Shannon Smiles

Remembering Shannon's Spirit

Published September 13, 1998
The Free Lance–Star
Fredericksburg, Virginia
by Diane Critchfield

Thank you... for her life
Crash victim left behind a journal of gratitude

Shannon Broom’s memory lives on for her parents
with bookmarks they’ve made from her writings.

Thank you for the moon last night.
Thank you for limitless possibilities.
Thank you for time to soak in a tub and read.
Thank you for cookie dough.

EVERY NIGHT, Shannon Broom wrote five things she was thankful for in a gratitude journal. Her thank-yous listed the simple things that made her happy: Halloween candy, loose change, electric blankets, rain. Shannon’s loved ones were mentioned regularly: her parents; her grandmother; her best friend, Denise Hensley; her cats, Yanni and Michoud; and her dog, Emelline.

Shannon, 23, of Spotsylvania County died from injuries suffered in a car crash May 1. The night before, she had written, “I’m thankful for the life I have, nothing I want that I can’t obtain, wonderful family and friends.” She was grateful, she wrote, that she could take her time finding a job. During the last nine months of her life, Shannon kept the book of sentence vignettes faithfully.

Before Shannon’s death, her parents, Jan and Jules Broom, had never read her journal. The book now provides their greatest source of comfort. As the Brooms learn to cope with the loss of their beloved only child, Shannon’s words still speak to them—not of life’s sorrows, but of life’s celebrations.

Grateful every day

Jan and Shannon Broom first heard about “The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude” on the Oprah Winfrey show in August 1997. Jan found the journal at Waldenbooks in Spotsylvania Mall and bought two copies, one for each of them.

The gratitude journal, written by Maryland author Sarah Ban Breathnach, was published in 1996. The book has been a best seller nationally. Locally, Waldenbooks has sold 100 copies of the journal in the past year.

When Jan first brought the journals home, Shannon didn’t like the idea. She “fussed and fumed” about it, her mother said. But Shannon had kept other journals before, and something made her keep this one faithfully once she started on Aug. 7, 1997. “She never missed a day, not one,” Jan said.

A gift of life

Shannon spent the last two weeks of April with her grandmother, June Judd, who lives near Culpeper. Shannon had helped with yard work and painting as Judd recovered from a broken pelvis.

When she headed back to her home in Spotsylvania’s Queen’s Mill subdivision on a rainy May 1, Shannon saw two accidents ahead of her on the road near Lake of the Woods. When she hit the brakes, the car hydroplaned, ran into an embankment and plowed into a tree. Shannon was admitted to the emergency department at Mary Washington Hospital with a diagnosis of “blunt trauma to head.”

Brain function tests just 21 hours later revealed that Shannon was brain-dead, and doctors approached the Brooms about the option of organ donation. “We had to make decisions no parents should have to make,” Jan told a group of nurses at a seminar in early August.

The seminar was designed to help educate nurses and staff on transplant procedures, said Adelaide Smith–Buckner, administrative clinical manager for Mary Washington Hospital. The hospital retrieves organs but does not transplant them, Smith–Buckner said. Jan was grateful that someone suggested donation, because Shannon had always known she wanted to donate her organs.

Shannon was keenly aware of mortality, long before she was diagnosed with diabetes at 13, Jules said. When she was in grade school, she persuaded her father to change his driver’s license to become a donor, he said.

People may change their licenses to reflect their wishes, said Jeanne Chenault, public relations manager for the Department of Motor Vehicles in Richmond. But telling your closest relatives of your desire to donate organs and tissue is the most important thing, she said. Details of organ and tissue donations remain confidential to protect the recipients, said Matt Burton, transplant coordinator for LifeNet and Mary Washington Hospital.

Still, Shannon’s parents have learned a few heartening facts about the donations. They know Shannon’s death brought life to a 17-year-old boy who had been surviving only with the aid of a heart machine. He had waited in a Richmond hospital for 500 days. And while Shannon’s heart had only a 2 percent chance of matching his, the transplant was successful.

Shannon’s head trauma did not affect her internal organs, and she became a multiple donor. Besides her heart, doctors recovered both of her kidneys, her liver and her corneas.

In July, Jan received a letter from the mother of one of Shannon’s kidney recipients. The mother had watched her 30-year-old daughter deteriorate; now the daughter is well enough to plan a vacation. “Jules and I are celebrating with them that someone else’s mom can look forward to having their child around,” Jan said.

A way to say thanks

After the car accident, Jan and Jules discovered Shannon’s journal in the suitcase she had taken to her grandmother’s. They crawled onto their daughter’s bed, read the journal and cried.

When the Brooms began to organize Shannon’s memorial service, Jan said the journal leapt out as the obvious script. Family and friends laughed at familiar things Shannon had written, things that everyone could relate to. They also heard Shannon’s thankfulness for life’s simple joys.

“Thank you for beautiful days that allow windows to be left open,” Shannon wrote. “Thank you for the ability to give.”

When Jan and Jules were finally alone, they began to write thank-yous for their friends’ comfort during the accident’s horrible aftermath. They wanted to focus on the positive, Jan Broom said, and not drown in sorrow. Once again, the couple turned to Shannon’s book of thank-yous for help. They also turned to her artwork.

Shannon was a Mary Washington College graduate with a degree in studio art. She had recently won local recognition for a colored-pencil drawing of a fall oak leaf dripping into a pool. Combining Shannon’s artwork with the pages of her journal and poems, Jan and Jules created colorful bookmarks. They laminated the computer-made bookmarks for a finished, professional appearance.

With each thank-you note written to friends, they included the homemade tribute.

The Brooms continue to make the bookmarks as a kind of therapy, and have given away more than 2,000. “When we are in the depths of despair, it makes us feel close to her,” Jan said.

A lesson for life

Writing thank-yous after Shannon’s memorial service included e–mail messages to celebrities Rosie O’Donnell and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom were listed in Shannon’s journal.

In early June, the Brooms received a reply. Producers of the Oprah Winfrey show wanted the couple to fly to their Chicago studio to tell their story. Though they were still grieving, the Brooms agreed to go on the show because that’s how they first heard of the journal. The show was taped June 17 and aired July 21. Their segment lasted about three minutes. During the show, Winfrey said she knew firsthand how keeping a gratitude journal helps people live happier lives. “I swear it’s life-changing,” Winfrey said.

In her journal, Shannon had written, “It feels good to be thankful for things.”

Spurred by Shannon’s example, Jan resumed writing in her own gratitude journal 19 days after Shannon’s accident. “It’s a lot harder to be upset when you’re looking at what’s good in your life,” she said. The act of writing five thank-yous a day is a simple way to stay focused on positive thoughts, Jan said.

“If you don’t write it down, somehow it escapes you.” Even during the first month after Shannon’s accident, Jan managed to find ways to give thanks.
She wrote:
Thank you for friends to cry with.
Thank you for the memory of happiness.
Thank you for Jules’ embrace.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for Shannon Andrieu Broom.

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