Lou Magrone’s wife, Francine, gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Joseph Louis on January 6, 2017. But sadly, every parent’s nightmare was now their reality: their son was stillborn and laid to rest a week later. This tragedy inspired Lou to create Walk in Sunshine Charity, whose mission is to assist families in the New Jersey area who have lost a young child, and it provides online resources for families around the world.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- The emotional roller coaster experience of Lou and his wife Francine while Francine delivered their stillborn son and how it eventually led them to joy.
- Why stillbirths are so hush-hush and understudied?
- The touching story about a father whose teenage daughter committed suicide and the impact Walk in Sunshine Charity had on his life.
- Important questions and scenarios Walk In Sunshine Charity helps grieving people to address.
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS LOU:
- What should a parent do to prepare for services and a final resting place for a deceased child?
- What is the dad’s view of loss and grief and coping?
- What coping mechanisms do you employ when a difficult situation comes your way?
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Lou Magrone: Speaker, Philanthropist And Founder Of Walk In Sunshine Charity
I’m honored to have this opportunity to interview Lou Magrone who is a speaker, a philanthropist and the Founder of Walk in Sunshine Charity. Lou will be speaking to us from Westfield, New Jersey. In a way, we’re neighbors. I’m in West Orange and Lou is in Westfield. I’m sure he’s eaten at our restaurants and I’ve eaten in theirs. Lou’s wife, Francine, gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Joseph Louis on January 6th, 2017. Sadly, every parent’s nightmare was now their reality. Their son was stillborn and was laid to rest a week later.
This tragedy inspired Lou to create Walk in Sunshine Charity, whose mission is to provide assistance to families in the New Jersey area who have lost a young child. Additionally, it provides online resources for families all around the world. This is no doubt going to be a very informative and touching interview with Lou. I’m looking forward to it. Lou, welcome to the show.
Irene, it’s very nice to meet you. I appreciate this opportunity to chat with you.
Your organization is wonderful and it’s truly my pleasure. Though, the reason for it is we need people to be informed about these things and here you are. Before we begin talking about Walk in Sunshine Charity and what happened to you, how about telling our audience about your life and career before Joseph Louis was born?
I grew up on Staten Island, New York with my wife Francine. We were so excited that after we met, we were married to move to New Jersey. It’s this progression in life. We made it. We were looking around New Jersey and settled on Westfield. The schools were great. Here we are, we took this leap of faith to move into our dream home in Westfield without having kids yet. We wanted to check that box and felt like we were doing all the right things.
I went to school. I have a Doctorate in Physical Therapy. I’m no longer in practice. My wife has two Master’s. Here we were both at very working middle-class blue-collar homes and had put our heads down for a lot of years. We’re trying to achieve the American dream. We got to Westfield and didn’t have many friends. We were able to get pregnant and then everything happened. We didn’t have a support network in New Jersey because we were only there for about a year or so. That was our experience leading up to that point.
Did you have any experiences with grief before you lost your son?
As a teenager, I remember being away. I went to Ithaca College in upstate New York during my freshman year. Both a grandfather and a grandmother died on each respective side. That was difficult for me because I was still used to not being at home and not having that support. Other challenges, when they arose in college, I turned to a priest. A man that became super close to me is Father Scott Kavinsky. He’s still very close to me. He married Francine and me. He almost became a second father to me. He taught me things that maybe weren’t easy conversations for my parents or other family members to have with me growing up.
I’m so appreciative of him and his time. In your twenties, it’s a great time to explore yourself and practice certain things like meditation, keeping an open mind, thinking about grief, letting go and all kinds of stuff I’m sure we’ll touch base on later. There were relationships that break up that are rough when you’re a young person and things like that. I have some experience with grief but nothing like losing a child.
How about sharing the emotional rollercoaster you experienced while you waited? It’s such a story while you waited for your wife, Francine to deliver your stillborn son. How did you and Francine eventually find joy in spite of this tragic circumstance?
It was the craziest 24 or so hours. Francine had an ultrasound at the hospital where she works, Staten Island University Hospital. She was a nurse practitioner there and received a call that the baby wasn’t moving. I rushed from New Jersey to her work. At this point, we decided to deliver back to New Jersey where we were planning to, which was Overlook Hospital.
We got to Overlook Hospital and I remember the emotions going from New Jersey to Staten Island. We’re crying. Everything was raw and angry. You’re hoping something’s wrong and then they show you four times that the baby’s not moving. Once I saw Joseph, I had gotten to know him so well from those other ultrasounds. I knew he was always flannel on his arms and unfortunately, he wasn’t anymore. It was crazy.
We got to Overlook. They confirmed everything again. They explained the process and that it was going to take some time to induce Francine. The nurse came in and dropped off a book. I don’t know what it was but I wanted to throw it. I was not in a good place. I thought about punching the wall and all kinds of stuff like that. There was a lot of anger.
I went back to that faith that I had practiced with Father Scott in my twenties because you revert to this almost like primitive ways. I had taken so much time to develop that so I knew that it was in God’s plan for this to happen and to let go, almost allow it to happen and say, “I need to be here to support Francine because she still has to vaginally deliver this baby. I have to cheer her on and coach as if Joseph was alive, even though we know Joseph isn’t alive, to make this as painless as possible.”
We called a local priest at St. Helen’s here in Westfield because we wanted him to come to pray with us. He came and it was so powerful. Our family showed up at certain times while waiting for Joseph to come. Finally, the nurses were checking on Francine and they said, “The time had come.” At some point, maybe after 24 hours and maybe Joseph was delivered 26 to 27 hours after being induced so the last 2 to 3 hours, I can’t describe it. We became excited. We were excited to see our son. This was our firstborn. We knew him. We spoke to him. Francine played music for him. That was our son.
We were going to finally see what he looked like. That was exciting. It was crazy and we cried. Joy and sadness but I was so proud to see him. That was my son and he had his name. He’s Joseph. It was so amazing to hold him. I wouldn’t trade that time for the world, those few minutes. Some stillborn parents do spend longer time with their children. We probably spent only about fifteen minutes. They put a diaper and a little beanie hat on him and dress him up. It was so special and we were so excited. Only God can change hearts and that’s what happened. My heart went from being so angry, cold and rigid to being so warm, loving and open to see Joseph. I’m grateful to have met him.
Look at how you evolved and grew through this experience. That’s amazing. What were people’s responses to your loss? Were they generally sympathetic? I hear that stillbirths are very hush-hush and understudied. People have a hard time with it usually, don’t they?
You’re exactly right. A lot of people didn’t even want to acknowledge it. To be honest with you, that hurt and it still hurts. Probably the best thing you could do for any stillborn parent if you find that out about them is just to say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” It means so much because so many people don’t and they don’t understand it. Just because they didn’t get to meet Joseph, hold him or play with him and he didn’t pass 1 year and 3 months, it’s easy to discount that because people base it on their personal experiences.
This was a few years ago. What all our friends were doing when they were having their children was sending a text to their friends like, “So-and-so was born. Mary is born on this day or this night and everyone’s doing well.” I wanted that experience too. I shared how beautiful Joseph was, the date and time he was delivered, that he looked like his mother and something to the effect that we were passing him off to heaven. Almost nobody responded. Nobody knew what to say or do.
I don’t even know if I was looking for a response but selfishly, I was looking to share my joy because of that joy I was having. I’m here to bring some awareness to this topic. These children are part of our families and we’re not letting them go. They’re a part of our stories and to be recognized. Just the recognition is important. You can sit in 2021 and say, “You’re whatever color, creed or sex you want.” 99.9% of people accept that. If you say you have a stillborn, people run away and it’s not acceptable anymore.
What inspired you to have found Walk in Sunshine? Why did you give the charity that name?
I didn’t mean to be so religious on this chat here.
You can be as religious as you need to be. On this show, be you. It’s not a problem at all.
Thank you, Irene. At mass, I had heard locally here in Westfield, New Jersey, still being the outsider and not having friends about some other losses parents were having. There was a diving accident and a young man passed away, a teenager. Another young lady was hit by her car innocently crossing the street. One day, the same priest that came to pray with us in the hospital gave this riveting homily saying, “Life is hard and everything’s hard but he has not had a bury a handful of children and teenagers as he has in the last couple months.” One of them was Joseph as well.
Here I am sitting like, “I’m driving by all these houses and there are other people in a lot of pain too.” If you lose a child, it’s a pretty unique pain that’s very high on the grief meters that Harvard and some other people have studied when they’ve looked at your brain activity. I was like, “There are other people in pain.” I know that when I was looking for answers on the internet because that’s what my generation does, I’m googling at 1:00 AM, I couldn’t find anything. I kept getting dead ends and I was frustrated. I said, “There needs to be something that could compile all these great resources that are out there that are so hard to find.”
Knowing that there was a pain going around me locally and the frustration I was having finding it led me to it. Also going to the infant section in the cemetery, which is children 0 to 3, about 50% of the graves don’t have headstones. I asked the cemetery keeper or cemetery master director, “Why?” He said, “A lot of it is financial, Lou. When people have young children, they are ready to pay for diapers and formula but they’re not ready to pay for a funeral or a grave and a headstone.”
When people are living paycheck to paycheck, this is a burden and I didn’t want it to be. That was one of the reasons I wanted to start Walk in Sunshine. We chose the name from a Psalm in the Bible that says, “May you always walk in the sunshine.” It’s how it opens. It’s about letting go. “There’s no way that you could have cried any harder or we would’ve saved you” kind of a deal. It was so fitting.
On that note, this is my Jewish part coming out, if God forbid happens, what should a parent do to prepare for services and a final resting place for a deceased child? What are the steps? Who helped with that?
One of the important things for us with Joseph being our firstborn was we didn’t know if there was something wrong with us as parents physically. Would we be able to have children after that? When it’s a stillborn or a child that passes at a very young age, it’s called a perinatal pathologist. That was important to us. In the state of New Jersey where we live, to my knowledge, we have two. I believe one at Rutgers and one down South in one of the Philly suburbs. If the child is 2 or 3 years old, maybe a pediatric forensic pathologist, if you need particular questions answered because you have to make that decision to do the autopsy piece before the services.
What’s unique to stillborn loss is the “final resting place.” Since I’ve been out and about this charity and met so many families, it is such a unique and diverse way that you could choose to honor your child. We know for adults it’s typically a coffin or cremation, mausoleum or in the ground per se. It can be spoken by many people. With stillborns, you hear people that will get an urn and they will leave the ashes in the house, which other people do too. I feel like it’s a little bit more common with younger children or babies. Also, I even heard it’s becoming popular for moms to get little lockets, putting some of the ashes in those lockets and carrying them around with them.
Making some of those decisions are important and some of those resources are hard to find. When I showed up at the local funeral home here in Westfield, a story I’d like to share is that they said, “You need to bury your baby boy. Here are our options.” Pretty much the only option I remember seeing was a little pink pill box that looked like it was from my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn from the 1970s. It looked like it was 50 years old and it was pink. For me, that didn’t work. “I need a baby blue thing here. Where can I find that?”
On our website, WalkInSunshineCharity.org, we have several different reputable online retailers that I’ve personally spoken to that give you more of an option for the urn or super small coffins. These local funeral homes are not in the business of burying children, fortunately. They’re just burying people from 5 feet tall to 6 feet tall. Finding the appropriate place to rest your loved one is important too and we have some of those resources on our website.
As far as the resources on your website and important questions and scenarios, is there anything else you want to highlight that people can go to your website? I’m going to ask you about your memory wall but are there other things that people might want to know to access on your site?
We have links to books, blogs, podcasts, national organizations and local charities here in New Jersey. We have a special section for that. We also have links to in-person support groups that people can find. One of my favorite links or sections we have is for tchotchkes and little memories.
I understand tchotchke. For those of you who are not Italian or Jewish, tchotchke is a little trinket or something.
When I was looking for something when Joseph passed away, I kept coming up with the same angel. Google would bring me this one and I didn’t like this angel. I’ve found 5, 6, 7 or 8 websites that have all kinds of cooler, different, more unique tchotchkes. This will save someone time.
They’re grieving like crazy. They need something. I have a few other resources to give you later on after our interview because we have interviewed some amazing people on the show. I’m already thinking of some people you might be interested in talking with. Tell us about this memory wall. I was very touched by that when I saw that.
We gave the opportunity to some people. Some other people have written in. I feel like it’s like you join this unique club when you lose a child. All of a sudden, you find out all these other people that have lost a child too that maybe you didn’t know their whole story, you lost touch with or whatever the case is. We decided to give families the opportunity to post about their children, a little one-liner. The details of the child, the name, the age that they passed, some dates that are important and the town they came from. It’s been pretty well-received. These children are important to us. To be able to remember them in any way possible, I’m for supporting that.
It’s wonderful because you’re saying that in a way these children become invisible. Even the way people are so uncomfortable with the stillbirth, it would seem to me. You’re making them not invisible. You’re making them very present. They were on the site. It’s wonderful. You have a touching story about a dad. You helped his daughter who had committed suicide. Could you share that with us?
I had found out about a young lady that had committed suicide. In Walk in Sunshine, we don’t want to be just about stillbirths. Suicide, addiction, pediatric cancer, unexpected loss and stillbirth would be the ones that we have highlighted and have a lot of resources for. When we’re helping out financially, it’s for children 20 weeks gestation until 18 years old. We heard about this teenager that committed suicide. I was able to work with the funeral home and physically drove there to drop off the check to help pay for some of those services.
While there and chatting, the dad of this young lady happened to walk in. He had heard that there was someone that was going to be helping out financially but he didn’t know who and where. He was another proud dad. He was showing me pictures they were putting up of her so her friends would later see it as they would process through. This was pre-COVID. He was very proud of his daughter. He knew he was at a very rough day in his life. At some point, he took me aside and thanked me. He ended up sharing that he had no job at the time.
There was other family hardship going on and pretty much everything was a mess. This money that we were donating meant so much to them. Next thing you know he was hugging me. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we started Walk in Sunshine. We don’t know who we’re going to help and when or where we’re called to go. This dad was so grateful. It’s one of the highlights of being a cofounder of Walk in Sunshine that my wife and I have, which was being there for that dad at that time.
It’s a similar feeling that I get with the show that you’re having because it’s helping so many people. It’s a good feeling. Apart from offering resources to bereaved parents throughout the world, Walk in Sunshine is proud to offer financial donations to families in New Jersey who needs support. Do you have plans to eventually expand the reach of the charity beyond the state of New Jersey?
I would love to expand it as much as possible. I just need a little bit more time in the deck.
I know. I’m just curious because it’s a wonderful cause.
I’ll be honest with you, to the point that you made, the website and how many people it touches, every Saturday night I get an email about how many unique visitors for the week to see someone in India, Columbia or California. I’ve had people reach out for resources in Louisiana and all kinds of states. It stinks to say no because I have to be true to the people that have donated. The money is staying in New Jersey at this point based on the mission but I would love to continue to build out the board and consider helping other people because we are getting the requests.
It’s still amazing to have these people write on the website because then I do know some national organizations that are bigger. I consider Walk in Sunshine a mom-and-pop shop so I can push them toward those other resources. Hopefully, they can help financially. Also, maybe based on their story when they’re pouring their heart out in their email, which still every time stops me in my tracks because you’re not ready to receive this email because I don’t know when it’s coming, I also try to suggest other resources. Do other introductions and say, “I know the executive director of that charity down the block from you. Do you need something? I’m happy to introduce you.” That’s been pretty powerful as well.
What is the dad’s view of loss, grief and coping?
Something I’ve learned speaking with other dads is when it’s a young child that passes and everybody does this, we get into this fight or flight mode but we want to be there for the mom. We have to put up with this hardened external persona because the mom is grieving. It’s perceived the mom is going through something worse. Arguably typically, it is. What I’ve found out, what I’ve lived and what I’ve heard is that everybody’s making sure mom is okay for the first 3 months or 6 months, whatever it is. It’s because of that connection the mother does have with that child. She carried and birthed that child.
The dad’s not stoic per se but he’s neglecting his emotions. Typically, what happens is once the mom starts to show that she is coming to grips with loss and maybe handling her day-to-day a little bit better, the dad collapses and falls apart emotionally. It’s because he’s been holding this in for six months and then it finally overwhelms him and consumes him. Maybe he realizes, “I want to speak to someone. I need to listen to a podcast or read a book or a blog.”
On Walk in Sunshine, there are certain books, blogs and other resources that are just for dads. I wanted to make sure that that was out there because that is a unique experience. That was my experience, maybe not to a T but to some extent. I’ve heard it time and time again. When you hear it, it makes sense. Unless you’ve lived it, you might not necessarily know that this may be what’s happening.
This brings me back to a few other interviews we’ve had because I’ve interviewed a few men who say how difficult it is for a man to grapple with his emotions. That’s true what happens. The fact that you’re making it available to people so that they can get help. You’re a terrific role model for that. It’s great because guys do struggle with that.
Speaking of struggling, you say that coping starts at a young age. Explain why you’re so motivated to speak to teenagers about loss, grief and coping and the ways you reach out to them. Share some of the wisdom even imparted to teens about those subjects. You had your stillborn and loss but why the focus on teenagers also?
Those teenage years are so formative. It’s a great opportunity to practice when there are smaller losses going on. I’ve been blessed. This charity has opened so many doors. As head of charities and things that are hopefully moving people, I get invited to the golf outings that are coming back on and the dinners. I can’t go to them all. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for young people. Some people have found me and I’ve spoken at some high schools.
What I’ve tried to let them know is that grief is happening all the time around us. There could be little grief like not making the baseball team, breaking up with a relationship or a parent or a grandparent getting a disability. Maybe not this monster set of grief but grief in things that it’s okay for them to start to acknowledge and realize that this is a type of loss and that it’s okay to be upset because it has to start with the acknowledgment. We have to acknowledge the loss and then look at grief. When I was in physical therapy school twenty years later, they told us that grief was linear and you went through denial and anger.
It’s not true.
It’s been proven that grief is chaotic. I like to explain to the younger demographic as well that we’re continuing to figure out this grief thing but however you grieve, it’s okay for you. There are going to be backward steps in this process. It’s not linear and simple to explain. In terms of coping, because they are at such a formative part, they have to figure out when they’re experiencing these griefs as a teenager in their twenties, “What are you going to choose to do? Are you going to choose to get angry, drink or take it out on other people?” Here are some other things. One young kid told me, “When I’m upset, I like to go in the shower in hot water and think.”
Grief is chaotic. We're continuing to figure out this grief thing, but if you grieve, it's okay. There will be backward steps in this process. It's not linear, and it's not simple to explain. Click To Tweet
It’s so simple but it’s so true. You want twenty minutes to have the hot water hitting you on the neck and gather yourself. Do you want to work out? Do you want to read a book? Those are all things that you could practice so that when you do face a bigger tragedy, a bigger sense of grief or loss and we all will, you already have the playbook somewhat written and you can revert to those habits. We have to practice those habits at a young age. The young people are focusing on trying to get into college and get their careers off the ground. If we’re not talking to them about grief and loss, they could have this amazing stellar career. When this event happens, they could be derailed and it could blow off.
You’re also teaching them empathy, which is fantastic and so important. There’s a very narcissistic period of a kid’s life too when you’re teaching them. When they run across someone in class or a teacher, they don’t know what’s going on in a person’s life. You’re teaching them a lot of empathy. For you personally, what kind of coping mechanisms do you employ when you got a difficult situation coming your way?
Prayer. Just knowing that I have to let go. I can’t hold onto grudges. It’s not good for my mental and emotional well-being. I’m sure that’s a theme time and time again in grief and rebirth. Know that there are better days ahead. To get through the day-to-day is to chat with friends and mentors. Having people keep you company is always important. When I need my alone time, even if it’s not strenuous, having some sort of workout and getting some of the energy out has been something that’s worked for me.
What is your all important message about the importance of healing grief? You’re talking to these teenage kids. You’re trying to tell them it’s not a good idea to stuff it. Why should they go see someone? Why should they try to heal their stuff?
If you don’t deal with it at that time, shortly after the stuff compounds inside of you. A couple of little things or middle-sized losses can become bigger issues down the road and you carry that baggage with you. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s going to have something going on like difficult challenges. It’s like anything else. You have to deal with it as it comes up.
As a young person, you don’t want to take that stuff into your future relationships when you’re parenting. As young parents of two living young boys, you find that you sound like your parents. You say, “I can’t believe I just said that.” That’s fine and great 90% of the time but there’s always 10% that you maybe want to change. You have to know what that is so you can change it. Otherwise, we will become our parents. Even when parents do a great job, the world changes and there’s something to improve upon. We have to continuously be evaluating ourselves, healing ourselves and getting ourselves to a better place.
I would like to encourage people reading to make a donation to Walk in Sunshine because what a wonderful cause this is. I’m sure that you’ve got the ability if they want it or someone who’s passed by making a donation. How do they do that? What are the best ways for our audience members to connect with you?
Thank you, Irene. That would be great. 100% of the money donated goes to the final resting money owed for a family between 20 weeks gestation and 18 years old here in New Jersey. My wife and I pick up any other expenses that Walk in Sunshine incurs still being a smaller charity. A hundred percent of the money goes to families that need it.
On our website, WalkInSunshineCharity.org, there’s a donate button on every page. On our Facebook page which is pretty popular, it’s Facebook.com/WalkInSunshineCharity. You can message us there. Our Instagram page is @Walk_In_Sunshine_. We have 10,000 or 11,000 followers, something pretty significant. I’m also open to email. I get a few a week. That’s WalkInSunshineCharity@Gmail.com. I promise to get back to you within 24 hours and hopefully provide you with some resources that you may need if you’re going through an unfortunate loss.
This is wonderful. Even if someone knows there’s someone going through this, they can refer them to you and your charity. Lou, you’ve got two precious little boys and all of that. What is your tip for finding joy in life?
Let go of the small things. Try to find the little things each day that are free and we’re all blessed to experience. It sounds corny or cheesy but as it’s spring here in New Jersey, it’s the ability to hear the birds, enjoy conversations, have a nice cup of coffee and relax. Little simple basic things have become more substantial and profound in my life. Let go of little things in the past. If it’s not going to affect the greater scheme of things, then it’s not worth stressing about. We’ve got too many families to help and other things going on that we need to spend our energy to do. What do they say? Keep it simple and stupid.
Don’t stress the small stuff.
It’s basic but it’s important. When you could get to that simplified level, it’s been a blessing for me.
Lou, your heartbreaking experience has provided you with this unique understanding of the pain of losing a child. You’re honoring Joseph Louis by helping so many others. Bless you, Francine, and Walk in Sunshine Charity. Thank you from my heart for this inspiring touching interview. Here’s a loving reminder, everyone. Make sure to follow us and like us on social at @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. As I like to say, to be continued. Many blessings. Bye for now.
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