Reflecting on the Metro Parent Loss Series
A Bloomfield Township mom and journalist shares her 2012 journey interviewing southeast Michigan families who have experienced the loss of a parent, child or spouse
The upcoming five-year anniversary of the sudden and tragic death of an acquaintance's 7-year-old son was on my mind as I met with Metro Parent's executive editor Julia Elliott for lunch last January. We were meeting to discuss possible story assignments for 2012 and, as it turns out, Julia had been considering doing a story on families and loss. In the end, I left that lunch with a tall task: a three-part series on grief from three perspectives: parents grieving the loss of a child, children grieving the loss of a parent, and parents grieving the loss of their spouse.
I am a parent of two and happily married to a wonderful spouse/co-parent, so (thankfully) personal experience was not something from which I would be drawing. I would tap into the stories of relative strangers and hear excruciating details of their loss. Honestly, I wasn't sure if I could go there – to this place of sadness and somehow put together a series of stories that were, in the end, even the tiniest bit hopeful. But I agreed to try.
After the first story ran in Metro Parent's May issue, a woman wrote a letter to the editor noting that her husband and friends refused to read the article finding the subject matter too difficult to read. This reminded me of my friend recounting to me once that she can't watch the movie Steel Magnolias since having kids. The first time I watched that movie after my daughter was born, I understood why. And I know why the spouse and friends of the woman who wrote that letter felt the way they did. As I interviewed numerous bereavement counselors and grieving parents in February and March, I heard over and over that it's simply not natural for a parent to bury their child. If you don't have to think about the unthinkable, why would you?
I respect this sentiment. But in the end, I am so glad that after having gone through this experience I know that there are resources, people, books and help available should, God forbid, this ever happen to me or someone I love. People live this horrific reality and do come out on the other side in one piece. I know this for a fact. Their names are Anne, Mindie, Tammy and Cliff. And I was privileged to hear their stories firsthand.
For story No. 1, I knew the first person I wanted to speak with – if she would be willing – was Anne Vachon of Troy, who is pictured in the May issue with her three daughters huddled around the statue in her backyard of her beloved Timmy, who died in 2007. Anne is a friend of my sisters' – someone I knew from afar and with whom I had exchanged pleasantries on occasion. I didn't know if she would be open to telling her story again and to me – someone she barely knew. Fortunately, she was. And I – and, more importantly, the story – are better for it.
I sat with Anne in her kitchen for more than two hours on a Friday afternoon and heard the story directly from her of how her son was finishing his last run of the day at a local ski facility when his life was cut short. One more run and the family would be packing it up to go home. But that was not to be. One moment Anne was having hot chocolate in the lodge with her only son, the next she was on her knees in the snow next to him as paramedics attempted to revive him after he was struck by a snowmobile.
As we began to talk, Anne warned me that she was going to cry during our conversation. I remember thinking, 'Of course, how could you not?' What I didn't realize is that I would, too. One story in particular stood out. Just a short time after Timmy's funeral, Anne returned to his school for a previously scheduled lunch-duty stint. She told her daughters that she wouldn't make them do anything she wasn't doing, and they were back at school – so Anne rallied. No one would have batted an eye if she bowed out, but there she was walking into the school cafeteria filled with Timmy's friends and classmates. All of the kids stopped what they were doing when she entered, stood up and formed a line to one-by-one give her a hug. She said it was one of the most profoundly kind things she had ever seen children do. I still think about that story – a mother without her child being comforted by dozens of children he played with.
When I interview someone in person, I like to record the conversation so he or she isn't distracted by my note-taking – and so that we can truly have a conversation. Later I'll go back and transcribe my notes. In all, I had 13 pages of notes, or 8,163 words from my conversation with Anne. I have re-read that transcript more than once. And I say this not because Anne is a friend of my sisters' and not because she has had to endure something no human ever should, I say it because it is true – Anne is one of the bravest and most inspirational people I have ever encountered.
Before I left her house, Anne gave me a tour. Something not mentioned in the article is that several months before Timmy died, his family's home was struck by lightning and burned almost completely to the ground. As their home was being rebuilt, Anne and her husband Marc made the decision to move forward with the decor they had picked out with Timmy for his new room – even though he wouldn't be there to see it. The room remained that way until his little sister, Julia, was born. And then his room became hers. Now decorated for a little girl, it features one very noticeable reference to its previous occupant – a quote from a personal favorite of mine – The Little Prince. Our final stop was to the basement, where I got to take a peek at "Timmy's Nook" – a corner of the basement featuring photos of Timmy, Detroit Tigers memorabilia (he was a huge fan) and a bench upholstered in some of Timmy's favorite T-shirts.
I left Anne's knowing I would need to do some of my best work to do justice to her story, to Timmy and to the other wonderful individuals whom I didn't know then that I would be encountering in the months to come as this series took shape.
Meeting more heroes
In my research for this series, I had heard a few people mention Compassionate Friends – a bereavement support group for parents who have lost a child. I visited the organization's national website and found a chapter nearby. I emailed the chapter heads and explained what I was doing. Tina Cochrane of Pontiac and Mindie Wolvin of Lake Orion emailed me back right away saying they'd be happy to see if any of the group's members would be open to sharing their stories with me.
But before we got much further, Mindie herself offered to tell hers. We arranged via email to talk by phone later in the week. I knew no details of her son, except that his name was Jake – like my nephew. I didn't know how old Jake was when he died, how long ago he had died or how he had died. When Mindie picked up the phone, my first question was thus simply to ask her to tell me about her boy. I learned he was a very likable and outgoing 16-year-old – the only child of Mindie and her husband Ken. Like Anne, Mindie was nearing the five-year anniversary of her son's death. I remember thinking it an interesting coincidence – and not the last I would experience in putting this series together.
Mindie then shared that her son had died by suicide. I was stopped in my tracks. I hadn't expected that. But Mindie set me at ease as she told me the story of Jake. She choked back sobs more than once as we talked about his last days, the compounded grief of losing her son in this way and the comfort that Compassionate Friends has provided to her. Before we hung up, Mindie invited me to attend an upcoming Compassionate Friends gathering. I was immediately interested from a research standpoint, but simultaneously hesitant. Would I be disrupting what is typically a source of comfort for a group of bereaved parents? Would my note-taking – heck, would my mere presence – inhibit their sharing? But Mindie ran it by the group ahead of time and assured me it would be OK.
I knew who Mindie was the moment I walked into the room, where the Troy/Rochester chapter of Compassionate Friends was meeting, though I had never seen her before. She had to be the woman standing up with kind eyes and a warm smile. Though strangers, we hugged. There were approximately 15 people in that room all grappling with horror. That's really the only word I can think of to describe what I would imagine is the experience of losing a child. Some had lost babies or toddlers, others teenagers, some adult children. Some had lost their child suddenly, some after a long illness, some to suicide.
I was so touched to be included in the intimacy of their sharing. But I admit I felt very much out of place. I was a reporter writing down words like "it's the worst thing you can ever imagine" in a steno pad. As much as I wanted to be there, I wanted to hightail it out of there at the same time to pull my son and daughter into a tight embrace (and keep them there forever). For, as I heard over and over again that night, you just never know.
I'd like to thank Mindie and every single person who was present that evening I sat in your presence. I know some of you came specifically because I was going to be there. I know some of you probably came despite my being there. Though I could not mention you and your children all by name, you helped to shape this story and to influence one mother (me) in a positive way. You are very brave. I wish you only the very best.
A common thread that emerged in my interviews with grieving families is the desire to create something good from something terrible. The Vachons started the Timmy Vachon Foundation. Mindie and Ken annually hold Jake's Love Fest, encouraging friends and family to commit random acts of kindness around the anniversary of their son's death. And for their part, Cliff and Tammy Patton of Clinton Township annually hold a stuffed animal drive to collect plush toys for the local children's hospital. Tammy mentioned that when her infant daughter Erin was in the hospital before she died, she was given a little stuffed animal – a tiny symbol of childhood for a girl who would have a fleeting one. Erin died at 16 days old. The little stuffed animal was likely one of the only toys this little girl would have in her short lifetime, and Tammy mentioned how she and her husband hold dear to it still 10 years later. It shaped their decision to celebrate their daughter's life each year collecting stuffed animals for other kids in the hospital. I am humbled by you!
Tamia, Casey, William & Quinn – Making their Parents Proud
For part two in the series, about children losing a parent, I knew my first stop would be a call to Sandcastles, an organization Anne Vachon had mentioned to me when we chatted. It's a grief support program for children. And so, on another Friday afternoon, I spent another few hours chatting with another very brave soul – Peggy Nielsen, Sandcastles' manager.
There are many times in my life when I realize how drastically different my professional life is from so many others in this world. I've noticed this whenever I am at a hospital surrounded by healthcare providers talking shop. I've noticed this numerous times when dropping my daughter off at preschool surrounded by toddlers talking a mile a minute. And I noticed this when talking to Peggy about what her workday looks like. Peggy goes to work every day to help kids who have suffered the biggest loss of their lives. She gets up, puts on her game face and helps families put the pieces back together. Peggy – we are better for people like you and your staff.
Peggy put me in touch with Greg and Casey Papp of Brownstown. If you read part two in the series, I knew my first stop would be a call to Sandcastles, you will recall the adorable photo of a tween girl giving her dad a hug. That's them! When I approached story No. 2, I assumed (wrongly) that I wouldn't be able to talk to any kids. Perhaps their parents wouldn't want me to, or perhaps organizations like Sandcastles couldn't permit that for privacy reasons. I was thrilled that when I called Greg Papp at home on a Saturday, he put me on speakerphone so I could also talk with 12-year-old Casey. You may have captured a glimpse of her spunk in the article, and I can assure you this is a girl who has a bright future ahead of her. She is funny, outgoing, articulate and smart. And though I never had the privilege to meet or speak with her mom Carole, as a mom myself, I can only imagine how proud she would be of her little girl.
I interviewed Greg and Casey from inside my car in the parking lot of a local park. I needed a quiet place (and my house certainly doesn't qualify). My notes from this call spanned two notebooks. One page is still crispy from where a tear dried as I listened to Greg talk through tears and as Casey shared how her mom had recorded messages for her to play back after she died. I could never rank levels of difficulty in doing the interviews for this series – they were all so raw, painful and heartbreaking. But this, and the one I would do later with Gunnar Ross for part three in the series, struck me in a personal way as a mother listening to the agony of mothers knowing they were not going to see their little ones grow up.
For Carole Papp to have the courage to write letters to her daughter, who was only 9 at the time, for her to read on her wedding day years down the road, must have taken every last ounce of energy and strength to complete. But putting your child first is the hallmark of motherhood – as Carole obviously knew. What a glorious gift for your daughter!
During my conversation with Casey, she mentioned over and over again how her teacher at the time of her mom's death was so helpful to her and that even now, several years later, she is close with her. Finally I asked Casey to tell me her teacher's name so we could give this special lady a shout-out in the article. Alana Vizacharo's name made it into the final version of the article. Casey – if you haven't already, I would encourage you to share a copy of the article with this special lady!
From the outset, one of my goals for the series was to provide perspectives and resources for those who might know someone going through grief of one kind or another and especially for those actually grieving themselves. I asked every person I spoke with what was helpful even in some small way to them – whether a bereavement group, a kind word, a helpful book or a gesture of support from a friend, family member, teacher, neighbor or community member. What I heard more than once is that people often don't know what to say when someone dies, so they don't say anything at all, which is often worse. People like Mrs. Vizacharo may not realize how their actions are helping an aching child, but they are. My takeaway – if you know someone grieving the loss of a child, spouse, parent or other loved one, do something – anything – to acknowledge their loss.
More than any of the three articles in the series, I feel that the second one provided the most comprehensive list of resources – whether websites, books, bereavement programs or tidbits of advice. I learned from the folks at Ele's Place, another bereavement program for kids, that Michigan's First Lady, Sue Snyder, is the spokesperson for the Michigan Network for Grieving Children. As soon as I heard that, I made it my mission to chat with her. I called and emailed Lansing many times and even spoke with one or two people close to her. In the end, I never did get a hold of her in time to make my deadline. But I do know that this network of resources of grieving children is a gift – perhaps even a lifeline. Thanks, Ms. Snyder, for using your position to elevate awareness for this cause.
Up next, after the Papps, was an interview with Terri Culberson of Southfield, whose daughter died while parking the car as she, her mother and her daughter Tamia all enjoyed a Black Friday shopping spree. Like Anne, Terri is someone so full of wisdom and inspiration that I wanted to enlist her as my personal mentor! Tamia is thriving thanks to the dedication of her grandmother and is following in her mom's footsteps as an avid reader. I didn't meet Terri and Tamia in person, so I first saw them when I, too, picked up a copy of the June issue from the newsstands. My first thought was that Terri looks like she could be Tamia's mother! My second thought was of how bittersweet it was that this three-generation photo of the Culberson women required a photo within a photo. Tamia – you're a beautiful young lady with a wise woman behind you. Thank you so much, Terri, for sharing your perspective as both mom and grandma.
And rounding out my third interview for the second story was one with Erin Austin of Milan. Erin was very easy to talk with. She candidly shared the challenges of communicating the finality of death to her two young boys, William and Quinn, and the fact that their dad chose to die. Her beautiful boys, pictured with her in the June issue, are still finding their way with the help of Ele's Place and a hard-working dedicated mom who herself is navigating a new normal. Thank you, Erin, for sharing your story with me! May God bless you.
Wrapping it up
More than once, when corresponding back to Julia at Metro Parent about the series, I conveyed to her that I had met some amazing people through this process. The last three individuals with whom I chatted for the series were no exception.
By the time I was working on part three of the series on parents losing a spouse, I admit I was mentally exhausted. And, unlike the first two stories, I didn't readily know of grief support services I could reach out to. Thank God for Google! Through some online research, I came across Judith Burdick of Bingham Farms whose website, WidowedYoung.net, caught my eye immediately. Online, I also found a list of local grief support programs and blindly started reaching out to them. Cathy Clough of the New Hope Center responded, as did John O'Shaughnessy of Good Mourning Ministry. Both graciously put me in touch with the sources I would profile in part three.
I was particularly interested in talking to a husband and father who had lost his wife. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are many more widows than widowers, but I certainly didn't want to overlook this important segment. Gunnar Ross of Livonia, who had been to the New Hope Center, was kind enough to chat with me. He shared many touching details of the life and death of his wife Kristen, and his new reality as a solo parent of two young girls.
Gunnar shared a special story that didn't make it into the article but that is a beautiful gesture thought up by Kristen before she died and brought to life by dozens of community members. Kristen and Gunnar spent the better part of the summer before she died at a treatment facility in Arkansas, far away from then 5-year-old Charlotte and 20-month-old Vivienne. While they were away, the community was being mobilized. Many moms who are part of the Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPs) program came by to visit with the girls and bring meals. Kristen knew that with so many little girls coming into the family's home to spend time with her own little girls, they'd all appreciate something crafty to do.
Dubbed "The Bead Project," every little girl who came by to visit with Charlotte and Vivienne was invited to string beads on a nylon band with them. Each resulting strip of beading was hung up around the house. When Kristen and Gunnar returned from treatment, the house was covered in these special pieces of art.
Kelly Thorp of Plymouth was a delight to chat with. Kelly's husband was ill for a long time. Kelly would work mornings at her office in downtown Detroit then spend the afternoons and into the evenings at the bedside of her husband, who was receiving treatment at Karmanos Cancer Institute. Then, she would go home to two daughters and managing a household. When her husband died, Kelly actually said she didn't know what to do with all the time she had once her role as caregiver was no longer part of her daily routine. I have thought about little Ryan, Kelly's youngest daughter, who was only 2 when her dad died. She will likely have no memories of her father. Kelly put together extensive photo memory books for each of her girls. I remember being struck by the image of Kelly thumbing through the book each night before bed with Ryan as she learns about her dad through photos and memories others have of him.
After I spoke with Cathy Clough, Judith Burdick, Gunnar Ross and Kelly Thorp, I felt I was finally done. But I had been given one more name. I knew this woman knew I might be contacting her. I didn't feel I needed to have one more interview to complete the third article. I was ready to write. But something told me to reach out to her, to do this one last interview. I am so glad I did!
Shireen Johnson of Plymouth is a sweetheart. Her insights are sprinkled throughout the third article. Her loss is still very recent and her grief all the more difficult with her entire family living on the other side of the world in Jordan. She shared honestly the difficulty of being home alone at night after a long day with no one to share the day's highlights. She talked about how she feels she let her daughters, Emma and Leanne, down on Easter by not hiding the eggs in as many or as challenging places as their dad always did. The camaraderie shared among Kelly and Shireen and their fellow members in the Widows Wine Club was something I was pleased to hear about. As young widows, most of their friends and peers can't relate to the loss of a spouse. In each other, they are able to share trials and tribulations and laugh over the antics of online dating. My kind of gals!
As I filed my last story, I mentally sighed. The series was done, and I joked with Julia about my next assignment being something really light. Thankfully, she heard me loud and clear, and fairies and other such light-hearted subject matter are in my future. Thank you to every single person who helped with this series. Thank you for sharing your story and potentially helping others facing a grief journey of their own.
Before I left Anne Vachon's house the day of our interview last winter, I asked her if there were ever moments when she knew Timmy was right there with her or felt his presence in particular. She said yes. She explained that butterflies seem to show up at the oddest of places – including inside Comerica Park where she and her family were hosting a fundraiser for the Timmy Vachon Foundation. When she sees one, she thinks it's a gift from her little guy.
I don't know about you, but I've seen a whole lot of butterflies this spring.
– Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann is a freelance writer and blogger from Bloomfield Township. She blogs at MomMeetsBaby.com.