After the Loss of Her Son Josh, Nancy Rothstein Continues to Share His Words for Celebrating Life

No one should have to endure what Nancy Rothstein and her family did — the death of a beloved child. But, every person who does can find comfort, inspiration and courage in her story. Rothstein’s vibrantly alive, 15 ½-year-old son Josh — then a sophomore at Lake Forest Academy in Chicago’s bucolic North Shore — was on a suburban sidewalk on a beautiful Sunday afternoon trying to enter a local pharmacy to purchase snacks before a nearby tutoring session. That one moment soon turned when Josh was struck down in a freak accident caused by a fellow teen.

A photo of Josh taken two weeks before his death. The photo was given to 1,000 at his funeral and to many others since.

Parents and siblings are not supposed to bury their child and brother. Or, worse yet, end up in litigation to address the illegal U-turn a teenager made, medical treatment coverage and other costs associated with the accident. Many who face such devastating circumstances never do recover. Yet, Rothstein not only endured the horror and pain of her son’s tragic death and its aftermath, she found the grace and strength to work through her mourning, grow spiritually and connect with her son in his next incarnation.  

But it is Josh’s profound presence — felt by Rothstein and her daughters soon after his death — and the wisdom of his words which came through her pen, that had the greatest impact, which ultimately led Rothstein to publish “Rising In The Mourning: Ways To Celebrate Life.” Important to this journey for Rothstein were her spiritual mentors, including Deepak Chopra, MD and Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer.

Josh with his sisters Caroline and Natalie in the Rothstein’s backyard

“For me, while my quest was born of Josh’s death, I was on a mission to bring Josh’s wise voice to life once again and to share his wisdom from beyond,” Rothstein explains. “In writing Rising in the Mourning: Ways to Celebrate Life, I was inspired to offer hope to others for whom a death or life challenges were keeping them from rising in the mourning to embrace the precious gift of life.” 

“This photo is VERY poignant. What the t-shirt actually said is, Get A life. A Basketball Life. That only ‘A Life….’ is showing on Josh is rather powerful, considering.” – Nancy Rothstein

Rothstein recounts multiple experiences with Josh’s presence and her understanding that while bodies die, the spirits they house never do. Eventually Josh wanted to communicate with others beyond his mother and sisters. That’s when his words started coming through her pen.

“The first time Josh ‘came to me’ to write down his words was at the cemetery, at his grave, six months to the day after he was hit by the car. Thankfully, I had my journal and a pen. Most importantly, I was present enough to ‘hear him,’” Rothstein said.

His first words were a poem, “From Josh,” which ends with compelling language that resurfaces time and again: “Yet you must know that in the end, it is love’s garden you must tend.”

From Josh

You hope I sleep in peace, I do.

But I’m awake, I come to you.

That bird you hear, that wind that blows

Are signs I send to help you know,

That I continue where I am

That life continues in God’s hands.

For death was only on the path

To life anew that forever lasts.

Along the journey, lessons learned.

Knowledge sought and voices heard.

Yet you must know that in the end, 

It is love’s garden you must tend.

Nancy read FROM JOSH publicly for the first time in October on Yom Kippur when she gave the Memorial Service speech at Mishkan Chicago.

Love’s garden was included in Josh’s recommendations on how to live well. Rothstein was at Josh’s grave shortly before his 17th birthday and asked him to share a message that she could give to honor his upcoming birthday. She explains, “I did not expect a list of 17 Ways to Celebrate Life.”

At Josh’s grave on the anniversary of his death in 2017 with a remarkable sunburst amid the rain.

The list was shared broadly. Rothstein even found a copy of it at a store by the cash register, intended to uplift staff. Each year, until his 21st birthday, Josh offered a new “way” to add to his list. She dedicates a chapter in her book to the evolution of Josh’s Ways to Celebrate Life.

21 Ways to Celebrate Life 

  1. Smile. Smiling makes you and those around you feel good. If you don’t feel good, a smile can trick your brain into feeling better.
  2. Eat ice cream.
  3. Run on the beach. If you can’t physically do this, use your imagination.
  4. Call someone who is ill or lonely. Listen to their story; take the time; tell them your story, if they ask.
  5. Listen to music that touches your heart and soul.
  6. Sing in the shower, or out loud if you are comfortable.
  7. Visit the grave of a loved one and celebrate your continued breath. Share with your loved one what’s on your mind.
  8. Play with a dog.
  9. Thank yourself for putting up with all the things that drive you nuts about yourself.
  10. Apologize to someone you have wronged in any way.
  11. Take a day, or even a few hours, “off” to do something you always want to do but never take the time for.
  12. Eat something you never indulge in — unless allergic, of course — and savor every bite slowly. No guilt permitted!
  13. Re-watch your favorite funny or upbeat movie in your most comfortable clothes.
  14. Make plans with friends that you are crazy about but never see — near or far away.
  15. Go outdoors to a natural setting. Sit; close your eyes; listen to the world — it’s all an extension of you. Your breath connects you intrinsically to the world.
  16. Laugh. Do something fun or silly that evokes laughter. It has been said that laughter is God’s sunshine.
  17. Place this list in an envelope and revisit it periodically to see how you are celebrating yourself. If you are good to yourself, you can be much better to those around you.
  18. Go to your heart and make all your decisions from there — all will be well.
  19. Follow the path that matters.
  20. Believe and feel the change you want to see, and you will be the change you envision.
  21. Yet you must know that in the end, it is love’s garden you must tend.

When asked about her hope for the future, Rothstein declares, “During our lifetimes each of us will face challenging times, be it the death of a loved one or myriad other life circumstances that come our way. Yet, each breath, each heartbeat announces the gift of life. I hope that Rising in the Mourning: Ways to Celebrate Life inspires you to embrace life with joy and gratitude.”

Rothstein, an MBA, is also known as The Sleep Ambassador. She is dedicated to helping people sleep well so that they can live well, too. Her advice helps others to rise in the morning, as well as rise in their mourning to live more vibrantly and joyfully — which is what Josh wants, too.   

Nancy Rothstein

Looking to read the “21 Ways to Celebrate Life”? Readers may download a complimentary, virtual copy on The Sleep Ambassador website.

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Susan B. Noyes thrives in the midst of Happy Chaos, which is why large family dinners and overcommitted days are still her favorites. Because she believes that we are all Better Together than apart, she also loves spending her time, money and out of the box thinking to foster the most good for others too. That ultimately led her to become the Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of Make It Better Media Group, as well as the Founder of Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy AwardsA mother of six, stepmother of two, grandmother of seven (and hopefully growing!), former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional Aide, passionate philanthropist, and intuitive connector, she has served on boards for the Poetry FoundationHarvard University Graduate School of Education Visiting Committee, American Red CrossLurie Children’s HospitalAnnenberg ChallengeChicago Public Education FundLyric Opera of ChicagoChicago Symphony OrchestraNew Trier High School District 203, and her beloved Kenilworth Union Church. But most of all, she enjoys writing and serving others by creating virtuous circles that amplify social impact.

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