Saturday, November 8, 2008

Many tears and a few questions

Very early this morning one of Sophie's school friends died. Last night was a steady stream of worried and anxious phone calls. It really did not sound good. When an atheist prays, you know it's bad. I got my final call at 7:00 this morning. She is gone.

But while the call this morning was not a surprise, what happened yesterday was. This little girl was running on the playground and riding on the swings just moments before she complained of a sudden and acute headache and then collapsed. Her mother showed up just as it happened, put her in the car, and drove her to the hospital. On Fridays the aftercare staff person drives several of our Berkeley kids home. He showed up at my house visibly shaken, assuming it was serious but most likely having no idea how it would end. He thought perhaps it was an allergic reaction to something she ate, and so did the ER staff when she first arrived. It was a cerebral aneurysm. She was nonresponsive when she arrived at the hospital, and it sounds like they never were able to stabilize her. She died in the OR at about 2:00 this morning.

Those are the tears. Sophie's school has only about 67 students. We all know this family; many of us are friends with them. Sophie is in the grade between this girl and her older sister. I cannot imagine the grief of this family, but I feel like that's all I can do at this point—imagine and cry.

But the questions. I've consulted my friend Gwendomama's list when children die: what to do. what to say. or not. It helps (I wish I could have handed people a list like this when I was dealing with breast cancer), but I have more questions. How do we deal with this as a school community? There are all the children, but there is especially the sister. We will probably have a grief counselor from the district there on Wednesday, the first day back at school after the weekend. The sister probably won't be there that day, but the grieving among the children and the parents will be enormous. In the meantime, room parents are calling all the families to let them know. The family understandably does not want to be contacted, but one of the teachers, a significant force in the small community and a neighbor and friend to the family, is serving as a liaison of sorts and will be involved in a memorial service at some point.

What are the best things we can do to support this family? Is going on with school events and business the right thing to do? I was going to send out an announcement for our next P.T.A.-like group meeting, but I just can't. Do we cancel upcoming events? Carry on? I know life can't stop, but for the moment, it seems stalled.

What can I do to help Sophie support her friend? What should she expect?

Does anyone out there have experience dealing with these issues? I just feel kind of lost. Where is the sun through those redwoods?


Niksmom said...

Delurking to say I am so very sorry to read of this tragic happening. I have no answers for you —just warm thoughts.

ElleBee said...

I have no good advice, just know that you, Sophie, the family and the school community are all in my prayers.

Jenn said...

So, so sad. The family and the community will be in my prayers.

Anonymous said...

Oh Cindy, I am so sorry to hear your sad news. It is devastating. And so completely unfair. I wish I had answers for you, but I don't. Just prayers and hugs and my deepest sympathy.

gwendomama said...

If you have any specific questions, please don't hesitate to contact me.

gwendomama said...

oh yes, and make that a DEFINITELY have grief counselor - not PROBABLY.

encourage and allow the children to make memorials - visible, tangible ones - to her.

be honest.

Amy Quinn * Chris Sciancalepore * Kate Motsiff said...

Hi. I am a lurker.

On September 2, 2008, my awesome 38 year old brother-in-law, husband, stellar father of two girls ages 6 and 4 called his workplace to say he would be stopping by a private camp for which he was caretaker, but would be in about 20 minutes late. His truck was found there. His body was found 8 days later, after a massive manhunt over a mile away, and there are no clues or answers to explain why he was there. After a lengthy investigation, his death was ruled accidental by the police, and they say that he died from trauma associated from a 30-40 foot fall. There was indeed a hillish sort of ledge nearby, but it is completely without explanation why he was there that day. This in a small mountain town of 900 people. The sadness was unbearable- from the moment he was missing, and continues still.

Having been on the front lines of this hell, I still don't think I have an answer for you. But I can say that through it all and even now, I could feel people loving me- it was the only thing that was holding us upright. All you can do is love them. And keep loving them. They will be surrounded for these next two weeks....after that is when things will get dark and lonely. Everyone is different, but if you just keep holding them up with love, you can't go wrong.

lisagh said...

*sniff sniff*

Love and hugs to you and Sophie.

Amy Quinn * Chris Sciancalepore * Kate Motsiff said...


the nicest thing that anyone did for us during that 2 weeks was stop by the house with an ENORMOUS supply of saran wrap, ziplocks, paper plates, paper cups, paper napkins, plastic utensils, garbage bags, toilet paper and paper towels. I realize that this is not very green. But it was an enormous help to my widowed sister-in-law and to those of us who were helping her that 2 week period. The house was riddled with food and guests- it was easy to keep house while we were feeding our large extended family and many mourning friends and no one had to say to her "S, where are your garbage bags, etc etc" as we kept them in an out of the way corner. Additionally, no one was headed to the store to fill up on these staples.

I would also say NO ZITI. I think we got about 56 of them. The thing that we INHALED was a humongous delicious, fresh tossed salad and lots of fresh fruit that someone so sweetly cleaned and cut for us.

gwendomama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

My thoughts are with you and Sophie. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Purple Flowers said...

From what I saw when my friends' daughter died, most school events were postponed to a later date,to show respect for the family, and the children. I agree w/Gwendomama, for the children to make memorials to her. That is allowing them to let out their grief, and not keep it in, and also allows for healing to take place down the road. Peace

Tanya said...

I dont really have any experience with something like this, so I cant offer any advice.

Im sorry to hear of this loss. Ill keep your community and the family of your daughters classmate in my thoughts and meditations.

KK said...

Oh wow. That is just pure sadness. I don't have any words of wisdom - just big hugs to you guys!

tommie said...

Coming out of lurkdom to make a comment...first, I am so sorry for this tragic loss. I think losing a child is the single most tragic thing that can happen. I have no clue as to how to help. But like your friend's post suggests...making the life of the parents more comfortable..the day to day things. Obviously things like meals, cleaning, laundry...tending to those would be what I know I could do all the while with grace and dignity.

tommie said...

kind of along the lines of amy thing that actually made me laugh when my granma died: someone brought two of those MONGO bricks of toilet paper. Like the ones from Sams....but you know, with so many people in the house during those next few days and weeks, we used it all!

Deb said...

So so sorry Cindy. It is so tragic and so unfair. I will echo your commenters regarding grief counselors. I think that would be a big help to the kids. Hugs.

Anonymous said...

My heart absolutely breaks from the unimaginable unfairness of this, Cindy. Your family and your community is in my thoughts tonight.

Kate said...

I am so sorry. You and Sophie are in my thoughts. I wish I had some great suggestion - my best would be just to encourage Sophie to honor any and all feelings that arise during her grieving.

Belle in Bloom said...

I'm so, so sorry. My heart and thoughts are with you all. I don't know if you remember, but my youngest son's classmate died unexpectantly of an unknown heart problem last year. It was one of the hardest things I've had to share with my son. He passed on a Tuesday and we had their class picnic on Friday. I had his t-shirt and sun visor with his name that I had monogrammed laying on my dining room table. That baby was buried on the day of his class picnic. My heart is breaking just sitting here typing and remembering. If you would like to know how we handled it feel free to email me. My son's school is divided into families so they had been together for a long time. We have many different religious beliefs in our class but remarkably, it didn't matter. We were one family that had lost a child. One of the little girls in the class that is very close to my son and the child we lost was beside herself worrying he was lonely and by himself. She broke my heart and I cried. My son told us, "Don't be sad for him. He has lots of friends in Heaven." I understand and respect your beliefs, but this always comes into my mind when I think of our lost friend and it gives me some comfort.

Much love,

Anonymous said...

My prayers go out to all. I am sorry for your loss.

Life is what you make it said...

I'm so sorry for your family and community's loss...

Ned said...

Counselors and more counselors. Think weeks down the road when it all settles down. Our school continued with all activies to give the kids some normalcy. A moment of silence was held at the first event. The school organized a garden. It is called the butterfly garden. Many beautiful plants, a tree and bench are dedicated to the child. I am so sorry for you and Sophie.

MFA said...

Oy. Came here through Gwendomama, and my one word of advice would be to stress to Sophie that this is Not Something That Will Happen To Her. Kids tend to personalize such things, at least mine do, and therefore worry, and she might have this one in the back of her mind, so you might want to slip in a little assurance that this is very, very rare and not something that she should worry about. Or maybe your kid is way less neurotic than mine are. Just thought it was worth mentioning.

Jen Yu said...

Sweetie, that is so tough. I'm very sorry to hear about it. Not sure how to address since losing a child isn't quite the same as losing an adult loved one... because of all the little friends who have to confront death at a young age. I am fully confident that you know what NOT to say, because you are good like that. As for the family... food is always good to send whether they eat it or not.

Counseling for the children - I would imagine is a definite yes. How is Sophie handling it? It's important that you're there for her (which you always are anyway, but you know).

I have a fellow tele betty who is the director of a memorial race each year in our little mountain town. It's for a little boy who died when he was maybe 6 years old? I spoke to her about it this past summer... it is something the mother of the boy really appreciated, but still has trouble talking about and it's been a few years. I think acknowledgment is important - no one ever wants their loved one to be forgotten. But perhaps when things have settled down some, it might be good to ask the parents just how much they can handle (do they want to be involved or would they prefer someone else run a memorial race, scholarship, park, etc., or nothing?) Just rambling thoughts. My own guess is that it might be a relief to have normal schedules resumed soon if not immediately. Perhaps one week off for mourning or special events (service, counseling, etc.), but I think keeping the routine helps everyone keep a hand on the familiar while dealing with something so tragic and out of the ordinary. xxoo

five tomatoes said...

How sad. This is not something I talk about a lot because I hate to, but when I was 19 my boyfriend of two years died in his sleep. Obviously I wasn't a young child at the time, but some things that really helped:

*people calling me afterwards - it was nice to see everyone at the funeral, memorial, etc. but what really helped is the friends who were there for me everyday, who called to see how I was doing, if I wanted to hang out. This will be really important for the older sister - while I know she must be heartbroken, she is still alive and still needs to go play.

*people talking about the person who died. Nobody would ever talk to me about him unless I brought it up and while I am sure it's well-intentioned, it still made me cry.

I would make sure Sophie has a play-date with the girl in the near future if they can - but make it a normal playdate, not anything really special. Life will never be the same for the sister, but it still needs to continue on with some sense of normalcy. Maybe the PTA could do some sort of fundraiser for a memorial tree or garden or something like that on the sandbox.

I'll be praying and thinking good thoughts for everyone in your community.

mamadaisy said...

no advice -- i'm just so sorry to hear of this terrible loss. peace and strength to you all.

Midnight Madras said...

What a heartrending story. Nothing stabs into a mother quite so much as hearing about a child dying. I am far from an expert, but I think just being open and honest and respecting Sophie's reactions (sometimes kids just don't want to talk about it, sometimes they seem remarkably unaffected though a lot is going on inside, and sometimes they have a strong emotional reaction) will go miles. She may experience fears about "could this happen to me?"

There is a book you might have her's called A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith. It's about a young boy whose close friend is stung by a bee and dies unexpectedly of an allergic reaction.

RookieMom Whitney said...

Hi - I don't know you, but see that you are in Berkeley, too. I clicked over because due to our BlogHer ads, you had a link to me today. (I write I guess you are a few years ahead of me in the school of motherhood, but in the same neighborhood. I'm so sorry to hear about the loss in your school. I got chills and tears reading about it.

Jennifer H said...

This news broke my heart. I don't have any advice to offer, but I am so very sorry and send good thoughts for that little girl's family, friends, and community.

Hugs to you.

Lunasea said...

Oh, this is so sad, I'm so sorry.

I was an elementary school counselor in San Jose when one of our first graders died. We of course offered counseling to the whole class and school, and then more individual sessions to the ones that seemed the most affected by it.

One thing that seemed very helpful was that about 2 weeks after his death, the family came to a small memorial held by his class at school. It was just his class and the family, and his siblings from the other classes. They read remembrances, poems and planted a small tree in his memory. The family seemed very grateful to be able to share the memory of their son with his class.

Lunasea said...

Oh, hey, one more thing. I also used to work for Berkeley Mental Health mobile crisis team and we used to do debriefings for classes who went through this all the time at the public schools. If your school is small and has a small counseling staff/budget, you might suggest they call BMH and ask for help. When I worked for them (which was about 4 years ago now), we would have been happy to help. Also you can e-mail me at lunasea237atgmaildotcom if you need any help. I'm down in the more southern east bay.

adozeneggs said...

That's just awful. So young. I don't pray, but I'll be thinking of you today.

Trish said...

Cindy - I am so sorry for the tragic loss of such a young member of your community. My brother died in an accident almost twenty years ago and I remember the outpouring of support from our neighbors, friends, and most importantly, my brothers friends as being the most helpful and welcome thing for my brothers & sisters & parents (and I). My brothers friends came to the funeral and came to our house afterward and my parents were so grateful. Also good:

- Counselors - I agree with everyone who recommended these.

- When the family is ready, and if Sophie can handle it, please stop by and visit (briefly). My parents were so touched and pleased to see my brothers friends at the house.

- Food, of course. I remember the casseroles and sandwich platters but I REALLY remember the neighbor who brought over a huge cobbler. I remember eating it in the middle of the night with my mom -- right out of the pan.

My thoughts -- and yes, my prayers -- are with you and your whole community today. - Trish

Jenny said...

sending you love.

Lori said...

My deepest sympathies to all who knew and loved this sweet girl. My own daughter died of cancer two years ago. Though we were mired in grief, having a degree of normalcy surrounding us was calming. So my suggestion is to continue with plans as usual.

Thankfully, kids are remarkably pragmatic about death. Here's an idea for the kids from a local school. When a classmate died recently, the other kids wrote stories describing their favorite things about the boy. The teacher compiled it and gave it to his parents.

My prayers are with all of you.

Brianne said...

When an elementary school friend of mine died I was mostly confused and worried that the same thing would happen to me or another of my friends. My parents were reassuring but didn't make any promises they couldn't keep. I respected them for telling me the truth about it, even though I'm sure they carefully composed what they said. Everyone at school spoke with a counselor and was able to take as much time as needed to process the event. I think the thing that helped me the most were the memorial posters we made for him. Making and reading them was hard, but looking back it was cathartic.

For older kids, a memorial service just for students and parents is a nice option. When my friend committed suicide in high school, we again went through the grief counselor process. Of course, by then, we were all too cool to be affected by anything in school. At the memorial service (off campus) it seemed like everyone just let go and actually started dealing with what had happened. After that we all came together as a class more than I could have imagined.

I'm so sorry for your loss. You'll be in my thoughts.

Tracey said...

Thankfully, I don't have any personal experience with this, but from everyone I have spoken to about dealing with the death of a child, one of the worst things they say is when their child's memory seems to be forgotten. Perhaps the children of the school could fashion a memory book of the little girl? All of the times they played, said funny things, shared experiences... As little kids, their memories won't be as strong in a few years, and a book of drawings, stories and photos would be a lovely memorial for the parents and sister, as well as the schoolmates.

Another thing: remember the family in a month, 2 months, a year, 2 years... Remember to let them know that their daughter touched your lives. That she is not forgotten....

Many many hugs for your entire community. The grief is palpable through your post....

May peace come to her family...

Tricia said...

I picked up ironing to do for a friend who's partner needed pressed clothes for work- Showing up with cleaning supplies to tackle a toilet or floors. I think the key is to do something- not just ask- "what can I do" or not just say "call me if you need anything".
Call the family, stop by with fresh coffee- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is an old standby to read with kids that talks about death. Rake their leaves, mow the lawn so they don't have to.

Just some ideas.

Death sucks- it's just not fair!

MsMVNJ said...

Losing a child has got to be the most awful thing there is. I have no good advice to offer, your family and your community are in my thoughts.

Cloggsy said...

Wow, that is awful and so incredibly sad. Children should never have to go before their parents.

jennyalice said...

What a sad story. I am so sorry.

Kimberly said...

I've lurked here for a while. I'm so sorry to read this. My thoughts are with you, Sophie and her classmate's family.

My husband put together a list that might give you some ideas on how to help. The URL is here:


KSK said...

Oh Cindy, this is so terribly sad. I am so sorry for your's and Sophie's loss. I am hoping the school brought in a counselor - they did this at my son's school when they lost one of the counselors to (yes, unreal) cancer this year.

Thinking of you and family.

KatieGirlBlue said...

Al my love and warm thoughts. I'm so sorry for those left behind, big and small.

Anonymous said...

support the family ANY way you can. Donations to help pay for the funeral costs, food to keep them stocked, send someone to clean for them, send the parents to a relaxing place, give them books that will make them laugh, and find a good very very good therapist. also, take it easy with your daughter and answer anything honestly (but age appropriately. As I'm sure you know as a mama :)

their lives are going to be hell on earth for a while, so any comfort the community can give them will be good. just not too intrusive.

Anonymous said...

Oh my god, that's awful.

I agree with earlier posters that taking care of meals, etc for the family so that it is one less thing for them to deal with is a good thing to do.

In a few weeks (or months) it might be nice to organize some sort of memorial to the little girl on campus... a tree? I don't know, I just can't imagine what those parents must be going through...

Angelina said...

Damn it. I'm so sorry to hear this news.

I really like what five tomatoes says- talking about the person that is dead is much better, honest, and more natural than avoiding conversation about it.

Practical things in times of crisis I think are what help the most. Who knows what spiritual help the parents will need, if any, but they sure as heck could use a break from cooking or cleaning or making phone calls. What you are able to do for them depends on how well you know them.

I think the best thing you can do to figure out how to proceed is to put yourself in that little girl's parents shoes. As horrible as that sounds, ask yourself what you would want from everyone, what you would find unbearable to deal with while dealing with the unbearable. How would you prefer people to act around you or speak?

When Philip's mother died I told him that I couldn't know how he needed to be comforted, that he would have to tell me what he needed. Otherwise I have to talk about what's happening. That's my way. In a no nonsense un-euphemistic manner. I hate it when people tip toe around death. Being open and truthful about what's happened is the only way I'll ever find healing. It seemed to be what Philip liked the best too.

I don't offer prayers but I send out my warmest hope and wish that all of you find your way to grieving properly and finding your way out of the shock.

I cannot believe that my visual verification word is: dorke

Jackie said...

Just awful...I will keep your family and the family experiencing this terrible loss in my thoughts and prayers.

Mel said...

I agree with Amy Quinn. Our neighbor's husband fought an ultimately losing battle with liver cancer for two years. When he passed, I literally dropped everything and went to the store to buy stuff. I ended up bringing baskets of freshly baked cookies and brownies (Thank you Pillsbury cookie dough!), coffee, filters, disposable coffee cups, plates, napkins, etc. I knew she would be having all sorts of family and friends stopping by the house, and I'm sure the last thing she wanted to worry about was the little things. She still thanks me three years later. She is still our neighbor, and we welcome her calls to us for help with things around the house. My husband went out after a storm and used his chainsaw on a tree of hers that had fallen into the road, and cleaned it up for her. From checking to see if she needs new tires to chasing squirrels out of her garage, we try to be there for her as much as we can. The need for families after a loss does not go away after the funeral. Though we never got to know her husband that well, since he became quite sick right after we became neighbors, it didn't matter. Someone we knew had suffered a terrible loss, and doing something to show that people, even ones she didn't know too well, cared enough to offer their condolences and their help, was really important to us. It doesn't have to be anything big, anything, even a hug and a shoulder to cry on, now or a year from now will most surely be needed and appreciated.

The Mrs. said...

I cannot imagine being the mother of that child. So terrifying and sad. My prayers are with her.

just me Tara said...

I lost a son(he was 20 though) 2 years ago, and watching his friends grieve was very difficult. But this is a group of young kids. My five year old, I have been blunt honest with him(forgo gory details) and he seems to have dealt with it better than any of the older kids. Its just been a part of life. There are books out for kids, Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
(Sydney, Bantam, 1983)
Preschool to school age.
This book talks about the various lengths of life spans for plants, animals, and people and says that dying is very much a part of living. It explains that there is a beginning and an end with living in between, and that sometimes things are too hurt or ill to continue living, so they die.The Empty Place: A Child's Guide through Grief, by Roberta Temes
(Far Hills, N.J., Small Horizons, 1992)
Preschool to early school age.
In this book, a young boy talks about how empty he feels since his sister died and talks with a baby sitter who had a similar experience. It touches on guilt, lack of interest in old activities, and changes in parental behavior.School Age

Today My Sister Died, by Ronee Domske
School age.
This is a story narrated by an older sister who lost a 3 and 1/2-year-old sister in an accident. She shows how to deal with things by discussing her relationships with her brother and parents, and by exploring the feelings that come about during funeral planning, holidays, doing things with friends, getting a family picture taken, and remembering.

The Magic Moth, by V. Lee
(Houghton Mifflin, 1972, available in paperback from Clarion, 1981)
School age.
This book tells the story of a 10-year-old girl with a heart defect and the impact her death has on her family. It is told from the perspective of her six-year-old brother, describing with compassion and realism his thoughts, feelings, anger, questions, uncertainties, and confusion.

Children are Not Paper Dolls, by E. Levy
(Linn Press, 1982)
School age.
This book tells about the wide variety of reactions and feeling from children who have lost a sibling. Pictures, poems, and quotes from bereaved siblings look at funerals, families, friends, school, holidays, and feelings.

My Twin Sister Erika, by I. Voge
(Harper and Row, 1976)
School age.
This story expresses the feelings of love and rivalry between twin sisters and the strong feelings of loss when one dies.

Aarvy Aardvark Finds Hope, by Donna O'Toole
School age.
In this book, Aarvy the Aardvark is befriended by Ralphy Rabbit, who helps Aarvy work through stages of grief by telling him about how he felt when his sister died.
Here is the website i found the titles on we have many of these.
Some of these might make good gifts for the family! like some of the ones that deal with sibling loss!

My son will bring it up when he needs to talk about it or ask a questions totally randomly but we just answer it the best we can.

You cant make your children grieve in a certain way but what you can do with your children is to listen to them and know that they watch what you do. so how you grieve is a role modeling situation. When my son died i had my other children to get through it, I decided then and there that i did not want to be one of those mothers who grieve and walk around with sadness on their face forever, so i decided to figure out what did i want to teach my child about death? how did i hope they would deal with it and how could i help them. We decided to do one thing to show ourselves living greater and dedicate this to my son.( to me crying and being anti social did not honor my sons wonderful life, not saying that i didnt and dont cry but i dont make that my life) at the one year anniversary we each came with our goal finished to honor his life with living our life greater and taking him with us..

Each child is unique and many factors will influence his/her understanding of death. That’s why, in addition to talking, it’s important to take time to listen to your children’s thoughts, feelings or worries about death. Treat their feelings and questions patiently and sensitively. Seek professional help if you become concerned that your child is struggling with her/his grief and is unable to get on with life.

I hope this helps