The earth shook in Haiti on January 12, 2010. So did the world of Cherylann Gengel and Len Gengel, a couple based in Boston, whose daughter Britney was traveling with classmates and staff of Lynn University. First, the Gengels were told that Britney had been found alive, and then there were the harrowing moments leading to their founding out that their daughter had perished during the disaster.
The Gengels cherished the last text they received from Britney in which she expressed the desire to go live in Haiti after graduation and start an orphanage there. To this end, the Gengels purchased a lot in Grand Goave Haiti (selected because this had been the next city in Haiti, she and her crew were going to visit when she died), where they have built an orphanage in her name—Be Like Brit.
The Gengels have also authored a book entitled Heartache and Hope: The Britney Gengel story (with writer Gary Brozek), which chronicles their continuous journey to healing. All proceeds from the book will benefit the orphanage. Mrs. Gengel discussed the orphanage, and of course the young woman who will always be the apple of her eyes, Britney.
Q & A
Do you remember exactly where you were, when you heard about the earthquake in Haiti in 2010?
Yes, I was in my kitchen starting to cook dinner.
Sometimes when people experience the depth of pain and sorrow that you experienced with Britney’s death in Haiti, they tend to have animosity towards the place they associate with their pain and trauma. Such was not the case with you.
How Britney died was no one’s fault-it was an earthquake. I have a very strong faith and I know that she is with God and in a much better place. To know that she is not suffering at all and knowing that we will be together one day makes it a bit easier.
Many people lost loved ones in the earthquake. The grieving is non-stop. The pain—immeasurable. What has especially helped you and your family cope with the loss of Britney?
I have been blessed with so much support, especially from our family, our friends and from thousands of total strangers. My two sons, Bernie & Richie are my main concern and they are my motivator to keep on going!
You’re involved with the orphanage built in Britney’s name.
I have been working with our Programming Committee. We have been deciding on what will happen inside the building once it was complete. How the children will be raised, discipline, etc. I have also been working on the fundraising for BLB and I do the bookkeeping for BLB.
What was the writing process like for the book? It’s co-authored by you and your husband. Was it written at intervals?
Gary interviewed us by phone for over 60 hours. We did it in many sessions. At times it was too painful to sit keep going, we needed to take a break. Most of the discussions were taken two years ago, but we just went to Colorado this summer and spent some time with to finish the book.
What message would you like to send out to other mothers who find themselves losing a loved one in a natural disaster or in other unexpected circumstances?
I will not tell another mother how she should feel or what will happen or what she can expect. It is all so individual—no right or wrong way to go through this. I have been with many moms that have lost children in different ways and they all have different ways of handling it and they are all in different places in the grieving process. I wish I could say, “Read this book and go through stages 1-10 and at the end you’ll be done grieving”. Just doesn’t happen that way!
To everyone who knew Britney, she was a joy to be around. What do you especially miss about her?
I honestly miss everything about her! I miss her laughing and telling stories about her friends; I miss her messy bedroom; I miss watching her walk down the hallway to her bedroom; I miss her sitting next to me and putting her head on my shoulder…just everything.
Photo Credit: John Gilooly (Gengel couple photo)