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
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."
Separate paths to healing
In the best of times, it has been said that "men are from Mars and women are from Venus." Add the nightmare of losing a child to the dynamic, and the sexes can seem galaxies apart.
"Women tend to get more support, and men are socialized not to cry," Hinson explains. "Men typically have to go back to work sooner. Sometimes that can lead to resentment."
Friedman notes that in their effort to be strong, men may harden their feelings.
"The wife may see this and feel like her husband didn't love their baby," Friedman explains. "In reality, he's acting on training. In their effort to be strong, men may appear unemotional. But I tell people you can be strong, or you can be human. You pick."
Jamerino encourages the couples she counsels to see her together – especially in the beginning.
"It was their child, but they will deal differently," she says. "Often the mother will keep going over what happened. The husband may go to work to cope. It's important to remember that each parent had a different relationship with that child. It's only natural then that they will grieve differently."
Anne Vachon explains her and her husband's grief process as taking two roads to get to the same place.
"We're so different in how we parent and react," she says. "One way is not better than the other. You have to let each other get there. You can arrive before or long after. That's OK.
"People get so discouraged, saying, 'We're not grieving together.' Well, you don't parent as one person. He is not me. I am not him. We're different in every way. We let each other be in how we are going to get there."
When Cliff Patton of Clinton Township first joined Hinson's bereavement group after the death of his infant daughter, Erin, he asked Hinson what he felt was a valid question at the time.
"I asked Sister Beverly if my wife Tammy and I would be together when this was done," he recalls. "She said she couldn't guarantee it, but that she would do whatever she could to help."
While statistics for the divorce rate among grieving parents vary widely, informal reports cite it as high as 80 percent.
Cliff and Tammy came up with a system to help support each other on the especially difficult days following the death of their only daughter. A candle bearing Erin's photo would sit on a table in their home. If one or the other was having a more difficult day, he or she would light it.
"If I came home and the candle was lit, it was a cue for me to give Tammy some space," Cliff recalls. "At first that candle was lit all the time. Ultimately, we knew that when that candle was lit, we needed to be extra supportive of the other."
Caring for yourself
Around the two-year mark after Timmy's death, Anne Vachon recalls visiting her doctor to request an EKG. "My heart was doing all this crazy stuff. It ached," she recalls. "He assured me there was nothing physically wrong with me. It was grief – my heart was broken."
It was this physical manifestation of grief that made Anne realize she needed to take better care of herself. "I've taken that really seriously," she says. "I try to work out and do all the things I can to stay in one piece.
"I always tell other grieving parents, if you have a penchant for drugs, alcohol, gambling – whatever, steer clear from those things. You can't put yourself in jeopardy."
Taking care of themselves in the aftermath of the most profound bereavement there is can be an almost insurmountable challenge for many grieving parents.
Dr. Wolfelt explains that a parent's feelings of loss and sadness will likely leave them fatigued. He encourages them to respect what their bodies are telling them.
"Nurture yourself. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. Lighten your schedule as much as possible," he advises. "Caring for yourself doesn't mean you are feeling sorry for yourself. It means you are using survival skills."
Hinson notes that many bereaved parents she meets seek out medication at some point or another to help with their pain.
Dealing with holidays
For grieving parents, there are perhaps few harder times of year than holidays, their child's birthday or the anniversary of their child's death.
"You never have any idea how many holidays there are until you have to celebrate them without your child," Wolvin says.
Hinson counsels the parents she works with to develop a plan for the day.
"This gives parents control," she explains. "You can't let the day take over. Anticipation of the birthday or holiday is often worse than the day itself. Plan for it. You may not want to celebrate holidays the same way you have in the past, and that's OK."
Cliff and Tammy Patton celebrate their daughter Erin's birthday with a balloon launch each year, inviting family and friends to come over for cake and ice cream before releasing balloons into the air.
Erin died at 16 days old from cardiac failure stemming from cushion canal disease and pulmonary atresia – with which she was diagnosed while still in utero.
"She died in my arms," Tammy recalls. "Even so, she was still our miracle."
To honor Erin on the anniversary of her death, each year, the Pattons organize a stuffed animal drive. They deliver the hundreds of stuffed animals they collect to St. John Hospital in Detroit and the cardiac department at Children's Hospital.
"When Erin was in the hospital, she was given a little panda bear," Tammy recalls. "We hold dear to it."
Mindie and Ken Wolvin mark the anniversary of Jake's death – his "Angel Day" – by celebrating what they refer to as "Jake's Lovefest." For three days, they encourage family and friends to join them in undertaking three separate acts of kindness.
"We try to make something positive out of a horrible time," Mindie explains.
Anne and Marc Vachon recognize the anniversary of Timmy's death with a mass.
"The mass is a celebration of his life," she explains. "God has been the answer to everything for us. It's Thanksgiving. It's a way to celebrate with our community. These people have been so good to us. The mass is a way to say thank you."
Feeling blessed in spite of the loss
The kindness of family, friends and strangers has enabled Mindie Wolvin to see her life as blessed even after losing Jake.
"I have met people I never would have met if I hadn't lost Jake," she says. "You don't know how wonderful people can be. People who didn't even know Jake well came out of the woodwork to comfort us after he died."
Shortly after Jake's death, some women who worked with Mindie but didn't know her well asked for Jake's photo.
"Later they gave me a necklace with Jake's picture and the words 'Forever Remembered' engraved on it," she recalls. "I wore that necklace every day for four years."
Creating good out of a tragic loss is often a common thread among bereaved parents. Anne and Marc Vachon created the Timmy Vachon Foundation to memorialize their son and the can-do, optimistic spirit he embodied. The foundation's mission is to keep Timmy's legacy alive by supporting other children who exemplify Timmy's mantra of "Never Give Up."
The foundation provides financial aid in the form of scholarships for students attending metro Detroit Catholic schools and grants for charities.
"We knew from the very beginning – even while still in the hospital with Timmy – that we wanted some good to come from his death," Anne says. "Through the foundation, we have been able to help so many awesome kids. It has really been our gift."
Yet perhaps the brightest beacon of hope to come out of the Anne and Marc's grief is Hope herself. Almost three years after Timmy's death, Anne and Marc welcomed a baby girl, Julia Hope, into their lives to join big sisters, Charlotte and Mary Claire, Timmy's twin.
"Right away, I wanted another baby," Anne says. "And we were done. But I felt that need. Not as a replacement. I wanted my hands to be busy because my heart ached so badly. I felt if my hands were going to be busy, they may as well be busy doing something I loved. Child rearing has given me more satisfaction than anything.
"Julia saved our lives. Not all our prayers were heard, but that one was."
Finding a new normal
It has been more than 10 years now since Cliff and Tammy Patton bid farewell to their daughter Erin, but she is still very much a part of her mom and dad's lives and that of her five siblings.
"Erin's younger brother and sister never got to meet her," Tammy notes. "But we talk about her so much that it's like they know her."
The entire Patton family regularly visit Erin's grave to lay blankets.
"We want the kids to understand who she was," Tammy says. "Time doesn't heal your pain, but it does lessen it."
Anne Vachon feels it is her responsibility to lead a happy life and to continue parenting Timmy, albeit in a different way.
"What people don't understand is that he is still my child," Anne says. "I will parent him until the day I die. I devote the same amount of time to him in my actions that I did before. He will always be my child. We have to go on happily because that is what he would want."
Similarly, Mindie Wolvin says she has transformed her relationship with Jake.
"I'm still his mom," she says. "Instead of buying clothes for him, I buy flowers for his grave or balloons for a launch."
Now at the five-year mark since Jake's death, Mindie and Ken feel they're finally open to considering the possibility of adopting or fostering a child.
"You're not getting over your child by allowing yourself to be happy again," Mindie says. "Grief is like a weight. When you first pick it up, it's heavy and hard. While the weight never changes, your muscles get stronger. You learn new ways to carry it."