Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life

When his grandson was born, Daniel Gottlieb began to write a series of heartfelt letters that he hoped Sam would read later in life. He planned to cover all the important topics — dealing with your parents, handling bullies, falling in love, coping with death — and what motivated him was the fear that he might not live long enough to see Sam reach adulthood. You see, Daniel Gottlieb is a quadriplegic — the result of a near-fatal automobile accident that occurred two decades ago — and he knows enough not to take anything for granted.

Then, when Sam was only fourteen months old, he was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disability, a form of autism, and suddenly everything changed. Now the grandfather and grandson were bound by something more: a disability — and Daniel Gottlieb’s special understanding of what that means became invaluable.

A lovingly written, emotionally gripping book that offers unique — and universal — insights into what it means to be human.

In addition to his thriving psychotherapy practice, Daniel Gottlieb serves as the host of Voices in the Family, an award-winning mental health call-in show on Philadelphia’s much-respected public radio station, WHYY. He also writes a bimonthly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled “On Healing,” and is the author of two books. He lectures locally and nationally on a variety of topics affecting the well-being of people, families, and the larger community.


2006 National Caregivers Conference: www.kintera.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=172367
The Special Needs Families Resource Center: http://www.specialfamilies.com/specialfamilies.htm
The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation: http://www.kleinfoundation.org/


Inner Wisdom
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Lap Time

Dear Sam,
Looking back, I know I loved you from the moment of your birth. But for some reason it took about six months for my love to develop. Early on, I loved my grandson. After six months, I loved you. And I think something similar happened with you.

It’s easy to understand how I took to you. You’re my grandson! You’re the child of my daughter! But why did you take to me?

I lived three hours away from you and your parents. I certainly wasn’t available for bonding. And you didn’t understand the concept of “grandfather” when you were just a toddler. So initially, you kept your distance from me. But now that I think about it, everything changed at my father’s funeral.

You were just six months old when he died, but we took you to the funeral. As I sat there crying quietly, all you wanted to do was sit on my lap. It was as though you sensed my pain and wanted to be with me. And since that time, whenever we are together, all you want to do is climb up on my lap.

Long after my father’s funeral you still wanted to be close to me. At first, I thought you were intrigued by the wheelchair. And although that might be true, I don’t think that’s the whole story. I believe at a certain level you know we are kindred spirits. You are beginning to understand that I can’t do what others do. In time you will understand how different I am from everyone else. Part of my job with you, Sam, is to teach you how to tolerate your different-ness from other people and – despite the differences – how to navigate your own waters.

As you get older, Sam, I will have more to say about how I’ve learned to cope with people staring at me or treating me differently. We can talk about fear, injustice, God, and the tiny little gifts that sometimes live inside of adversity.

But I believe there’s another part of my job with you. I also have to help you never, ever forget what you knew at the age of six months. You knew what the angels looked like, and on the day of my father’s funeral, you acted like one.


Give Kindness a Chance

Dear Sam,
Your vulnerability, Sam, along with your radiant smile, will likely bring out people who want to be good, who want to help, who feel generous.

In the animal kingdom, vulnerability can bring out aggression in other animals. This sometimes happens with humans also. But I have found that, instead, my vulnerability brings out the best in people. And I have discovered that when people are kind and helpful, it makes them happy. Sometimes, I almost feel guilty about this, because people who appear to be “normal” and independent don’t get to see this soft side of others.

What about you, Sam? I wonder whether you will be able to expose the soft side of yourself. Often, we try every way possible to avoid showing our vulnerability. Which can involve a lot of pretending. But only when you stop pretending you’re brave or strong, you allow people to show the kindness that’s in them.

Let me tell you a story.

Last month, on a very windy day, I was returning from a lecture I had given to a group in Fort Washington. I was beginning to feel unwell. I was feeling increasing spasms in my legs and back and became anxious as I anticipated a difficult ride back to my office. Making matters worse, I knew I had to travel two of the most treacherous high-speed roads near Philadelphia – the four-lane Schuylkill Expressway and the six-lane Blue Route.

You’ve been in my van, so you know how it’s been outfitted with everything I need to drive. But you probably don’t realize that I often drive more slowly than other people. That’s because I have difficulty with body control. I’m especially careful on windy days when the van can be buffeted by sudden gusts. And if I’m having problems with spasms or high blood pressure, I stay way over in the right hand lane and drive well below the speed limit.

When I’m driving slowly, people behind me tend to get impatient. They speed up to my car, blow their horns, drive by, stare at me angrily, and show me how long their fingers can get. (I don’t understand why some people are so proud of the length of their fingers, but there are many things I don’t understand.) Those angry drivers add stress to what already is a stressful experience of driving.

On this particular day, I was driving by myself. At first, I drove slowly along back roads. Whenever someone approached, I pulled over and let them pass. But as I neared the Blue Route, I became more frightened. I knew I would be hearing a lot of horns and seeing a lot of those long fingers.

And then I did something I had never done in the twenty-four years that I have been driving my van. I decided to put on my flashers. I drove the Blue Route and the Schuylkyll Expressway at 35 miles per hour.

Now…Guess what happened?

Nothing! No horns and no fingers.

But why?

When I put on my flashers, I was saying to the other drivers, “I have a problem here – I am vulnerable and doing the best I can.” And everyone understood. Several times, in my rearview mirror I saw drivers who wanted to pass. They couldn’t get around me because of the stream of passing traffic. But instead of honking or tailgating, they waited for the other cars to pass, knowing the driver in front of them was in some way weak.

Sam, there is something about vulnerability that elicits compassion. It is in our hard wiring. I see it every day when people help me by holding doors, pouring cream in my coffee, or assist me when I put on my coat. Sometimes I feel sad because from my wheelchair perspective, I see the best in people. But those who appear strong and invulnerably typically are not exposed to the kindness I see daily.

Sometimes situations call for us to act strong and brave even when we don’t feel that way. But those are a few and far between. More often, there is a better pay-off if you don’t pretend you feel strong when you feel weak, or pretend that you are brave when you’re scared. I really believe the world might be a safer place if everyone who felt vulnerable wore flashers that said, “I have a problem and I’m doing the best I can. Please be patient!”



When it gets dark enough, men see stars,” according to Emerson. In irreducibly simple yet profound words, Dan Gottlieb shares the wisdom he has derived from living in a wheelchair, battling his own inner demons, and practicing psychology for the past 25 years. His loves, losses, and lessons are informed and inspired by the unique bond he shares with his grandson, Sam, who is also different—growing up with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. I wish I had this book when my son was diagnosed with autism over 20 years ago. I am overjoyed that we have it now for Letters to Sam is a guide for the soul, much more than just another autism book, and a wonderful gift to families.

Robert A. Naseef, Ph.D.
author of Special Children, Challenged Parents
co-editor of Voices from the Spectrum

Letter by letter, page by page, Dr. Dan Gottlieb weaves an extraordinary tapestry of his own struggles and triumphs, his eternal love for his grandson Sam, his profound compassion for humanity, and his urgent desire to share his wisdom. Within my first minute with this book, I knew he was speaking as much to Sam as to me. Within the second minute, I had already begun to ask deep questions about my life. Within the third minute, I forgot I was reading a book, and felt I was in the great classroom of life, with a teacher as vulnerable as he is enlightening, and with lessons I will treasure forever.

Rachel Simon
author of Riding the Bus With My Sister

Letters to Sam is the manifestation of a brilliant mind inside a giant heart.

Gerda Weissmann Klein
Holocaust survivor
author of All But My Life and A Boring Evening at Home
co-founder of The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation

Rarely are familial intimacies revealed with such clarion honesty, compassion and erudition. Learn from both a master clinician’s wisdom, and his lifetime of reflection.

Peter C Whybrow, MD
Director, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA
author of A Mood Apart, The Thinkers Guide to Emotion and Disorder

Letters to Sam is a remarkable book that I want to give to my wife, and friends and family. I also want to share this book with my son who has special needs, along with his teachers and the parents at his school because it does a beautiful job of describing the beauty and richness of being unique and highly sensitive.

Leonard Felder, Ph.D.
author of The Ten Challenges

Letters to Sam is heartbreaking and heartmending all at the same time. I cried as I read and felt my heart open and fill with love. Being with Dan through these stories is a precious gift. I feel lucky that he became a grandfather and was inspired to write to Sam–and then so glad he let us all in on it. Dan has the authority of having lived through the extremities of pain and loss, so when you bite down on his wisdom, it’s gold. I want to give this book to everyone I care about.

Ellen Bass
author of Mules of Love


Dearest Daniel,
Many tears flowed reading your soul written with so much love to your grandson, Sam. It truly is both beautifully done and your assessments of many human feelings are, as they say in America, “Right On.” … After reading your powerful words, I will look at my own beloved grandchildren, Connor, Erin, and Brianna, in a different light. Born with no disabilities yet living in a cruel world where one stupid act of violence could take them from me enrages me. … Thank you for sharing your love of Sam with me for it is indeed an exquisite love. A love I hope will be read by many thousands lucky enough to buy your book. … Stay soul strong, Daniel. The world needs you.

Betty Williams
Nobel Peace Laureate
President and Founder, World Centers of Compassion for Children International

When I picked up your book, I was not sure what I was going to find. You know, I am a voracious reader of nonfiction, about the issues that you address in your book. I thought your book would be good, but I never thought it would be this good. It is the writing of someone who wrote purely from his heart.

I read your book cover to cover in one day. I went to sleep reading it. Woke up reading it. Took a morning shower and then did something I never do. I read your book some more. Right smack in the middle of the morning. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted more.

I could hear your voice in the stories you told. I wanted you to be my grandfather. I wanted to have a grandfather who could sit with me and tell me all of the things about life that no one ever told me. While reading this, I learned about you. And, I re-learned about me. You helped to remind me to be kind to myself. Love myself. Enjoy myself. Not to take myself too seriously. Be in the moment. And don’t forget to reach out to others.

I am going to order a case of these books. I want my children to have a copy. I want my parents and family members and friends to have a copy. And I want my clients to have a copy. Everyone should read this.

Thank you for your generosity in giving this work of yours to the world. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Nancy Raphael Ed.D.
President, Leadership & Executive Development, LLC

I started reading Letters to Sam at 3:00 a.m. last night… finding myself unable to sleep and getting up to do something worth doing. I just read the first chapter before returning to bed, but tears formed immediately and right through it… I was overwhelmed with feeling what a good person you are, with your soul so embodying love and wisdom… and thought… oh my, I’m going to cry my way through this whole book.. and also wishing I could have read it decades ago…. I would have been such a better spouse, father, person, since you put me in touch with my own soul… But better late than never. You have the power to touch our soul, and enable us to recognize—no, experience—our soul… and how we (I) want to be… you’re such a gift… I will be eternally grateful…. And I still have ahead to finish this book!

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