Zack was only three when he died.
His short life had been filled with hospital visits. He was born in 2007 with a unique genetic disorder and a host of medical issues, including a congenital heart defect, seizures, and feeding issues requiring a g-tube, to name but a few. But his parents, Heather and Paul, were always his advocates, his heroes, his caregivers and together with his brothers, his great loves.
Zack had one more great love, though. Through his repeated hospital stays and procedures, there was always one thing present in the photographs and stories: Elmo. Elmo toys and songs and videos helped the whole family get through some very tough times. And every time Zack came home, he would reach newer and greater heights before the next bout of illness, before sitting down rapt in front of Elmo’s World.
But it was hard. Zack never stayed healthy long enough. In February of 2011, diagnosed with pneumonia and an influenza B virus, Zack was admitted to Sick Kids hospital in Toronto. The story of these difficult days are on Heather’s blog; the tale of a beloved boy and a viral bug that got rapidly worse until, despite the doctors’ best efforts, Zack died in the arms of his Mommy and Daddy on March 10, 2011.
The loss of Zack was felt not only in Heather and Paul’s family, but across the internet world. Heather, a popular blogger, had won over many hearts not just with her bright smile and captivating writing, but with the story of Zack. And as the news of Zack’s illness and death spread, something started to happen: a little face began to appear on people’s Twitter avatars. Elmo’s face. The face of the Sesame Street monster that Zack loved was now helping to silently share Heather and Paul’s grief; showing the family that we, too, shared their grief at the loss of their child.
Image Credit: Screenshot from Twibbon.com
Heather and Paul returned home and slowly began to rebuild their lives without Zack. They could not forget the outpouring of support in their darkest hours, from both their “real life” friends and their friends online. Soon after that, the staff at the York Central Hospital where Zack had spent so much time in his short life told the family that they wanted to create a room that Zack would have loved: a room filled with Elmo.
Heather and Paul focused their energies on this effort. The rooms at the hospital were in need of renovation, and to update a room in tribute of Zack seemed more than fitting. So Heather and Paul, together with their sons Ty and Jayden, dressed up in Elmo t-shirts and reached out to their community to raise the $25,000 needed to create Zack’s Dream Room. Heather told her story: to magazines, to conferences and more conferences, to websites, to everyone. We’re making her son’s dream come true. And everywhere she went, she inspired people to make a difference for Zack and for children everywhere. Within weeks, the team reached their goal of $25,000 — and now, are raising money to renovate a second room at the hospital.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Photo Credit: Heather Hamilton (Used With Permission)
Heather had made a promise to Zack: to make sure that Kevin Clash, the Muppetteer behind Elmo, knew how important he was to Zack and to everyday life in their house. She promised to have Elmo say Zack’s name.
After Zack died, Heather learned about the Being Elmo film: the film about Clash and his journey as Elmo. One day, Heather made a post on the Being Elmo Facebook page. She told the team what Elmo had meant to her Zack and to her entire family after losing him. And within a day, Constance Marks, the director and produce of the Being Elmo film, got in touch with Heather directly and vowed to help the Zack’s Dream Room project in any way possible — and to pass the story along to Kevin.
A few months later, Heather got a phone call from the VP of Communications at Sesame Street, who told Heather that Kevin Clash personally wanted to help the Elmo’s Dream Room project. Ellen offered to organize a donation of Elmo furniture and other items for the room.
And the magic continues. Next week, the team is holding a special screening of Being Elmo in Toronto as a fundraiser for the project — with a special screening of a personal video created by Kevin Clash. In this video, Clash makes Zack’s wish come true: he says Zack’s name.
Grief can destroy you. It can turn you into a shell of your former self and cause you to forget what it feels like to be happy. For Heather and Paul and their sons, they have turned their grief into joy and hope for other children in Zack’s memory. May we all have such grace in our own lives.
Photo credit: Heather Hamilton. Used with Permission.