“We are trying to do what we think Matt would want us to do with this opportunity of having a voice. He’s with me every day when I do this. I know it or I couldn’t do this because I’m a shy, private person.” Judy Shepard
I’m back from vacation and eager to present ( a bit late) my December interviewee, Judy Shepard. Ms. Shepard is the mother of Matthew Shepard and founder and director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
In the fall of 1998 Matthew Shepard and Laramie, Wyoming became unfortunate household names across the country as people watched and listened intently to updates on Matthew’s medical status. He was a victim of a horrific anti-gay murderous hate crime.
Ms. Shepard and her husband took their loss and turned it into a cause to make our world a more tolerant, compassionate, accepting and respectful one. Thus the Matthew Shepard Foundation was set up to carry on Matthew’s legacy and promote his causes of social justice and equality for all.
I am so pleased that Ms. Shepard agreed to this blog interview as this is a most crucial and unfortunately prevalent and growing problem. We need all the consciousness-raising and education we can get around these issues of bullying, taunting and violent hate crimes. It’s not about whether we agree or not with someone’s lifestyle or choices; it’s about safety for all.
- What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?
I don’t think I can answer that question about myself – too introspective- but I’ll try. I tend to go with what feels right and not question myself about why. I trust my instincts about people and situations.
- Did you go through a period of self-pity? If so, what helped lift you out?
I have never been one to spend time on things that can’t be changed so ‘self-pity’ is a foreign concept to me. I’d rather move forward with ‘lessons learned.’
- Was there a specific moment, thought, epiphany that helped guide you to a better place mentally, or has it slowly evolved?
With this question, you are assuming that I was once in a bad place or a worse place than I am now. Of course things have evolved because of my life experiences since Matt’s death, but I’m not sure I would say my mental state is ‘better.’ I grieved, I cried and I still do, but I have figured out a way which works for me to keep Matt and his dreams alive. I have an opportunity to be a game changer in my own way.
- What are your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?
Day-to-day coping skills – one foot in the present and the other in the future. I don’t dwell on things I can’t change but I don’t avoid thoughts of Matt. I embrace them and go with whatever feelings come with those memories. I focus on things I can change. I embrace the family I have now – a family that has grown.
- What thoughts/actions propel you forward?
My goal and that of the Foundation is to make the world a more accepting place for everyone, regardless of perceived differences. I can’t bring Matt back no matter what I do, but I can preserve his legacy with my actions. I can continue to share my story so folks can see the growth of the movement for LGBT (lesbian,gay,bisexual,transgender) equality – so they can see what went wrong and what we all can do to make it better.
- In general, how have you managed to rebuild/recreate your life after this horrific tragedy?
I’ve had the love and support of countless friends and allies, and I have a purpose. I have a goal in mind as well as an understanding that achieving that goal is part of my future, but not my entire future.
- What advice, if any, would you offer someone going through a tragedy, in the hope of coming through the darkness intact?
I think you are assuming that one can emerge from the darkness, that it is a possibility. In my personal experience as well as that of many very close friends and family members, you don’t ‘emerge.’ The darkness is always there; it just gets different. It becomes something you can look at with some objectivity. We still have joy and happiness in our lives; it’s just different. At least, that is what it has been for my family to date.
My advice is not to let anyone tell you the accepted time limit for grief – it is limitless. That being said, it must also become something you embrace rather than fear. We’ve encouraged our friends and family to still share memories of Matt; not to shy away from remembering him. He will always be a part of our lives and that is a good thing.
Judy Shepard’s book, The Meaning of Matthew, came out in 2009. Here are two more links for additional interest and information: The Laramie Project, a film of the effects of this tragedy on his town; The Matthew Shepard Story, a film on the story.
Thank you for reading. Please leave comments. And please share this interview. There are more and more of these horrible tragedies happening now.