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Once 'drowning inside,' grieving mom finds strength in honoring her son and blogging

Blog helps mother, other parents deal with the grief of losing a child

Published: Friday, April 20 2012 11:06 p.m. MDT

Michelle Newman and her children, Spencer and Kierah Krainich, visit their son and brother's grave at Larkin Sunset Gardens Cemetery in Sandy on Thursday. Newman's 22-month-old son, James (top), died after a fall six years ago.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — Michelle Newman was a helicopter mom, overprotective and hovering. But the day James, 22 months old, died, they were safe at home near the end of a perfect day.

It was the kind of day in Las Vegas that April gets exactly right: too warm to keep the two-story condo windows closed, the breeze a small sigh of contentment as the outdoors beckon "come play with me." So Newman took toddler James and baby Spencer, just 6 months old, to the park, then they visited friends. She remembers every detail, as if it's etched into glass, a tangible barrier between before and after. She can describe the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they had for lunch, the bustle and giggles before she finally settled on the couch, late afternoon, to suckle Spencer while she chatted with her husband on the phone. James was beside her, almost within reach. And then he wasn't.

She heard a small pop and turned her head to see the soles of his tiny feet disappear through the opening. Later, they learned the window screen wasn't anchored properly. It was capable of keeping insects out, but not of holding a rambunctious, inquisitive little boy in.

Each year, on the anniversary of his death, she tells a stranger the story of James. How he lived and made her laugh and how he fell from the window. How she'd never put furniture by a window now and how she compulsively checks screens and windows. She hopes it will save another child's life. It is part of the process that's helping her save her own.

Drowning

For the first four years, the sorrow was never far from the surface, where it would burble over multiple times a day. Along the way, she and her husband, Joe Krainich, moved to Utah and had a third child, Kierah, now 4. They got divorced and somehow managed to stay close. She started a photography business, a passion she'd had since she was 7. But while she was busy "doing," she says she was nearly paralyzed. She told her sister she felt like she was drowning inside.

Four years after James died, she did some math and wrote about it on a blog she started that very day. If she lived the average lifespan, she wrote, she'd have to make it through 54 more years. Too long to fake a smile. She'd been trying hard, but literally marked her calendar if she made it through two days without crying. She'd already lived 1,460 days without James, but that left another 19,710. She needed, she decided, to reclaim joy. She'd tried to honor her son's memory in various ways. She'd been running the Salt Lake City half-marathon since he died, the two to four hours it took her pure "James Time" as she replayed his life and loved him with each step. She and Joe had taken pains to avoid making the visits to their son's grave sad, so that Spencer and Kierah would know happy stories of their big brother and not forget him or stop visiting when they got older. On the anniversaries of James' fall, they played games and told stories and released a balloon with a message or memory for each year he'd been gone. But she needed more.

The day she started her blog, she published a bucket list of things she planned to do one day: own horses — write a book, float a river, learn to make ice cream, get her degree, jump the wake on a wake board. And soul tasks — laugh with my children "every single day." In a world that had been largely devoid of joy, she decided she wanted to laugh so hard she couldn't breathe.

That kind of change doesn't just happen, she says. So she handed her grief to God. And she decided, as well, that she'd stop waiting for others to make her feel better. She'd accept that she could be "happy and sad simultaneously," and give herself permission to seek happiness.

"It took me a solid four years," she says. "Only in the last two have I been able to face life happily and with optimism. There are still James days when I cry and miss him all day. But when I find symbolic things I can do to keep him alive and do for others, it makes what was taken away from me hurt less. And I believe we have the opportunity to help others."

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