On Aug. 11, 2011, Topeka resident Von Kopfman’s 21-year-old son Jacob was in a work-related accident.
Jacob was flown to a Columbia, Mo., hospital and by the time Kopfman and Jacob’s twin brother, Jordan, arrived at the hospital, they were too late. He had died.
Suddenly, Kopfman was faced with a whirlwind of decisions at a time when he was in shock. He was told he needed to find a funeral home that could embalm his son before crossing the state line. He also was advised to get a lawyer.
“I’m thinking, I don’t know a funeral home in Columbia, Mo. I don’t know an attorney,” he said.
Six months later, he launched a website, forthesurvivors.org, to provide resources for others who have lost a child. The website provides information about counseling, legal services and funeral homes. He has partnered with Psychology Today magazine and the National Funeral Directors Association to provide the trusted resources.
“I found out that when you lose somebody, you can really be taken advantage of,” he said. “It’s very easy to not necessarily make an informed decision.”
The website also provides links to books and DVDs as well as a forum where people can share their stories and suggest other resources.
“I am trying to turn something negative that happened to my family into something positive. That’s the only way I can survive this is to try to help other people,” Kopfman said.
The website has led to a publishing deal for two books called “The Letters Project” that came out of counseling that Kopfman and his son received.
“My son was very angry that we didn’t get there before Jacob passed away and didn’t get the chance to tell him goodbye, and the psychologist suggested that he hand-write a letter to him,” Kopfman said. So, Jordan — who didn’t really want to see a counselor in the first place — wrote his brother a letter and he said it made him feel better.
Then, his dad wrote one.
Then, Kopfman encouraged a handful of other parents who lost their children during the past few years to write letters as well.
Kopfman said he learned from his counselor that writing a letter is referred to as narrative therapy and the process causes certain chemicals in the brain to be released. People also are more apt to let out their true emotions through a letter.
Jordan then asked his dad, who is a songwriter, to put his letter to music and once it was done, he posted it on Facebook.
From there, interest in Kopfman’s “letters project” grew. About 50 families came forward wanting to write letters to their loved ones. He met an 85-year-old woman who was grieving the loss of her 65-year-old son and wanted to join the project.
“She pointed out that it doesn’t matter what age you are; they are still your baby,” Kopfman said.
He has received hundreds of letters, and now they will be in a book “The Letters Project Book: Letters to Lost Loved Ones,” that will be published in December. The letters are not just from parents, but also grandparents, siblings, spouses and friends. There also will be a CD with 15 songs based on 15 letters in the book.
“There’s healing for those who write the letters, but there’s also healing in reading the letters that somebody else wrote that has experienced the same kind of grief you have,” he said.
During his research for the first book, he came across a blog by Jefri Franks, a grief counselor in Kansas City, Mo., who lost her only child to cancer in 2001. In the blog, Franks talked about working at Children’s Mercy Hospital and overhearing a conversation between a terminally ill 4-year-old girl who had lung cancer and her nurse. The girl asked, “Will anybody remember me when I am gone?”
After reading the blog, Kopfman contacted Franks and the idea for a second book was born, “The Letters Project Book: Letters From Terminally Ill Children.”
Kopfman and Franks also teamed up with artist Jancy Pettit, of Topeka, so children could draw pictures that illustrate how they feel. The book will include information about the fears a child with a terminal illness might have, information about the healing powers of writing and art, and hundreds of children’s letters and artwork. The book is expected to be published in February.
“In visiting with some families, they are so elated. It’s the first positive thing they’ve had,” he said. “For a lot of these kids, the only place they’ve ever been is in the hospital. The only kids they know are other terminally ill kids. They sit and they watch their friends die and they know they are going to die. It’s horrible, and anything that we can do to bring some joy and some peace and reassure them that their life did make a difference and they aren’t going to be forgotten, well, I am just absolutely honored to be a part of that.”