If only we had no need of candlelight vigils, of funerals, of tearful hugs. But we do. While these traditions of grief don’t lessen the pain they help us walk through it together.
Last weekend three University High School students were in a car crash. Preston Maher was seriously injured and is now recovering at home. McKenzie Mott and Josie Freier didn’t survive.
As a Titan parent this tragedy hit home, as it did with every parent I know. Our hearts break for these families. Our hearts break for our children, who we can’t shield from sorrow, no matter how much we’d like to.
That’s why, on Sunday evening we lit candles and stood in silence at the U-Hi football field to honor McKenzie and Josie, to support their families and to help our teens start to grieve and heal together.
Since then the Spokane community has continued to pour out its love and support in tangible, touchable ways.
All week people have brought food to the school so staff can concentrate on students and navigate their own emotions with one less detail to deal with.
Each day people bring more toys to area fire stations and Central Valley schools because the Freier family asked that Josie’s memory be honored with donations to her favorite charity. Toys for Tots is Toys for Titans this week.
Other tangible acts of grief and compassion range from memorial account fundraising events like T-shirt sales and Zumba to the Spokane Falls Community College soccer players taping their wrists with McKenzie and Josie’s initials.
Classmates have made video tributes and posted on Facebook pages. The crash site is adorned with flowers, notes and mementos.
In an especially touching show of solidarity, the students and staff at Central Valley High School wore crimson and gold on Monday. They empathize.
CV students know what it feels like when a friend and classmate dies. Less than three months ago when CV graduate Jansen Badinger drowned in the Spokane River his classmates also honored his memory with a candlelit vigil at the high school.
All of these gestures of love and grief make me proud of my community. Though Spokane Valley has always been a wonderful place to live, it’s grown up in how it helps our youth cope when a classmate dies.
Watching our community rally around these grieving families and teens I couldn’t help but remember my own years at U-Hi and the two boys I knew who died too young, too soon.
Todd Smith was a talented runner on the varsity cross country team. His name still stands on one of the school’s top 15 race time lists. The fall of his senior year he was hit by a car. He never regained consciousness and died about two years later.
Todd was a quiet leader whose kindness set him apart in a time when bullying wasn’t addressed much. My strongest memory of him is at an invitational meet when a couple of our teammates were making fun of another runner. He stopped it with three words. “Cut it out.”
Josie also had a reputation for putting a stop to bullying behavior.
When that car crash sent Todd to the hospital we all hoped he’d be back running before the end of the season or at least in time for track. He wasn’t. The varsity runners organized Run for Life, a run from U-Hi to Sacred Heart as a show of love and support for Todd and his family. Central Valley runners showed solidarity that day too, running with us. Later we talked on tape so Todd would hear how much he was missed.
Those two concrete acts helped in a vacuum of tangible ways to deal with his tragedy.
Two years later, when Jubal Long’s truck crashed, I remember feeling stunned. Not again. Jubal was one year younger than me, a kid I’d known since elementary school. As a fellow hurdler on the track team we endured the same workouts and knee-scraping falls. Jubal always got up again, ready to work hard as he strove to get faster and stronger.
When he died I wished I’d known him better, that I’d spent more time talking with him and more time cheering him on.
As an adult looking back, I wish we’d thought to have a candlelit vigil and I’m grateful that grief is handled more openly today.
Grappling with the reality of death is always difficult and perhaps more so for teens who’re filled with vitality as they dream big dreams.
I’m so glad our community recognizes this and has stepped forward to wrap arms around each other, to light candles, to buy toys, to release balloons into the sky, to wear T-shirts and to share memories.
These traditions not only show how much McKenzie and Josie were loved. They show the grieving families and classmates that they are not alone. They have a community walking with them.