Kathleen (Kathi) Gail Bowman was the second of six children (five daughters and a son) of Harry and Ellen Shepherd. Her mother Ellen remembers her as a gorgeous and free-spirited child.
“Kathi was very good with people, kind, and not judgmental,” says Ellen. “She was well-liked and lots of fun. And she loved her dad unconditionally.”
Married at age 20, Kathi began to develop problems with alcohol early in her adult life. Her mother remembers it was “a battle she just could not win – but she really did try.” Later, Kathi drifted in and out of relationships while raising a son. She had been living with a man who later developed AIDS when, at age 38, she learned that she, too, was infected with HIV.
“When Kathi was at her lowest and very depressed,” her mother recalls, “I would remind her of the one bright spot: Jason.” (Her son Jason, now married, grew up to attend law school in Texas.)
“When Kathi died, it was so sudden. No one expected her to die so soon, not even the doctors,” says her mother.
“All of a sudden, the family realized how fragile life is. A lot of good comes out of [a tragedy]. Now we all keep in touch. We say I love you. No more petty resentments.”
The grieving family came to believe that something more than merely scattering Kathi’s ashes at sea was necessary to honor her life. Ellen remembered spotting an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the AIDS Memorial Grove nearly a decade before Kathi’s death. Kathi’s sister Julie was dispatched to locate and explore the Grove. Soon the family was in agreement that this was the perfect site for remembering their beloved daughter and sister.
“All of us really enjoy gardening. We love being in the dirt and growing things. So we attended the September 2000 Volunteer Workday,” says Ellen. “It turned out to be the annual Volunteer Appreciation Day.” People who understood the family’s grief, and had found a way of expressing it, suddenly surrounded them.
“Now we look at all the wonderful people we have met at the Grove. They have been an inspiration to us!” Ellen says she is especially moved by the monthly Workday ceremony called “Healing Circle,” when everyone gathers and calls out the names of their lost or ailing loved ones.
“The silence beforehand seems like the collective prayer of all these people who have loss in common. It’s very powerful, and it has really meant a lot to us,” Ellen says in reflection. “I feel there is such serenity in the Grove, even when it’s full of people. I think it’s a little holy – inspirational, like a walk in any forest can be.”
Not long ago, Kathi’s father, Harry, decided to place his name in the Circle of Friends, alongside his daughter’s. Perhaps it was his way not only of honoring her life but of returning Kathi’s unconditional love. Meanwhile, Ellen’s children felt so strongly about the impact the Grove had made on their mother that they secretly added her name to the Circle, as well.
On Volunteer Appreciation Day 2001, a year after the family’s initial involvement with monthly Workdays, Ellen was surprised and overjoyed to see her name unveiled, too – between her daughter’s and her husband’s.
With support from family and friends, a lot of good can indeed come from tragedy. Perhaps the example of the Shepherds points to an important pathway in healing, a path of renewal leading through the Grove.
— Paul D. Hufstedler, Grove volunteer