Liz Farrell

Farrell: Grieving Bluffton parents find hope in afterlife

Video: Bluffton parents still feel presence of their deceased daughter

Carly Hughes died in 2013 at the age of 24 from an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. Her mother and step-father, Irene and Tony Vouvalides, still feel Carly's presence around them all the time.
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Carly Hughes died in 2013 at the age of 24 from an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. Her mother and step-father, Irene and Tony Vouvalides, still feel Carly's presence around them all the time.

Last week, I met Carly Hughes at the Moss Creek home of her mother and stepfather.

Carly is from New Jersey but went to Boston College, just steps from where I grew up right outside the city.

She graduated in 2011, and hearing about her experiences brought back memories for me, despite our age difference.

Turns out, we worshipped at the same Bloomingdale's. We took the same T line home after having maybe a little too much fun with friends downtown. We both knew the value of drinking large iced coffees in a city that most would consider too cold for such refreshment about three-fourths of the year.

I liked Carly immediately.

I like her style, her sense of humor and the fact that when she was in school, she used to fill suitcases with her laundry until she ran out of either suitcases or clothes. When that time came, she knew she needed to go home for a visit.

Oh, and I especially like Carly's smile. She has the look of someone who is often the first in the room to put a newcomer at ease, which is exactly what she did with me.

And I knew right away that no one she loves has ever been in doubt of her feelings. By that same measure, if there is any question that dogs are like their owners, the answer can be found in Carly's goldendoodle, Linus, who, on the day I was there, also never let me forget he was in the room.

Every few moments he would tap me with his paw. "I'm here, new friend."

As we sat down to chat on Irene and Tony Vouvalides' screened porch, the song on Pandora switched to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

It's one of Carly's favorite songs, one that is special to both her and her mom.

Her mom smiled.

"You have no idea," Irene said as she turned up volume. "You have no idea the signs she sends me."

It was a reminder that Carly was there with us.

Even though she wasn't.

I keep forgetting that.

'NO GETTING OVER IT'

Carly died in February 2013.

She died at age 24 after collapsing in her mother's arms and then bleeding out in her stepfather's arms.

She died a few months after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of esophageal-gastric cancer.

She died after chemo and daily radiation and a series of surgeries, the last of which removed her stomach altogether.

She died despite never considering death an option.

Carly died.

"I didn't think I'd survive it," Irene said. "It's an alien life. It really is. What I thought a 'tragedy' was ..."

She paused.

"I had no idea what a 'tragedy' was."

Irene, who married Carly's stepfather in 2009, says she had three really happy years when just about everything in her life was perfect.

She was married to a kind, decent and strong man. Her new, blended family was close -- her stepson calls her "Second Mom." And her only child was thriving in the teaching program at BC.

Everything was perfect until late 2012 when the unthinkable happened.

One surreal moment was followed by another surreal moment and then by another until Irene was left gutted and holding the ashes of the one she loved most in this world.

"It's nothing I would wish on anyone," Irene said. "People might have compassion, but they really can't get it. There's no getting over it.

"It's just learning to live."

'LOVE IN SEPARATION'

Shortly after Carly's death, Irene went to a support group of grieving parents, but she wasn't ready for it yet. Some of the parents were like zombies after 10 years of grieving; others who had just lost their children seemed fine.

Neither extreme felt right to Irene.

She needed something different.

Earlier this year, a story ran in Cosmopolitan magazine about Carly's boyfriend, Mike Hughes (yes, he has the same last name). In it, he talks about falling in love with Carly during the last months of her life. He describes a smart, confident and happy woman, one whose biggest joy in life was to help the children at an underprivileged school in Natchez, Miss., which changed her life.

Within months of Carly's death, Mike and Irene established Carly's Kids, a foundation to help fund the school. It wasn't simply to honor her memory; it was to continue Carly's work. To do what she would have done were she still here.

"(Carly) knew what she wanted -- and pretty much always got what she wanted," Mike said in the story.

She was a woman of action. Of moving forward. Of making life better for others.

She got this from her mother, who is now hoping to help other parents deal with their own losses.

Through reading and research, Irene discovered that the way out of her darkest days was simply to think of Carly's death differently. She joined a national bereavement group, Helping Parents Heal, and found comfort in the group's mission.

"We choose to look at and discuss the afterlife and have a belief that our children are still with us," she said, recalling her first experiences with the notion. "'What if we thought of death as simply walking through a door?' 'It's just another dimension.' 'Oh wow. Maybe I can think that.' It's learning to love in separation."

Irene and Tony are starting a local chapter of the group, which will meet for the first time Oct. 8 at Seaquins Ballroom in Bluffton. The organization values an open discussion about evidence of the afterlife and spiritual experiences, though a belief in any particular religion or dogma is not necessary.

Also, they are not crazy.

"You have to be careful who you say (afterlife) to because people think you're 'woo-woo,'" Irene said. "I was a dental hygienist. My husband is a former principal.

"We're anything but 'woo-woo.'"

WHAT CAN'T BE DESTROYED

Irene wants parents like her to know they're not alone, which is how so many people feel when they've lost so much.

"I didn't know anyone who lost a child before this," she said. She had no template for it. No road map.

Now she does. She understands the physical pain, the constant tears, the anger, the catches in breath when talking about a child no longer here.

She knows what it's like to clutch her daughter's clothes to her face and breathe in deeply.

She knows what it's like to finally reach the day when the clothes no longer smell like the person she gave birth to.

She also knows the difference between believing her daughter is gone forever and believing that she's simply taken on a new form.

"I know she's not here," Irene said. "Physically, she's not here ... but I can look at her pictures now and smile. I can focus on the great memories."

Energy cannot be destroyed.

I never gave this much thought before talking about it with the Vouvalideses.

Energy cannot be destroyed, and we are energy.

When I was at their house I felt as though Carly were there with us.

In a way, her presence was as real to me as theirs was.

They made her come alive through their laughter and their stories.

I don't have the answers. But I do know it's a choice. It's a decision to have faith and to let hope take over, to take the energy left behind and convert it into something lighter than death, something less final, less permanently devastating.

Something more assuring.

Because, if not, what are we left with?

For Irene, believing in an afterlife for Carly has been her salvation, but she knows everyone has their own way to live with loss.

"The one thing that connects me to my daughter is love," Irene said.

"That can never be broken. That can never be destroyed."

IF YOU GO

A local chapter of Helping Parents Heal, a safe place for bereaved parents and their families, will meet at 7 p.m. Oct. 8 for the first time locally at Seaquins Ballroom, 1300 Fording Island Road in Bluffton. Details: www.helpingparentsheal.info, irenevouvalides@gmail.com

Follow columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell at twitter.com/elizfarrell and facebook.com/elizfarrell.

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