Barbara Manger-Lynch remembers her son Matthew’s boundless energy – an outdoorsman with bright eyes and a zest for life. He played saxophone, was a sports enthusiast, graduated from Macalaester College in St. Paul in anthropology and, in 2004, graduated from the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in Paris.

A chef at Barbary Fig in St. Paul, he continued at Le Grenouille in New York and then at Ambria in Chicago. He was also a partner at Mandolin Catering in Chicago. In December 2003, he married Elizabeth Gleason.  

On an ordinary brisk February morning in 2008, Matt kissed his wife goodbye, met up with a group of friends and competed in a bike race. He never finished the race as he was struck and killed by an SUV.

The life of the 29-year-old filled with passion and exuberance was suddenly silent, and with it, the world seemed to end for all who loved him.

“My husband, Bill, and my son, Luke, and his wife all were in different places and we each received the terrible news in phone calls,” said Barbara. “It was our love of Matt, our love and caring for each other and knowing that Matt was in God’s hands that helped us survive. Although united in our grief, we have each experienced this loss differently. Matt’s young wife became a widow, his brother lost his best friend and his only sibling. Bill was stalwart, strong and our support. His grieving came later.”

Most difficult tragedy

Experts in the field of grief therapy believe the loss of a child is the most difficult tragedy a person can experience. In the natural course of events, a parent shouldn’t mourn a child. It’s supposed to be the other way around.

In her book, “Riding through Grief,” Barbara doesn’t dwell on the agony; instead, she provides support and hope.

That doesn’t mean she glides over her loss or the tears that pool after a memory or photo triggers the unexpected release of emotion.

Initially, the challenges included planning Matt’s funeral, facing the struggle to accept his death, and taking steps to honor his memory.

“The early days were a blur of pain and disbelief, but we only managed to get through the raw, mean days and months following Matt’s death to this world through the love and compassion of others,” said Barbara. “We were especially helped by the Rev. Dr. Scott Stoner, the Episcopal priest who had known Matt and his wife Elizabeth, had married them, and who conducted the service for Matt, which was so helpful, especially for the young people. During the days when we could barely put one foot in front of the other, he also counseled Bill with caring wisdom and insight during the year following Matt’s passing.”

‘Ghost bike’ ride in his memory

Friends and family participated in a bicycle procession through the streets of Chicago to chain a “ghost bike,” a bike painted white, at the site of Matt’s accident.

“A ghost bike is a symbol used worldwide to mark the places where bikers have been killed on streets,” said Barbara. “It honors the cyclist and serves as a reminder to passing motorists to share the road safely with bicycles.”

At Matt’s favorite camping spot in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the family placed a hand-carved stone and held a goodbye ritual. With the assistance of volunteers, they also built a shelter in Matthew’s memory.

“The shelter we built in memory of Matt on the North Country Trail in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, (is) a place of wild beauty, which Matt loved,” Barbara explained. “It is a simple, overnight resting place for hikers on the trail. Friends who have hiked to the shelter, which looks out across the Sturgeon River, have remarked about the feeling of peace in this place. One friend wrote in the journal kept there in a metal box, ‘Walking on the trail with Bill, and remembering Matt. Fine man whose love of nature will be honored here.’”

Barbara is a nationally recognized artist, who taught at Cardinal Stritch University and Alverno College, and who serves on the board of trustees of Beloit College, Artists Working in Education – a non-profit organization that provides thousands of at-risk children with free, meaningful art projects in schools, parks and libraries, and Print Forum – a friends’ organization at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Gravitating from artistic media to the written word was cathartic, a means to share her love for her son on paper, comforting herself while reaching out to others experiencing loss.

Memoir preserves happy memories

Writing Matt’s memoir helped Barbara focus on the good that came from her son’s life, a means to preserve the memories and quell the agony she experienced.

“It was an attempt the absorb the tragic and debilitating rupture of reality brought about by his sudden death. Although there was, and still is, no way to understand it, as I wrote, I gradually became able to recognize and accept the new normal of life without him, and I began to breathe into the life that is,” she said. “Also in writing, I rummaged about for memories that could have floated away. In writing them, in telling the stories, I have rescued them and can hold onto them. Matt was an energetic, lively, spirited young man.”

Faith in God initially faltered

At various times, Barbara’s faith in God was noticeably shaken, and she admits it has faltered and sputtered. But, as she soon realized, God was there all along.

“I did experience great love and caring from friends and family,” she said. “I sensed the strong and steady love of others, especially during the weeks and months immediately after Matt’s passing away. Caring kindness surrounded us. I felt it in so many ways. This is a kind of faith, faith in love. The love that binds us together, that heals us, that helps us laugh.”

New life softens sting of death

Throughout the five years that passed, new life emerged as Barbara and Bill welcomed three grandchildren. They knew their son would not want their lives to be over after his passing.

“He was an energetic, active, fun loving, passionate young man with many interests, whose zest for life was infectious, whose presence lit up a room,” Barbara said, adding. “We have tried to keep going with that in our hearts and minds.”

Barbara hopes “Riding through Grief” will offer encouragement to anyone wading through death, whether through the loss of a child or any loved one. Throughout the three years of writing the book, Barbara realized their daily struggles and coping methods might help others suffering similar losses.

“It was with the encouragement and help of many others and their skills that I was able to transform what I had written into a book,” she said. “It is my deepest wish that it will help to bring peace to others who trudge through the dark tunnel of grief. I hope it will give others hope.”