March 23, 2006 — On Nov. 15, 2003, Sandy Stark and her husband, Craig, and their two sons, Ty and Thayne, were on their semi-annual trip, in Moab, Utah. That day, they hiked and took pictures for their Christmas cards. At a resting spot, 18-year-old Thayne lost his footing in the scree and took a fatal fall. At the memorial service for Thayne, his dad put it this way: “It was a really great day with a really tragic end.”
Of their loss, Sandy Stark says they were able to endure the first weeks and months and years with support from family, relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers and fellow church members. “But we will never be the same,” she adds.
This year’s Eric Moerer Memorial Lecture will address how losing a child changes parents-and what others can do to help them. The event, to be held Thursday, March 30, from 6 until 8 p.m., is titled “When the Unthinkable Happens: Responding to Parents Whose Child Has Died.” The lecture will be held in the third-floor auditorium of Primary Children”s Medical Center (PCMC), 100 N. Medical Drive. The event is free and open to the public. Those planning to attend can park at no cost in the terrace located north of PCMC.
The Moerer lecture will feature Jan Hare, professor of family studies and gerontology at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and an expert in the areas of death, bereavement and health care ethics. Hare will share research on parental bereavement and how others can support those who have lost children, followed by a panel of parents who will discuss what is and is not helpful from others in times of loss.
Says Hare: “Losing a child is probably every parent’s worst nightmare. When it happens to strangers, we are personally affected by their loss. When it happens to people we know and care about, we feel broken-hearted. But generally we are also afraid-the worst is close to home. Despite our best intentions, the grief of our friends provokes anxiety in us. This anxiety can make us less sensitive than we would like to be.
“It seems to me that what bereaved parents ask from their friends and family is simply this-to be open-hearted in the presence of their great pain,” Hare says.
Stark says sharing positive and personal memories of the deceased child with the family is supportive. Talking helps. Stark smiles, then becomes teary when she talks about Thayne, an outgoing Skyline-High senior who had a messy room, a keen sense of humor and mastery “beyond his years” in making friends. “He was a friend to everyone-children, the elderly, ‘goths,’ ‘rockers,’ student body officers, football players and a gazillion cute girls. He gave us a lifetime of memories in his 18 short years,” Stark says.
Other supportive gestures include calls and visits to the family and making donations in the child’s name. In Thayne’s honor, the halls of Skyline High School were decorated and a tree was designed and donated to the Festival of Trees. “Everybody says ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘If you need anything . . .'” Stark says. “But just being there helps, too.”
Cynthia Christopherson, whose one-year-old baby son, Tanner, died nearly a year ago as a result of surgery to repair congenital heart defects, concurs. Support given to her, her husband, Michael, and their four daughters was important to their healing process. “There were three things others showed us that were most helpful-patience, awareness and, most important, compassion. When these things were lacking it was also the most detrimental.
“We needed patience from loved ones-because our emotions were and are everywhere. Those close to us were very patient in accepting where we were at. Other people seemed to be annoyed that we were still grieving. Awareness is important-our family and friends were willing to educate themselves about death, dying and the grief process so they could better help us as well as address their own grief. And we received a lot of compassion-from the nurses and doctors to our family and friends who accepted us, whether we were angry or depressed or peaceful or feeling guilty. They let us be where we were. We learned, also, that it was important for us to feel compassion for ourselves. It’s almost been a year since Tanner died. Some things are harder; some things are easier.”
Christopherson describes her time with Tanner prior to his death as “the most beautiful year.” She says even though Tanner was in a lot of pain, he loved being alive and would scoot across the floor, sometimes getting tangled in his oxygen tank cords. His sisters and parents loved hearing his baby words and watching him roll over. When he died, “it was definitely the toughest thing we’ve ever gone through,” Christopherson says, adding that each family member has responded to the death differently. All, however, have received and benefited from grief counseling-and their faith, she says.
Grief experts report that comments-like “Are you over it yet?”-and sharing personal problems or stories deemed to be even more tragic than the current loss are painful for grieving parents and should be avoided.
The Eric Moerer Memorial Lecture Series, sponsored by Tina and Michael Moerer, honors their son Eric, a gifted student who died while still in his teens. The event is co-sponsored by PCMC’s Family Support Services, the Sharing Place and the University’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies. For more information on this year’s lecture, call 801-581-6521.