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Faith and helping others bring healing to family

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Twenty-one years ago in May, Joseph and Margaret Benak and 11 of their 13 children were celebrating the graduation of their son and brother, Danny, from Creighton Prep High School in Omaha.

Danny hugged his mom after the convocation, stopped home to change clothes and then headed to a friend's party across town with another friend and classmate, Tom Brown.

The night of joy, however, turned tragic. At the intersection of 72nd and Maple streets, a drunk driver ran a red light, his vehicle slamming into the boys' car.

"He died during the night," said Margaret of her son. "After we left the hospital that next morning, the Jesuits had Mass in their garden so everyone could go for the boys."

That Mass reflected how the Benaks, members of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Omaha, would deal with their grief. They said holding tightly to their faith and each other helped them live fully in the face of tremendous loss.

"Our family was so devastated. You can't really explain the depth of it," Margaret said. "We knew we had to heal. After about a month I told our kids to just smile every place they went. People may think it is over - it's not, but we just didn't want to carry the sadness around."

Those smiles drew stories from others about Danny's life. The memories kept their focus on the life that had been and the good that came from that life, Margaret said. "That is how we healed," she said.

Bumpy road

The road had its bumps, however. Joseph had cried at the hospital when the family learned Danny wouldn't make it. Margaret talked about holding her husband as reality sunk in. A few weeks later, the tables turned.

"I was holding things in and working really hard," said Margaret. "I woke up crying in the middle of the night and couldn't get out of my head. Joe just hugged me tightly and said everything will be OK."

She said she had done it to help the family but now believes everyone must release their emotions when faced with such a tragedy, "and everyone doesn't do it the same way."

The Benaks pray together several times a day. They pray in thanksgiving and for the well-being of their children and grandchildren. "I think faith plays the most important role in healing," said Margaret.

Danny's death was their second experience with losing a child. Their oldest daughter died when she was five months old in 1953. Joseph was serving in Korea at the time and wrote his young bride and mother of his baby girl, saying, "We must go on because children are only loaned to us."

A few years later in 1958, their son Tom was diagnosed as a mongoloid. The diagnosis was later changed to Down syndrome, but both Benaks said the diagnosis was a death of sorts.

More recently, one of their daughters had a stillborn son. The grief they experienced came from knowing the pain their daughter faced as she healed.

Path to healing

Helping others became another avenue of healing. The morning after the accident, the Benak and Brown families established the Benak/Brown scholarship fund for Creighton Prep students. Many of the boys' classmates - some still wearing the suits they had worn the night before at commencement - were waiting for the families in the garden at Prep the morning after the accident. She spoke of the good friendships her son enjoyed, and they wanted to help other boys enjoy the positive experience.

"The way we heal is to try to make things better than they were," Margaret said.

Joseph said his intense sorrow began to subside a little more than a year after Danny's death. He said it helped that he returned to work about a week after the funeral and made his primary goal meeting the physical and spiritual needs of his family.

Margaret said her grief slowly ebbed as she became involved in the human needs committee at St. Joan of Arc.

When her grandson died, she wrote out the melodies that suddenly filled her head. They became "Slumber in Jesus' Arms," the music for a soothing CD for babies and parents of all ages. Funds from the sale of the CD were given to the poor, she said.

Still, every night until sometime this past year, she said a tear would roll down her cheek as she prepared for sleep.

"I don't tell people (who experience the death of a loved one) that everything will be fine," she said. "I say it is like a sore. It will heal with time, but you will always have a scar.

"But I know that if we trust in God, he knows what is right. We always look for the good, even where there appears to be none."

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