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Publish Date: 5/23/2005

Elizabeth Steed, left, and Julianne McKell sort through books and put labels in books donated by families and staff at Fall River Elementary School in loving memory of Seanna McKell, 7, who lost her fight with cancer Feb. 15.Times-Call/Erin McCracken

A life after loss
In wake of daughter’s death, Longmont family learns to cope

LONGMONT — The girl has been three months passed on.

But two locks of Seanna McKell’s strawberry blond hair remain in a cedar jewelry box on her parents’ dresser.

Julianne McKell, 34, recently opened it and fished for the plastic sandwich bag that holds the tresses tied with red silk ribbons.

Doctors diagnosed the McKells’ daughter with an inoperable brain stem tumor in April 2004 and gave her less than a year to live.

In August 2004 — just before 7-year-old Seanna McKell started second grade at Fall River Elementary School — the grieving mother took the first clipping.

These strands, shiny and slightly golden from the summer sun, grew when the girl looked and felt very nearly healthy.

Julianne McKell snipped the other strands, darker and stringier, at the mid-February funeral before closing the lid on her daughter’s small white casket.

“This is a part of my baby,” she said, crinkling her face and holding her breath to fight tears.

The ripple effect

When death seizes a child, it’s as if a boulder has dropped in a pond. The loss quickly ripples from the family through the community.

Even a stranger perusing the obituary page will pause at a birth date and death date separated by just a few years, a few months, sometimes just a few days.

According to Kim Mooney, at HospiceCare of Boulder and Broomfield Counties in Lafayette, this grief gets magnified and multiplied because people can relate to the parent’s position.

“This person came from your body. You’ve known them since day one,” she said.

Lisa Day, a therapist at Aurora Mental Health Center, explained that kids represent an extension of ourselves.

“So you’re losing a little mini-me when a child dies. There’s a lineage lost,” she said. “And we not only lose the physical person; we lose who that person could have been.”

That finality raises the “three great questions of life” for Seanna McKell’s father, Sean McKell, 35.

A faithful Latter-day Saint, he named the three: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?

“I have faith that I will see her again, that our religion gives us those answers,” he said.

A confusing cliffhanger

With or without faith, many people feel confused by the cliffhanger a fallen child leaves survivors.

“One of the joys of my job is hearing stories of fighter pilots or how someone was faithful in planting flowers every year,” Howe Mortuary funeral director David Lynch said of loved ones’ remembrances of those they’ve lost. “With the little ones ... there’s not a whole lot to go on.”

But Seanna McKell had lived seven years, eight months and eight days on Feb. 13, the day she died in her parents’ bed with Muffin, her beloved bichon frisé, resting his chin on her still tummy.

It was enough time for her to build a foundation — to make a best friend, Emily Jarvis; to learn how to read Beverly Clearly books before anyone else in her homeroom; to love riding roller coasters; to hate exploring caves.

However, because of her cancer, people who recognized Seanna McKell’s personality might not immediately recognize her body in its final stretch.

Steroids prescribed to reduce brain swelling had bloated the once-willowy girl.

Within weeks of this last-stage treatment, she outgrew her jeans with the embroidered cuffs and her features looked doughy.

But Julianne McKell never blamed the drugs for the distortions or the ensuing death.

She blamed the “thing” — the family’s name for the brain tumor that remained invisible until it stealthily stole the girl’s physical functions.

First, it made their daughter smile as crookedly as a haphazardly hung painting. Then it gave her left hand the shakes.

Seanna McKell loved playing the piano and climbing on the monkey bars.

Ultimately, though, cancer reduced her to crawling to the bathroom at night and to clutching her mother’s elbow to shower safely.

“She started walking like a grandma at the end. She just shuffled along,” Julianne McKell said. “And stepping out of the shower, she would say, ‘Mommy, I feel like Bambi learning how to walk.’”

Who’s that girl?

Only seven years stretched between the time the McKells wrapped their first-born in a baby blanket and Lynch wrapped her in a white sheet.

Still, when the funeral director gently carried her downstairs and outside to his unmarked van, Seanna McKell had made her mark.

After 30 radiation treatments, she had met plenty of nurses and figured she would work in scrubs someday.

She sang loudly at church, danced on the living room coffee table and joined her siblings — Kyle, 6, and Andralyn, 3 — in squishing her hand into the soft concrete poured for the family’s new patio.

This girl dissected cow eyeballs Thursday, aced a spelling quiz Friday and died on a Sunday.

With that kind of push to participate, no one at school guessed she would be permanently gone before the first bell Monday.

“I didn’t think of (her illness) like that because miracles happen,” her teacher, Theresa Buchtel, said. “I said ‘good-bye’ to her like I did with all the kids, either with a high five or a hug.”

Moving on

Some parents who’ve lost a child might try to numb the pain by donating the old clothes and toys, redecorating the old bedroom and avoiding the old school.

Instead, Julianne McKell slept with her daughter’s favorite pink fuzzy sweater for two weeks after the funeral and enjoys fanning her memory.

To her, Seanna — the name her Scottish-descent husband fancied while washing windows at age 22 before they met — will always be easy on her ears.

So, on Wednesday she walked past the classroom with the empty desk to meet a half-dozen other parents at Fall River Elementary’s library.

The group gathered to press stickers printed gratis by Ron’s Printing in Longmont on the inside cover of 200 books donated in her daughter’s name.

“It’s a way for the kids to — maybe when they check out that book — to remember Seanna and the family that donated the book in her name,” volunteer Elizabeth Steed said.

Publicly memorializing Seanna McKell has its place.

Her classmates released a rainbow of balloons with notes to the skies the week she died.

Now, some of them are writing ABC poems, where they use every letter in the alphabet to describe her.

One classmate wrote: “Doughnut lover” for D; “Name is beautiful” for N; “Quiet when people are talking” for Q; “Test liker” for T; and “Occasionally gone” for O.

Caring gestures

For Mother’s day this year, Sean McKell gave his wife a necklace with three birthstones including a pink one to represent their late daughter.

The couple will count their loss in so many other ways as time marches on. But it is a lonely watch, according to Jana Martin, a licensed psychologist and American Psychological Association spokeswoman in Long Beach, Calif.

“It’s harder to find soul mates,” she said.

The reality is that few community members will survive their children. That awkwardness can make it tough for them to show concern.

For instance, many supporters often ask the family how they can help. But that question inadvertently puts one more burden on the bereaved, Martin said.

She advised just dropping off a pan of lasagna or calling a few hours before about taking the surviving children to the park.

“That way, the grieving person can throw the dinner in the garbage or say ‘no,’ to the trip,” she said. “But it gives them the option to let someone in, to let someone help, which goes a long way on the road to recovery.”

Aurora therapist Day addressed the social phobia many Americans feel toward grieving people.

“If we see somebody crying, oftentimes we turn a blind eye to it,” she explained. “It’s that out-of-sight, out-of-mind mode. We think if we don’t talk about it, they won’t hurt.”

She said the opposite response — remembering birthdays and saying the child’s name — is often more appreciated.

These days

Julianne McKell, to her great surprise, sometimes forgets her daughter’s death when she reaches for Doritos while grocery shopping. Then she slowly pulls her hand back from the shelf.

No one in the family really likes the junk food but Seanna McKell.

Sean McKell is also transitioning to what the couple calls their “new normal.”

For him, that means keeping his late daughter’s artwork up at his office and interacting more with his remaining kids. He encouraged other parents to do the same.

“Do it not just because they might die, and then they’re gone, but because time flies,” he said.

The McKells said they trust God to help them and are reluctantly adjusting to family life minus one.

But their daughter’s best friend knows nothing yet about “new normal.” She saved the last note Seanna McKell penciled to her and keeps it in her school desk.

“I can’t think about anyone else that I had that was nicer than her,” Emily Jarvis, 8, said. “Seanna always played with everyone that didn’t have a playmate at recess. She always shared her candy.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.

What: The Bereaved Parents group

When: 7 to 9 p.m., the second Wednesday of each month

Where: HospiceCare of Boulder and Broomfield Counties, 2594 Trailridge Dr., Lafayette

Cost: Free

Information: Call Rose Swenby at 303-678-5755. For more information on grief support groups for parents and siblings, call Healing Circles program coordinator Jennifer Trinkle at 303-604-5330

B.R.A.V.E., a local peer support group for families with children with cancer, meets monthly. For more information, call peer facilitator Valerie Baker at 303-772-3337.

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