By Selene Raj
Fred Guttenberg is no stranger to grief.
His name is synonymous with his daughter, Jaime, who at 14, was killed in the February 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre.
Since that day, his passionate fight against gun violence and for sensible gun laws have landed him in conversations with some of the most powerful legislators and political figures in the country, as well as on the national stage. Most recently, he represented Florida in the 2020 Democratic National Convention’s roll call.
While he may be known best for his advocacy and political work, there is a different focus in his upcoming book, where he speaks not only about the large scale issues and events that affect him, but the small moments in between, where he was surrounded by what he calls “helpers” carrying out small and great acts of kindness.
More importantly, he shares his experience with grief and how he manages to move through it without losing all hope.
Guttenberg’s grief was made immeasurably worse by the loss of his only daughter. However, it began four months before her death when he and his wife Jennifer, and children, Jesse and Jaime, were mourning the death of his brother, Michael, who died of pancreatic cancer.
Michael’s cancer stemmed from his work as the deputy medical director of the New York City Fire Department and first responder during 9/11 when he worked for weeks at Ground Zero immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center.
But the book, he said, went back even further than grief. It began with the “helpers.”
Following those same attacks his brother was responding to, Guttenberg and the rest of the country were reminded by Fred Rogers to look for the helpers in times of tragedy. Especially after 9/11, he saw them everywhere—not just in his brother, but in other first responders and good people everywhere trying to make others’ lives a little easier.
In the summer of 2002, inspired by those helpers, he first thought of writing this book.
“It took me a while to get there mentally. I was always writing things down; I was journaling, I was keeping records because I knew eventually, I was going to [write the story],” he said.
Still, he said, it took a lot of time for him actually to write the book.
Nearly two decades after that first inspiration and the two tragic losses in his life propelled him to finish the book, as he found writing to be cathartic for him, waking up at 4:30 a.m. sometimes to write.
“I am an early-morning guy. I write just before my head is overwhelmed with all the other things that day,” he said.
And, what started solely as an autobiography turned into something else—including not just his lessons on grief, but a collection of stories of those who have been the helpers in his life.
“The book evolved from the telling of my story to, really, the telling of the story of others and how much they meant to me,” he said.
Though it has evolved, the book is still uniquely his, he said.
“It’s still my story, and it’s still my voice, but I get to tell how important people were and are and candidly, and in this time that this country’s going through, with this coronavirus, we all need others. We all need helpers, and we all need to do a good job of figuring out who our helpers are, but also who we can be helpers for,” he said.
For Guttenberg, he has attempted to be a helper by dedicating his life to running a non-profit organization, Orange Ribbons for Jaime, and advocating for meaningful gun reform in honor of his daughter.
Despite this landing him in political arenas, such as the State of the Union address or testifying in front of legislatures, he doesn’t plan to run for office— he prefers to do the work he can do as an advocate.
His number one priority at the moment is getting Vice President Joe Biden elected and flipping the senate. He believes President Trump, who has neglected to pass meaningful gun legislation and has failed to respond to the pandemic crisis adequately, should be replaced.
“I do think he has failed the country. He had multiple unique opportunities to deal with gun violence in a meaningful way, and every time he failed to do so,” he said.
Guttenberg makes no secret that he is an avid supporter of Biden.
On February 15, 2018, Biden called him, and in that conversation, and every conversation the two had since, changed the course of his life. It’s one of the things he writes about in his book. Among all his helpers—the friends, the family, the first responders, activists, fellow civilians, and politicians, Biden has also been one of the helpers.
Part of the book, he says, explains how he and his wife experienced tragedy, grief, and mourning differently. Biden was the person who told him to expect their relationship to evolve due to the different ways they would deal with the loss and told him to be prepared for it.
Biden, who lost his first wife, Neilia, and their 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, to a car accident in 1972, and then his son Beau son to brain cancer in 2015, knows grief, so profoundly, that he was able to soften the shock of its process, even if just by the slightest, for Guttenberg.
“Nobody else ever spoke to me about that or told me to be prepared—he did, and he was right,” Guttenberg said.
Compassion and empathy are some of Biden’s most celebrated qualities, and Guttenberg feels that it is rightfully so.
“It’s genuine—when he was reaching out to me, he wasn’t in office or anything, he wasn’t running for anything. He reached out to me as a dad, as a husband, as a human being, and it’s why I’ve gotten so connected to him.”
And, while the book mentions people as well-known as Biden, Guttenberg hasn’t forgotten those close to home, those in the city of Parkland, where his most profound loss was felt, where the entire community still grieves, and where he found so many of his helpers.
“When February 14th happened, this community stepped up in a way that I never could have imagined any community doing. It wasn’t just people that I already know; it was people that I didn’t know,” he said.
The one thing he hopes the residents of Parkland know, he said, is how much he appreciates them—what they mean and continue to mean to him and his family.
Like so many others in Parkland, his life has been shaped by loss.
Guttenberg acknowledged that a good life isn’t marked by the absence of grief, because it’s a part of life for too many people. Instead, he said that a good life is characterized by the ability to move through the grief.
“My rabbi says, ‘We don’t move on, we move forward,’” he said.
Fred Guttenberg is no stranger to grief—he has been wrapped in it for almost three years. However, with the help of friends and family and strangers, he has been able to move through it, embracing its lessons without losing himself in the process.
Find the Helpers: What 9/11 and Parkland Taught Me About Recovery, Purpose, and Hope will be released on Tuesday, September 15, and can be found online and in stores.
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- Selene Raj is a writer and a Florida International University graduate. She’s completed her Master’s in Mass Communications in 2020 and has been living in Coral Springs since 2004. She is passionate about the communities she lives and works in and loves reporting and sharing stories that are as complex and meaningful as the people who live in them.
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