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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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.