Losing a Child: A Parent's Worst Nightmare
Three southeast Michigan families share their stories of facing the unthinkable – death of their kid – fighting through the grief and continuing to live and love and, yes, even laugh
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Local parents who have lost a child (clockwise from top left): Anne Vachon of Troy and her daughters; Mindie Wolvin of Lake Orion; Cliff and Tammy Patton of Clinton Township and their kids.
Photos by Kristen Hines
Editor's Note: This story appeared in the May 2012 print edition of Metro Parent. It is the first in a three-part serious entitled "Loss."
Seven-year-old Timmy Vachon spent the last 24 hours of his life in the arms of his mother, somewhere familiar and warm, where he felt loved and safe. It was the perfect place to take his last breaths – for him and for her.
"I memorized him," she recalls. "I held him and told him how much we loved him. I can't tell you how healing that was for me. I had some time with him to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life."
Anne Vachon of Troy faced every parent's worst nightmare when, days after her precious boy was struck by a snowmobile at a local ski area, she learned that her only son was showing no signs of brain activity. Per Michigan law, a second set of brain activity tests would be required before he could be detached from the machines keeping him alive. Anne spent those 24 hours lying next to Timmy in his hospital bed.
On Feb. 4, 2007, Timmy died. And so began the long and excruciatingly difficult grief journey for Anne and her husband Marc – a journey that no parent can ever be prepared to take.
Approximately 53,000 children die each year in the United States, according to the National Center for Child Death Review Policy and Practice. That means each year more than 100,000 parents face the unthinkable – the loss of a child. With that loss comes the reality that the hopes, dreams and expectations they held for their son or daughter will never be realized. And yet life goes on – somehow.
Processing the unthinkable
The early days after Timmy's death were "torture" for Anne.
"At first, you live hour to hour. I couldn't think of anything past one hour," she recalls. "Then, slowly, you start living day to day."
"Whenever a child dies, it's too soon, and it's unnatural," says Sister Beverly Hinson, director of spiritual care services at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. "Parents shouldn't bury their children, and they're always fighting against that unnaturalness."
Author and grief counselor Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., says that it's very common for bereaved parents to experience a state of numbness in the early days and weeks after their child's death.
"This numbness serves a valuable purpose: It gives your emotions time to catch up with what your mind has told you," explains Dr. Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Ft. Collins, Colo. "These feelings of numbness and disbelief help insulate you from the reality of the death until you are more able to tolerate what you don't want to believe."
Mary E. Jamerino, director of bereavement services at A. J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home in Troy and Royal Oak, encourages grieving parents to surround themselves with close friends and family during the early days after a child's death.
"Just be with each other," says Jamerino, a certified social worker. "Many families will use this time to go through photos for memory boards. They'll look at their child's ribbons and other accomplishments. Family members should encourage the grieving parents to talk about their child and the memories the photos elicit."
Vachon recalls laughing while sorting through photos of Timmy in the days immediately following his death.
"At that time, I thought I would never ever laugh again, yet here I was laughing," she recalls. "He was so endearing, and there were so many funny Timmy stories. I remember telling my college roommate, 'I promise you, I will laugh and smile for him every day.'"
Letting go; finding support
Mindie Wolvin of Lake Orion lost her 16-year-old son to suicide five years ago. In February 2007, when she got the call at work to return home immediately, she never expected to be greeted by police officers and paramedics in her driveway. When her husband broke the news that their son Jake had taken his own life in the basement of their home, Mindie collapsed.
"I kept asking to see him. I needed to see him. I wanted to at least touch his hand," she recalls. "But the police wouldn't let me."
The next day Mindie was able to see Jake through the glass at the medical examiner's office, but still was unable to touch her son, something she was aching to do. It was at the funeral home where she finally was able to touch the hands and chest of her only child.
While against the very natural order of things, planning a child's funeral in many instances can prove a cathartic experience, Jamerino notes.
"It's a chance to say goodbye, a chance for family and friends to come together and show support," says Jamerino, who is a firm believer that it's important for parents to see their child, even if they plan for the casket to be closed to the public.
"Many times, the last memory of the child is in the hospital or hospice or at the scene of an accident," she explains. "The funeral is the last chance for parents to see their child."
Mindie and her husband, Ken, found great comfort in bringing photo boards into the funeral home along with Jake's beloved dirt bike, helmet, gloves and favorite T-shirts.
"We loaded that place up," she recalls. "I was so thankful that we were able to do that."
For bereaved parents, it is often after the funeral in the weeks and months that follow when the full weight of grief bears down.
"Some people try to stay busy by throwing themselves into activities," Hinson says. "But at some point, you have to address your grief."
It is during this time that bereaved parents need to find at least one person with whom to share that pain, says Hinson. Sometimes, that person is a counselor or other parents who have lost a child.
"There is solidarity among people who have experienced this kind of loss," Vachon says. "It is, thank God, a very small percentage of the universe. If you are part of that small percentage, though, you don't know if you are going to survive. Being around other bereaved parents is like talking to people who speak the same language."