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
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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.