Introduction: Between the ages of 11 to 13, I faced the loss of three children. One was from my class. The other was a local girl. The third was my eight-year-old cousin. How do you turn such a tragic negative into a positive when a child dies?
Sadly, many of us have faced the loss of grown-ups in our lives. It is even more heart-rending and tragic when we have to face the loss of a child. Worse than that, children can be traumatized for years to come when they are the ones who are dealing with that loss.
When I was in the fifth grade, one of my classmates was killed the evening of the last day of school. She had attended a Revival meeting at her church. Afterward, she walked home along a busy road. Suddenly, this girl dropped her Bible. The driver of a car did not see her until it was too late. The driver accidentally hit this girl. It sent her body flying several feet in one direction and her glasses flying in the other direction.
I still recall attending the visitation where they had a final viewing of her body. She looked beautiful; however, I had so much trouble trying to conceptualize that this girl who I had liked was not going to be around to attend sixth grade with the rest of us. I had to sleep on a cot in my brother’s room that night as I felt abject fear of something happening either to me or to someone else I loved or cared about.
Even more haunting was the death of a local girl (i.e., Kingsport, Tennessee) the following year. Her name is a name that I will recall my whole life through – Betty Jean Necessary. She was twelve. I was twelve. She lived near woods. I lived near woods. She was in the sixth grade. I was in the sixth grade. On February 26, 1970, she took a short-cut home through the woods after exiting the school bus. She was only about 200 yards from her house when a neighbor man snatched her, gagged her, allegedly raped her, and shot her four times.
What happened to her changed my whole life in so many ways. It was almost like my innocence died with her that day. I was a carefree wanderer of woods and fields up to that point. She was my age. She was in my grade. I went to Dickson Elementary School of the Kingsport City Schools. She attended another local elementary school. I had never met her. The fact that Betty Jean Necessary took a short-cut through the woods near her house and got murdered made the woods behind my house suddenly seem ominous. What happened to her kept me largely housebound for the next several years as fear stalked me the few times I did brave walking and exploring through the woods. Every twig snap would cause me to look around and over my shoulder with fear.
Recently, I received an e-mail from another girl who was traumatized by the same event. This girl actually attended the same elementary school as Betty Jean Necessary. Without revealing her identity, I will quote a small portion of her letter:
“Wow, I am not sure why I put Betty Jean’s name in the search engine today, except for the fact that her name still comes to my mind occasionally. I lived in Kingsport, TN at the time this happened. I remember this story so well. As I recall, she was supposed to walk home with my sister from school that day. I can’t confirm this, but I remember this. My memories of what happened to this girl have always haunted me. … I have been in Tennessee when the guy that killed her has been up for parole. They had a list of signatures to keep him in jail. I definitely signed this.”
It turns out that the convicted killer died 36 years later on the anniversary of the death of Betty Jean Necessary. He died of natural causes while still in jail. You can read the article in the resource section.
When I was thirteen, I lost my eight-year-old cousin to a form of incurable cancer.
So, how do you turn such a tragic negative into some kind of a positive?
* Children should be taught the buddy system. Parents and caregivers should urge children to not walk alone. They should always have someone along to ‘watch their back’.
* In the case of the fifth-grade girl walking home on the side of the road, she should have been cautioned to carefully examine the road before bending over to retrieve a dropped item. Children need to be taught to be hyper-vigilant about oncoming traffic.
* You could share the picture book called “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story Of Life For All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia. The description on Amazon.com states “A classic. As Freddie experiences the changing seasons along with his companion leaves, he learns that death is part of life.”
* You could share the picture book called “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” by Judith Viorst. The description on Amazon.com states “My cat Barney died this Friday. I was very sad. My mother said we could have a funeral for him, and I should think of ten good things about Barney so I could tell them. … But the small boy who loved Barney can only think of nine. Later, while talking with his father, he discovers the tenth — and begins to understand.”
* Talk with your child about the concept of ‘Stranger Danger’. Teach them which kind of strangers it is safe to talk to and which kind of adults should be avoided. Perhaps the two of you can role-play situations where a stranger might approach trying to lure your child away. That way, your child will feel a stronger feeling of confidence that he or she can be safe from abduction.
* As for me dealing with my overwhelming fear of walking in the woods, this is what I did. Years later, as a grown-up, I became determined to not let fear hold me back from the things I love. That was when I came up with the idea to broaden the size of my back porch. In other words, I was not going to let myself be housebound any longer out of fear of what might happen. Naturally, I would exercise caution; however, I was going to once again embrace my love of nature.
* You could share the paperback book called “Lifetimes: A beautiful way to explain death to children” by Bryan Mellonie. The description on Amazon.com states “A pet . . . a friend . . . or a relative dies, and it must be explained to a child. This sensitive book is a useful tool in explaining to children that death is a part of life and that, eventually, all living things reach the end of their own special lifetimes.”
* You could share the hardback book called “I Had a Friend Named Peter: Talking to Children About the Death of a Friend” by Janice Cohn. The description on Amazon.com states “An exceptionally accurate and understanding account of the feelings and questions that arise when a child’s playmate dies is presented in this gently-told story. Peter is run over while chasing a ball into the street, and Betsy’s parents have the sad task of telling their daughter and helping her cope with the tragedy. They explain with simple clarity that the doctors couldn’t make Peter well, that he can no longer feel pain or fear or loneliness, and that people normally don’t die so young. They reassure her that a recent quarrel she had with Peter had nothing to do with his death. They describe the coming funeral and burial and invite her to go with them, if she wants to. Although the style is factual, there is a tender undertone which gives warmth, effectively reinforced by full-page and double-page spreads of an attractive family and school class done in deep but muted tones, with shades of pink and blue predominating. The mood is somber and meditative but loving. An excellent introduction to guide parents and teachers in helping children deal with death strengthens the book’s use in Bibliotherapy and expands its scope beyond the specific subject to all types of bereavement. The book would be best used with adult assistance.”
* You could share the book called “A Little Bit of Rob” by Barbara J. Turner. The description on Amazon.com states “Following the death of her older brother, Rob, young Lena and her parents attempt to assuage their grief and move on with their lives by going on an overnight crabbing expedition. As they step into their boat and set off to sea, they remember many past excursions shared with Rob. Almost every item on the boat reminds them of him, including his old sweatshirt (still smelling of baseball and outdoors) that Lena dons to keep herself warm. Although they have not yet completed the grieving process, by the story’s end, they have progressed to the point of finding comfort in remembering and in sharing memories with each other. Backer’s dreamy oil illustrations reflect story’s time frame and mood, moving from dark, inky hues at the beginning to sunny earth tones at the end. This entry in the Concept Book series should make a useful addition to the parenting shelf and be helpful for families in need of its message.”
* You could get your child to journal about the experience, write poetry, draw pictures, or meet with a therapist.
That December 1971 night I learned my cousin Peter died, I wrote a poem that helped me receive some feelings of comfort. I shared it with all our relatives as well as I hoped it would also bring them some heart’s ease.
The memory lies sweet
of the little boy
who lived and played
without the garden walls.
In childlike trust he waited,
until one day
the angel came
and took him away.
The garden gates opened wide
and took within
their sheltering wings
the child so sweet.
There he stayed
and happily played
in a place where no harm
could ever hover near.
Convicted child-killer dies on anniversary of victim’s death