At age 6, Hunter, and Cary wrote, illustrated, and published (internationally) a story called “Finlay’s Garden”. Hunter was determined that baby Finlay came to earth to teach us many lessons and he, like Cary, felt that the world of literature seemed to skip over this tiny niche area of helping children cope with loss. The Ballas family used Hunter’s very real understanding of Finlay’s death (and more importantly, his life) and created a book designed to help children and families cope with loss together. It was a huge undertaking and investment of energy, time, and money. Today, the book is used in hospitals, schools, classrooms, and living rooms all across the world.
Little Hunter Ballas lost his younger brother, Finlay, to SIDS in 2005. Life for the Ballas family would never again be the same. After Finlay’s passing, Cary quickly embraced the world of literature and spent many exhausting hours fruitlessly searching for books to help explain Finlay’s passing to his surviving siblings (Quinlan and Hunter). She found a plethora of self-help types of novels out there for adults, but few books aimed at helping young minds process the loss of a loved one. Cary was sure she was missing something. Afterall, she had just lost a child and her mind was more than a little dizzy while trying to digest this tragedy. Surely, there had to be books out there designed to help little ones cope with death, right? Better yet, there had to be some sort of book whose target audience was children and adults? A book that families could read together and all enjoy? Something with bright vivid colors to attract young eyes, but with uplifting and non-scary, yet understandable thoughts for big people and little people, right? There apparently was not, or if there was, the google search engine on Cary’s computer was malfunctioning! Disappointed, she and her husband, Bryan, did their best to explain Finlay’s death to their sons. Through tears they stumbled to formulate words, verbally tripping over themselves. Nevertheless, they were left with no choice. So they did the best they could and prayed that their best was good enough. Cary and Bryan wanted to be honest with Quinlan and Hunter. That being said, they also did not want to create any unnecessary fears or anxiety. The boys had a lot of “are you going to leave us?” types of questions and had trouble understanding why one day their brother was with them and the next, he was gone. Grasping for the right words somehow seep into their thoughts, they tried to help their little ones understand the Ballas family’s circumstances. They tried to reassure them in semblance of comfort and healing, fully knowing that as individuals, they were still struggling with these very issues.
Time somehow continued to pass. The Ballas world was forever altered and somehow they came to find comfort in the seclusion of their loss. They functioned because they had to for Quinlan and Hunter, but truthfully life was a blur. The days were hard and the nights were harder. Cary and Bryan remained terrified that they would lose another child and Bryan sprang back and forth between anger and emptiness. After the funeral and the flowers and being inundated with the “what can we do for you?” question a hundred times a day, the storm seemed to quiet a bit. Life felt like it was in slow-motion, but still, it continued and they were forced to continue right along with it. They explained to Quinlan and Hunter that baby Finlay had died and that he was in heaven with God now. Cary and Bryan reminded them that they could say prayers to Finlay at night or talk to him whenever they wanted to. We also told them that Finlay was their angel and that he would surely be rooting for them throughout their entire lives.
“IT TAKES QUITE A SPIRIT TO ENTER INTO THIS WORLD, NEVER SAY A WORD, AND YET LEAVE IT TEACHING SO MANY LIFE LESSONS”
Quinlan (Q, as we call him), and Hunter somehow went from being one and two at the time of Finlay’s passing to five and six. One day, Hunter came to Cary and told her he had an idea that he wanted to share. He sat himself Indian-style in the middle of their living room, stuck his chubby little pointer finger in the air and quite securely explained to her that Finlay’s story was not about death; it was one about life. Cary secretly thought to herself that reflection was rather inspirational to come flying out of the mouth of a five year old child, but quickly reminded herself that every mom thinks her child is a genius and she had to admit, she was rather bias. Little Hunter continued to profess that Finlay was not with us anymore but he was everywhere. (Again, rather intuitive for a little guy….) Finlay, he lectured, was here to teach us all about the peace that could be derived from simplicity. (These were not words Hunter typically said. In fact, did he even know the word ‘simplicity’?) “It is all about hope that could be found when families stick together like gorilla glue, Mom”, Hunter continued. “We just have to learn the lessons from Baby Finlay. We can hear him talk when we are very quiet and we listen with our hearts and not our ears”, said the child sitting before Cary. She thought to herself that she so wished she could hear that echoing whisper. Hunter continued to assured them that Finlay had simply gone to heaven to “build our family a heaven house so that we will have a place to live when we all go back there someday”. This was almost making sense even to Cary as an adult somehow. When did he get so smart? In turn, Hunter instructed that ‘we needed to form a garden on earth for baby Finlay because that is what Finlay wants.’ Here, we would be reminded that life never truly ends. We would come to understand that space and time are elements only perceived on earth; not in heaven. We would also come to learn that hope that can blossom from inspiration, and that growth that can bloom from what once was tragedy.
“It is all about hope that could be found when families stick together like gorilla glue, Mom”, Hunter continued.
Today, a huge blooming cherry tree surrounded by a firm heart-shaped foundation sits squarely in the center of the Ballas property. As the seasons change and new things continue to grow each year, they are reminded that they are all truly connected to one another, that life is a gift and that it is also fragile. They are reminded that for every emptiness that is created here on earth, something new and beautiful can be created to fill that void. They also are called to truly understand the concept that heaven is not this far off place in the distance that is removed from us. It is not at the end of the rainbow and it certainly is not “up there above the clouds”. Rather, it is “right next to us”, as Hunter has said many times and if our spirits remain open to embracing it, we receive the gift of experiencing it.
Cary has always told her children that they teach me the “big life lessons”; I teach them “the little life lessons”.
Cary has always told her children that they teach me the “big life lessons”; I teach them “the little life lessons”. “Us big people” struggle with loss and death. Imagine what a foreign entity death must seem like to “little people”! It is a confusing, scary notion that can often cause many insecurities and doubts in young minds, as we learned. We are all taught from young ages to have our feet firmly planted in reality. We are relentlessly reminded to keep up with the hustle-bustle of everyday life. We are encouraged to remain focused on our responsibilities, and to never forget our goals. Children, however, naturally obtain one of the greatest gifts. They inherit the ability to indulge in a sense of uncontaminated imagination. They obtain a dynamic sense of wonder allowing their minds remain flexible. The walls and boundaries that exist within the minds of adults have no place in the mind and spirit of a child. They are pure, unscathed, and innocent. Cary believes that little Hunter understood death at a very young age in a way that was gentle and comforting. Did it come from him or flow through him? We will perhaps never know the answer to that question. It has been Hunter, however, that has taught the Ballas family “the big life lessons”. He has given their family a vision that they literally could never before see, and shown them how to embrace life’s beauty and light.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF FINLAY’S GARDEN,
Cary Highlights 7 Lessons from the Book
- Us “big people” frequently think we are the ones doing the teaching. We still need to leave our minds and hearts open to learning from young minds!
- Physical connections are wonderful and meaningful; spiritual ones run much deeper and can be just as fulfilling, if we learn how to open ourselves to experiencing them.
- Loss will consume us, if we allow it to. Taking the energy created from loss and using it to create something positive – anything – is imperative for us to heal!
- What we see goes far beyond the eyes. Vision is what we should strive to obtain. It allows us to connect with our lost loved ones, who remain very close to us.
- Don’t believe heaven is some far off place in the distance. It stands right beside us. Usually, we are so busy looking past it, that we miss seeing what lays right in front of us.
- Life is fragile. Minutes are miracles. Smiles are empowering. Connecting is vital. These are the keys to discovering the true meaning of life.
- Loss makes time stand still. We are so used to running around, meeting deadlines, and accomplishing tasks x,y, and z (usually simultaneously)! Sometimes if we slow down and embrace that “stillness” we can find all of the answers we need within ourselves. Most of the time, we can answer our own questions and solve our own problems. We just have to create the time and space to do so.
Cary was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware. She graduated from DeSales University with a B.A. in Social Work. Both Bryan and Cary graduated from St. Marks High School. Cary is experienced in working with at-risk children and teenagers and has counseled and taught in educational, medical and psychiatric facilities in both Delaware and Pennsylvania. Along with children Quinlan, Hunter and Cabry, Cary and her husband, Bryan, now reside in southeastern Pennsylvania. This is Cary’s first children’s book, she has freelanced articles about parenting, and a variety of other topics and has been featured as the guest educator for Metro Kids Magazine based in Philadelphia. She has also written a course called Race And Ethnic Relations for DeSales University.
“Our family has grown in ways it never would have otherwise grown as a result of Finlay’s passing. We appreciate more. We care more. We empathize more. Each day truly is a gift. Every smile is a connection. Every minute is a miracle. Hunter has largely helped our family and many others to take note of the little things in life. He inspires adults to use the arts to help heal grief. He reminds us of our own inner child and draws us back to square one, where our roots all began. He shows so plainly how our lives truly do connect and that there are no coincidences. Most importantly, he reminds us that as adults, we have a lot we can still learn from children. We tout ourselves as being teachers and frequently in doing that, we forget to remain humble and recognize that we are still all here learning – the old, the young – the rich, and the poor. It is through these messages, that our family pays tribute to a very precious little spirit and a garden that shall forever breathe life into our lives! ”
Today, Hunter is going into fourth grade. He has spoken at various colleges and locations about “Finlay’s Garden” and the inspiration behind it. He shares his story and his vision with others. It is perhaps a combination of his cute little glasses and his adorable little lisp, that seems to grasp everyone’s attention and adoration wherever he speaks. He is like a wise old soul in a child’s body! We are truly proud of Hunter’s wisdom, his courage, and his unique ability to go beyond sight and to obtain a vision that is truly admirable!
ORDER YOUR COPY OF FINLAY’S GARDEN,CLICK HERE
What is SIDS?
SIDS is the sudden death of an infant under one year of age which remains unexplained after a thorough case investigation, including performance of a complete autopsy, examination of the death scene, and review of the clinical history. (Willinger et al, 1991). In a typical situation parents check on their supposedly sleeping infant to find him or her dead. This is the worst tragedy parents can face, a tragedy which leaves them with a sadness and a feeling of vulnerability that lasts throughout their lives. Since medicine can not tell them why their baby died, they blame themselves and often other innocent people. Their lives and those around them are changed forever.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is the leading cause of death among infants 1 month to 1 year old, and claims the lives of about 2,500 each year in the United States and thousands more throughout the world. It remains unpredictable despite years of research. Since 1983, the rate of SIDS has fallen by over 50 percent. Please join us in this fight. The death of even one more infant is intolerable! Together we can end the tragedy of SIDS.