Donald Buss now views a favorite snapshot as unwanted foreshadowing.
The picture shows five preschool-age boys scrunched shoulder-to-shoulder. A sixth - Buss’ son, Alexander - stands slightly apart, holding one palm out in a toddler’s wave.
“I can’t stand seeing him go bye-bye,” says Buss, 24, staring at the picture in his mobile home’s kitchen.
The photograph was taken last Thanksgiving, less than a year before the 2-1/2-year-old boy died last month after suffering a blow to the head. His mother’s boyfriend, Kevin Merwin, has been charged. Police have not said how they believe Merwin harmed the child.
Three high-profile child deaths have hit North Idaho in the last month. Surviving the death of a child is a phenomenon Idaho parents face more than most: The state ranks fifth in the nation for the number of children’s deaths per capita.
That’s why support groups like Compassionate Friends are in high demand.
“Everybody grieves differently,” says Sharon Rey, a member of the local chapter of the national group. “But everybody needs people.”
Out of every 100,000 Idaho kids, 37 die before age 15, according to a 1995 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Nationally, that number is just under 29 per 100,000.
“The biggest single cause of death is accidental,” said Janet Wick, a section supervisor at the Center for Vital Statistics in Boise. “That means motor vehicle accidents and other causes.”
Wick said the relatively high number of accidental deaths in Idaho is largely attributed to the state’s rugged geography. The rural, remote landscape also contributes to other accidental deaths, such as drownings.
“It’s common among the mountain states where there are a lot of rural, mountain roads and a lot of people doing outdoor types of things,” Wick said.
Toddler Nicole Marlin of Coeur d’Alene died Aug. 16, six months after nearly drowning in icy waters near Wolf Lodge Bay. Sandpoint teenager Jean Ann Heimsoth was found dead Aug. 19, the victim of a car crash.
As the initial shock and heartbreak of the deaths wear off, parents begin the long process of coping with their loss. Experts say that recovery process is one of life’s toughest psychological events, sometimes resulting in long-term depression, divorce, even suicide.
A Coeur d’Alene man killed himself in late June by swallowing muscle relaxants and anti-depressants. The next day marked the six-month anniversary of his 2-year-old son’s accidental death.
The man had recently separated from his wife and been arrested on battery charges. Earlier on the day of his death, he was cited for drunken driving.
The man had told a family member he was “going to take some pills and join his son,” according to police reports.
“Losing a child can drive a parent insane,” says Rey, who lost her daughter several years ago in a car accident.
Rey’s support group meets regularly, and keeps brochures with hospitals, churches, doctors offices and funeral homes.
For parents to survive a child’s death, they encourage psychological or group counseling, and suggest avoiding drastic life changes.
At first, grieving parents are surrounded by family and friends, also church members. “Then the people start to fall away and you’re still not sleeping nights and you’re crying a lot,” she says. “They don’t know how to react.”
Friends and family should stay in touch, avoid rushing parents to recover too quickly and not fret over “shrines” or unusual memorials, she said.
Donald Buss said that knowledge was a comfort. He has no plans to change his son’s room. If he ever does, he’ll still keep all of Alexander’s things.
“I’ll just go at my own pace,” he says.
When Sandy Miner lost her son to high-altitude sickness while skiing, friends repeatedly asked her what they could do. She was at a loss.
“I told them ‘how do I know what I want?”’ Miner said. “I never planned to build a casket for my son.”
For his son’s funeral, Donald Buss’ mother bought Alexander a Power Rangers backpack. Donald placed it in the casket along with several pairs of his son’s shoes.
“It’s the only thing I could think of that he wanted,” Buss says.
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