  When my sister confronted him he did what he always did: He belittled her and told her it was her fault. Taking his cue from a Saturday morning cartoon villain, he blamed Kim for her meddling, explaining had she not looked into it, he would have paid it all off and she would have been none the wiser.  When she asked how he did it without her approval, he went on to remind her that he had control of everything, and her willful ignorance was tantamount to permission.

Although my sister has now been divorced from him for five years, in some ways his control over her has actually worsened.  Although physically separated, their children remain a permanent connection that he continues to manipulate to gain control.  She is bombarded with insulting texts thinly disguised as inquiries into the children’s welfare as well as her own.  He continues to belittle and berate her with every opportunity he can.  The bully can’t let go.

I ain’t heavy, I’m her brother…

Last week I finally decided I’d had enough.  I  reached out to my former brother-in-law to implore him stop harassing my sister. His response: “Hey, Rich, go [have sex with] yourself”. “You’re a pathetic human being”. “Still using big words to justify your [expletive] arrogant way”. “You fat [expletive]”. In the wake of this pathetically predictable response, I answered with, “Classy to the last.” and figured that was it.  It served as an instant reminder why I never engaged with him.  Then my phone continued to chime.

He continued to text me.  A stream of insults followed.  Every single one of them a reference to my weight.  It transported me back to my school days.  With all due respect to my nine year old self, did he really think those words would effect me now?  Losing my only son hurt me more than any words he could hurl at me possibly could.  The fact he couldn’t recognize that reminded me the he didn’t grow up at all.  The texts continued for days – just random insults and taunts.  I simply blocked his number and moved on.

Unfortunately, my sister cannot do the same.  The fact that they share custody of their children ensures their continued communication.  I experienced, in a microcosm, what my sister lives with on a daily basis, and I simply flipped a switch and shut him off.  Imagine what twenty five years of hearing these things over and over without the ability to turn it off does to you?

For years I felt powerless in my ability to help her, and when I tried to take a more proactive role, his response to me reminded me of the futility of taking on a bully.  I grew despondent, wishing there was more I could do for my sister and the countless other women who find themselves in similar situations.  And then I realized the “solution” is right here.  You are reading it.

Cultivate Kindness

Don’t let people tell you that bullies never win. Bullies can, and do “win”.  For many, bullying is an effective way of gaining, and maintaining control.  If it weren’t a successful strategy, it simply wouldn’t persist.  So, if this is the case, then how do we stop a bully?  Clearly, ignoring them is not the surefire remedy we wish it to be, as my failure with my sister’s tormentor proves.  The answer is surprisingly simple, and it’s one that stares me in the face every day: “Cultivate Kindness”.  

Bullies desire control above all else.  So, how do you take that control away?  

Simple: You take control. We must stop being bystanders and start being activists.  Activism isn’t storming the castle and  the throwing of stones.  Activism is taking control of the narrative and rewriting it.  

You don’t stop a bully by raising your voice or your fists.  You stop a bully by preventing them from being one in the first place.  According to research, teaching children kindness and compassion for others stands as the single best way to stop bullying.  Cultivate Kindness: The ReesSpecht Life Foundation does just that.  We speak to children all over the country about the importance of kindness.   

As for the bullies that are already out there – the ones we can’t get through to?  What about the bullies who “grow up”?

The answer is still kindness.  We need to get over this misconception that kindness and compassion are weaknesses.  Make no mistake: they are strengths!  We need to promote kindness and bring the majority of us who believe in it, front and center.  The time has come for us to give a voice to the power of collective human kindness.  When a kind person sees a bully, it’s incumbent upon them to say it.  Let others know.  Remind the bullies that we have the numbers, not them.  Bullies count on, and take advantage of, our collective apathy.  True kindness is standing up and speaking out for what is moral and just in this world; and for each other.  As individuals we can be targets.  As a collective voice we can drown out those negative ones that seek to control us and our every move.  

My nine year old self dreamed of a time where I had the power to stop a bully.  It turns out I didn’t need to dream at all.  The power was always there…

You want to stop a bully? It turns out that my father’s advice all those years ago was exactly right: “Kill em’ with kindness”.   

For a more detailed version of this story, telling much more of Kim’s story click here

Please share your thoughts below:

RICH SPECHT is an author, public speaker and advocate for kindness.  Rich authored the award winning children’s book  A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness.  He and his wife, Samantha, are the co-founders of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation which they formed in the wake of the loss of their only son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht at 22 months old.  The acts of kindness that the family received after Rees’ passing inspired them to “pay forward” that kindness; which the foundation does in the form of scholarships for High School seniors who demonstrate a commitment to their community, compassion and respect, as well as the distribution of more than four hundred thousand ReesSpecht Life “pay it forward” cards.  An animated television series featuring the themes and characters from Rich’s books is in the works.  The book and television adaptations of A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness represents the culmination of Rich’s goal to help make this world a little better, one Rees’ piece at a time.  Rich currently resides in Sound Beach, New York with his wife, Samantha, daughters, Abigail, Lorilei and Melina as well as his angel above, Rees.