Happy Birthday Austen Berj

Austen was born on September 26, 1991 on a beautiful Fall morning. He would have been 29 years old today. He was a delightful child, born into a loving family, surrounded by people who adored him and nurtured him and who he loved.

As the photographer of the family, I took many photos over the years documenting milestones, birthdays, sporting events, recitals, family vacations, school functions, graduations, getting 2 of every photo and ending up with boxes and boxes of family life. Well, those boxes have moved around over the years from Grosse Pointe to Chicago and now to Santa Fe, where I have been attempting to sort through them.

What I’ve discovered are boxes of smiling and laughing children, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends, putting in perspective that, on the whole, we’ve all lived a wonderful life, with its ups and downs, its challenges, its joyfulness, its sadness, its unfortunate situations, which make us appreciate all the more what we have in this very moment and what we had.

“There is a warmth to life that somehow makes all the negative energy in the world stay dormant.”
Austen Berj Brooks, June 15, 2014

So, in honor of Austen’s birthday, a few photos from the early years. Austen’s first haircut and first birthday with Alethea and Lee Gaizak:

Austen’s baptism in October 1992 at Christ Church in Grosse Pointe, the Brooks brothers in bow ties, and the grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, aunts, uncles, cousins, Martha and family friends I had forgotten all attended:

First day of school pictures – pre-school for Austen in 1993 and first day of first grade in 1997, almost 6 years old:

Austen started hanging out at his siblings’ sporting events and then eventually started playing soccer himself (last image is with Grandma Roxie):

And drawing about scoring goals:

Family trips to Mackinac Island, Washington D.C, and Longboat Key, Florida, where he insisted on taking ‘Biggie Bear’ with him:

A lifelong love of reading, here reading Harry Potter:

Celebrating his 9th birthday and his 13th birthday with friends:

Finally, not sure when Austen wrote this, most likely in 5th or 6th grade. It is entitled “Colorful Leaves”:

“The colors of leaves are amazing. Leaves glow with great reds and greens and yellows plus many more great colors and some other darker ones like brown. These wonderful colors make me happy, a glowing sensation. The colors are an amazing sight on the tree and off. . . . You might want to look at them before they go.” Austen Berj Brooks

Austen, the images and memories of you give me a happy, glowing sensation. With each birthday, we celebrate your birth, your life, your tremendous spirit and capacity, imagining where you would be, what you would be doing now. We settle with how blessed we are to have known you and how very, very much we love and miss you.

Eight Months Out

It has been over eight months since Austen died. I find myself finally regaining some of my endurance for physical exercise like hiking, biking, doing 70 minutes of hot yoga in 105 degree heat. I have steadily progressed through various phases of grief, trying to find my way through emotions and memories that turn up whenever they like, when I’m not particularly in the mood for them, when I’d rather just take a nap. But sleep doesn’t always come easy, only when I am completely exhausted and spent.

Still, I have worked hard to maintain a positive outlook, thinking of myself as a bodhisattva warrior, charging into sadness and suffering rather than running away from them. Now I strive more for loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity and wish that for others, and I try to avoid being exposed to commotion, discordance, mean-spiritedness, demeaning remarks, judgmental behavior.  Over the years, I have been described as “irrationally optimistic” and “refreshingly irreverent [this by a more senior lawyer at my law firm when I was an associate],” which qualities may be helping me now.

The thing about grief is that it is constantly changing, day-to-day, sometimes moment-to-moment, so that one moment you may be feeling completely overwhelmed by your thoughts and emotions, but then you snap out of it. And you don’t need to dwell on it, you move on. This is the thing that is hardest to try and explain to others who haven’t experienced catastrophic grief. They may still be caught up in the unreasonableness of anyone, including themselves, ever losing a child, so when you run into them and you are eight months out and flourishing at that moment, they are months behind you and show visible emotion at seeing you. You then find yourself in the position of trying to soothe and comfort. Or worse, trying to explain to sorrowful eyes where you are at and what you are doing.

Yes, early on I did think that my situation ‘sucked’ and in private I yelled things like, “I hate this,” “I don’t want to go through this,” “I don’t have the strength to deal with this.” But, when I’m out in public, I usually feel pretty good (otherwise I wouldn’t be out), and am unlikely to say gloomy remarks about my situation. And, really, it would be better if the well-meaning people I run into refrained from those remarks as well. It doesn’t help.

Grief is a very individual process. I have my moments to be sure, but they are private and are necessary to my well-being. I don’t need to explain myself to anyone. In fact, when I have tried to do so, I have found that I instantly regret saying anything because my ideas from yesterday have already run their course and I am on to something else. And, if I say I’m doing well (at that moment) be supportive and happy for me. It doesn’t mean I’m finished grieving, it just means I’m moving forward, still continuing to appreciate the daily miracles of life, keeping the spirit of Austen alive, trying to live up to my full potential during this lifetime.

I return often to these words from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –


“Hummingbird Perching,” Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ, October 2009. © 2015 Suzanne Sahakian.

A Sporting Tribute

Austen loved sports, he loved playing sports and he was a gifted athlete. Growing up he played on soccer, baseball and hockey teams in youth and city leagues and for Grosse Pointe High School.

Last night his friend Drew sent me the photos below with this note:

“I wanted to share a picture with you that we took last week.  This summer a group of us Grosse Pointe boys have been playing in the Neighborhood Club softball league.  We are sponsored by the Atwater Brewery in GPP so when Chris Thomas and I went to make our team jerseys we knew we had to add a nice little touch to them.  Each of our jerseys has an ‘AB’ patch on our chest. Austen has been with us all season (and we could really use him!).  We want you to know that he is always with us because he is one of us!”


Top Row (Left to Right):  Matt Reck, Dave Clem, Reid Fragel, Chris Shirar, Kelly O’Donnell Daudlin, Kevin MacConnachie, Alex Parker. Bottow Row: Alex Piku, Chris Thomas, Jimmy Bretz, Pat Pawlowski, Drew Condino.


AB for Austen Brooks. Thank you Team Atwater! Austen is definitely smiling about this. Very touching tribute. Keeping him close. Play ball!