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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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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!

Deep breath

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.

Old to new | New to old
Jun 28, 2012 11:22 am
 Posted by  lhettinger

Jacquie, I really appreciate this series. I lost my oldest sister when I was in high school. To this day I don't know how my mother and father carried on with their lives and managed to continue to raise two other daughters. My mother will forever be my hero for her amazing heart and strength. I hope that one day I can be as great of a mother as she is to me and my sister. Thanks again.

-Lesley H.

Jul 7, 2012 12:29 pm
 Posted by  Judi

I am Casey's aunt,I spent the entire 4 years and 6 months of Carole's cancer firsthand from May 2005 until her death on Halloween in 2009. Carole did not want to die , she was so brave in her fight but it was Greg's idea to leave all those messages to Casey because as you said it took all she had. But the two of them together, articulate and always prepared, worked on this together because my brother Greg had the biggest burden of all. Not only was he losing his wife he was left all alone to raise a child. How could this burden get any heavier? This would of changed the article if you had known this. But they are moving forward and Casey IS going to be something one day, I am sure. We both worked together with the relay for life 2012 Woodhaven where Casey was named Youth Chairman, on the committee. We will be there again next year, in honor of Carole, my sister in law and Casey's mom.

Jul 9, 2012 01:44 pm
 Posted by  Jacquie

Thanks Judi for your comment! I can't even begin to imagine how hard it was for Greg to see Carole battle for more than four years with cancer and then to face raising Casey alone. Thank you for clarifying that it was Greg who initiated the idea for Carole to record messages for her daughter. When I spoke with Casey, I sensed how much those recordings meant to her. Casey mentioned several times that she considers herself "the girl with many mothers." She talked at length about her many aunts and the support they have offered her. She also mentioned her role in the Relay for Life. She no doubt will go far in life! :)

Jul 12, 2012 12:11 am
 Posted by  ljgri33

Thank you Jacquie for this series. My husband died suddenly 3 years ago, leaving me a widow and our daughter fatherless. Life has not been easy by any means, but thankfully, my daughter & I participate in the Sandcastles Program - we would not have made it through without their support and understanding. We've also made some great new friends there. Unfortunately there are many people who understand & know what we are going through, and they don't judge us (as family members & friends sometimes do judge, and think that it is time for us to "move on") - this is not a club anyone really wants to "join", but I'm thankful that my daughter & I have others to commiserate with. Thank you again.

~Lori

Jul 19, 2012 12:20 pm
 Posted by  Jacquie

Hi Lori,

Thanks so much for your comment. I am so sorry for your and your daughter's loss. I am very pleased to hear that you found Sandcastles! So many times when talking to people during this series, I heard them say how some family and friends think it is time for them to move on. It has ended some friendships in a few cases. Thank God for Sandcastles, Ele's Place, Compassionate Friends and family and friends who let those in grief grieve for as long as they need to.

All the best to you and your daughter!
Jacquie

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