LEARNING TO GRIEVE - AND LIVE AGAIN
By T.L. Petersen
Observer Staff Writer
Melissa Lillegard smiles through the glitter of almost-ready-to-fall-tears and recalls the best moment of her familys recent vacation.
We threw those little wooden gliders with messages on them from the Astoria Column, she says. It was the funest thing we had done.
Those messages were sent on the winds to Jeremiah, the 2-year-old son of Melissa and Jerry Lillegard, little brother to Brittney, 7, and Katie, 5. Jeremiah died along the side of Highway 82 on June 16.
Melissa had dreaded the vacation, fearing to go to the spots she had been to a year before with a new son in a stroller. Instead, she found another way to remember and celebrate her sons life.
Melissa, Brittney and Katie still vividly remember tiny details that day when they had planned to meet Sherry Barnhart, Melissas mother, in Elgin to enjoy Riverfest.
They are memories that the Lillegards have chosen to share with others, first, they hope, to clarify what did happen to their son and family that day; second to help keep the memory of their sons life not only his death alive and remembered; and finally as a warning and reminder to other parents of how a moment can forever change a familys existence.
I was heading for Riverfest, Melissa remembers, and as I came through Imbler, I saw a yard sale being put on by the volleyball players. I like helping them, so I pulled over to the side of the road.
Then Melissa urged her daughters out, planning to leave Jeremiah, who had just turned 2 a few days earlier, buckled in his car seat.
Little Katie wanted to stay with her brother, and Melissa left with the warning she wasnt to let her brother out. She kept glancing back at the car as she went across the street and stopped by a roadside table to reach for a pair of shoes.
Then I saw them outside the car. I screamed at them, Stop! Hed barely stepped over the white line.
And that was all.
Melissa watched as a pickup, pulling a hay rake, drove by. One piece of the hay rake struck Jeremiah, knocking the boy down, and a tire on the rake rolled over him. His small body would be fatally crushed by the tire.
The next moments seem to pass in agonizing detail, even now.
I dropped everything, Melissa says.
Five-year-old Katie, standing only inches from Jeremiah, reached down to try and pick him up, although today Katie denies that.
Two women came running and one woman pulled me off Jeremiah and took me behind my car. She prayed with me and tried to calm me down.
Another woman took charge of Brittney and Katie, trying to calm them and praying with them.
Melissa recalls that it took a few minutes to get the ambulance called, because everyone was so shocked. She just knows that she lost all memory of how to do CPR on a child, a skill she kept honed as a child-care provider.
The ambulance, she estimates, took half an hour to reach her son, and once he was loaded in the ambulance, they wouldnt let me in the ambulance.
Meanwhile, her husband, Jerry, had been called and met her at Grande Ronde Hospital, where Betty Owens had taken her following the ambulance. Brittney and Katie were taken to Elgin and met up with their grandmother.
Melissa said she knew long before the doctor came to tell her that her son had died. Mothers know, I guess.
All the ladies who were there stayed with us at the hospital, she says, including waiting for Melissas father, Pastor John Barnhart, to arrive after being contacted at a retreat in Baker City.
Melissa wasnt allowed to hold Jeremiah at the hospital, but she was allowed to see and touch her son. He looked so peaceful, she says. There was no outward damage.
Today, the Lillegards focus on their son being with Jesus, not on the grim details of that final parting.
They had to talk to police who were investigating what had happened, decide if they would let Jeremiah be a tissue donor, and talk to someone from the state Services to Children and Families. Melissa still isnt sure how that investigation will turn out.
My husband was very quiet, she said. I think he couldnt believe it was real.
Brittney was waiting for her family to call from the hospital while she stayed with a family friend.
When I heard my moms friend on the phone, I knew he was dead, she says.
Reaching for each other,
and reaching out
There followed days of shock, with the phone ringing off the hook, the funeral and a task Melissa felt was crucial.
On the third day after Jeremiahs death, she called the man who had been pulling the hay rake.
Id told the police to tell him we didnt blame him, but I had to tell him in person. He didnt sound like he was doing very well.
She invited him to her sons funeral, and he came.
Throughout her story, Melissa Lillegard lists an unending list of the hardest day of my life.
First, there was shock and self-blame, then she had to be there for her daughters and husband. Then she had to deal with some feelings of blame for Katie, and then knowing for a time that her husband blamed her.
The day after Jeremiahs death was Fathers Day. That was the hardest day of my life.
Melissa and Jerry did go to a special meeting the next week with the Imbler volleyball team, many of whom had been working the yard sale and saw the accident.
We shared our sons life, Melissa says. My hearts desire is that they know him and who he was, not just about the bad.
Jerry and Melissa and the girls have been spending the summer having good days and bad days, some so bad they dont even want to get up.
Jerry broke down one night and couldnt stop the tears. He had been the one who got up for late-night feedings and to ease a little boys fears.
I relive the accident every night before bed, Melissa admits. During the days, she has to be brave for her daughters. But at night ...
The Lillegards have had counseling from their pastors and have turned to their faith, and after one stressful stretch, to each other for support and strength.
They have gone through many of the stages of grief and know more grief must be borne in the future.
Their daughters, they say, are doing better than they expected, but both have had painful memories of what happened that day. Melissa still sometimes breaks down in public places because of a memory.
Admitting she keeps busy to prevent falling apart, Melissa tries to remember small, good things, that can bring smiles.
I miss his laugh, and his smiles I remember so much he loved Sunday School, and putting his money in the bucket
Jeremiah was buried clutching a Sunday School donation as one last offering.
Another mainstay in the familys life is changing. Sherry and John Barnhart have moved to Bonanza to lead another church, a blow that Melissa feels deeply since she depended on her parents for support during the summer.
But the Lillegards wont move. Melissa says this is the familys home now. Jerry visits Jeremiahs grave every day.
Melissa takes peace from knowing that her sons life meant something, that hes living on in the lives of at least three different people who received his heart valves and eye tissue. There may be others the Lillegards havent heard about yet.
And Melissa has been able to help other women who have lost children, and she reaches out now to all parents.
We take for granted that our kids are safe, she says, urging parents to watch their children even more carefully. She never forgets how quickly even a toddler can move.
Children are fast, and unpredictable, Melissa stresses, and even devices such as safety seats are not always able to keep a child in place.
Trying to keep her story understandable, Melissa acknowledges that she has encountered people who have suggested what happened was her fault. That hurts, but Lillegard says she understands and accepts that people have heard any variety of things about the accident and what happened.
I want people to know that he didnt suffer and it was an accident, she says, and it could happen to anybody.
That was an especially hard realization for her, since as a member of a Christian family, Melissa confesses she felt safe from such nightmarish events.
Then she finds a smile among the tears at one last memory. A memory only she shares with her son.
Jeremiah was just beginning to put words together to express his thoughts. On that last morning he called out for his mothers attention before they left the house.
Without knowing, Melissa was given one final gift.
Mommy, he called, I wuv you!
Grief is a process that the Lillegard family is learning far too much about.
Melissa Lillegard tries to explain that when a grandparent, or even an adults parent, dies, there is, at some level, an understanding that the death is in the proper order of things. But a childs death isnt supposed to happen, and losing her 2-year-old son challenged her faith and led to many questions very common reactions, according to the pamphlet, About Grief, from the Center for Human Development.
Grieving people share certain feelings
Shock and denial
You can help a grieving person
Be present Dont be afraid to give that person a hug or hold his or her hand.
Be a good listener
Myths about grief
Children should be sheltered Not true. Kids need to grieve.
Its best to avoid discussing a loss with a grieving person False. Grieving people are grateful for friends who share memories and talk about the pain created by the loss.
An end to grief means an end to caring about a loved one Not at all. Love lasts beyond grief through commitment to living life fully.