After 22-year-old Aric Chandler died unexpectedly in his sleep, his family set out to help his friends grieve through a homemade casket.
We have all visited houses like this. Library-quiet, except for the phone. Sympathy cards stacked on a side table. Big sprays of flowers fighting to brighten rooms that feel only of dusk.
And photos of one person, at different stages of life. A newborn, a toddler, an elementary-school kid. A smiling young man. That’s where they stop.
Aric Chandler was 22 when he passed away on Aug. 3 of still-unknown causes.
He had been sick for a few days; throwing up, headaches. Everyone thought it was the flu, that it would pass.
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His parents, David and Kacee, had tickets to see Pink Martini at The Woodland Park Zoo that Wednesday, and hesitated to use them.
Go, Aric told them. His older sister, Kelly, and her boyfriend were there for the night. He would be fine.
When they came home, they checked in with him. The next morning, when David went into Aric’s room to fetch their two dogs for a walk, his son was dead.
The Chandlers invited me to their Bellevue home the other day to talk about their son. About the acute pain of losing a child. The added cruelty of its happening during the carefree time of summer — just weeks before Aric was to enter the University of Washington, where he had been accepted after getting an associate degree at Bellevue College.
But they also wanted to talk about how they dealt with Aric’s death; how they considered not only what he would have wanted, but what was best for his friends, young adults for whom Aric was likely the first person they had known and lost.
And there was this, from Kacee: “I keep wanting to perpetuate him. I don’t want him to stop.”
Her honesty, that potent combination of love and grief, sank me into my seat. I wanted to hug her right then, not just to console her, but thank her. We don’t say these things aloud often enough. We hold them inside, and hurt.
The Chandlers told me of visiting a funeral home to make arrangements for a service and cremation. Kacee decided then that any gathering would be at their house.
“It had to be in his home,” Kacee said. “We moved here when he was 11 months old.”
David and his brother, Dan, poured their grief into making a wood casket in which Aric would be cremated.
“You’re building this piece and then it will be gone in days,” David said, then paused. “It was kind of symbolic.”
And it was beautiful, he said.
“When you say a pine box, it doesn’t really do it justice,” David said. “No nails, wood pegs and glue. Cherry trim and clear finish. Sturdy and simple.”
They set it up in the living room, and spread the word among Aric’s friends that they could come and sign it. Put notes in it. Whatever they chose.
On Aug. 13, a flood of family and friends filled the house and the backyard. People plucked Sharpies from a basket and wrote messages on the wood. They drew elephants, Seahawks logos, the Space Needle. Aric’s longhaired dachshund, Walter.
Someone slipped a sealed letter into the casket. Others placed index cards with more messages. A movie-ticket stub.
Inside the program, the Chandlers tucked copies of two lists written in Aric’s hand: “Things That Make Me Happy” (Among them: “Forgiving/no grudges” and “Memories, man — nothing more special”) and “Bucket List” (“Save someone’s life,” “Learn and memorize five recipes”).
They set up a microphone on the back patio, where David spoke, then Kelly, then Aric’s friend, Tommy Drorbaugh, who struggled mightily, but honored his friend.
“You look at these young people and they’re in big bodies,” David said, “but there’s a lot of sweetness, a lot of little boy in that guy. Despite the bluster and the F-bombs, they need as much love at 22 as when they’re 12.”
After some words from Nat Neville, the program coordinator at Horn of Africa Services, where Aric worked with young kids as an after-school and summer volunteer, friends were welcome to step up and speak.
“If you’re 20 or 22, you haven’t experienced death that closely,” David said. “So it was a big deal. These kids needed to talk, and our thought was, ‘Take care of these kids. It’s not just about us.’ ”
Said Kacee: “We just wanted to be open about it. Give them a safe place to grieve and process. And it just felt so much better to have these kids around.”
Many of them are headed off to school now, as Aric would have been. Should have been.
The Chandlers hope that his death in these last, surreal days of summer gave them a lesson they will carry throughout their lives.
Grief is OK. Don’t hide from it. Find others and lean on them. Lean on each other.
Always talk about Aric. Say his name.