Losing a child but staying connected to him through music: Justine's story

Kaelan1On March 28, 2013, I was in Arizona with my youngest daughter enjoying her spring break.  My husband and my son, a junior in high school, had stayed behind as my son’s varsity volleyball team was hosting a big tournament.  While poolside, I got a call from my husband: one of my son’s teammates, Kaelan, had died that morning at the age of 16.  This was not just a random teammate; this was a kid who we had carpooled with for a couple years during the club season and whose parents, Justine and Marc, we had become good friend with.  To say I was shaken was an understatement.

We would later learn that Kaelan had died of a heroin overdose, all too common an occurrence these days in our area.  While I didn’t see much of Justine in the months following Kaelan’s death, we slowly reconnected.  I would have understood if it was too painful to be reminded of the lives of high school boys continuing around her: college searches, prom, girlfriends, graduation.  But I know Justine well enough to know that she has a truly generous spirit, and she doesn’t begrudge anyone their happiness, no matter how much she might be hurting.  She still hugs my son when she sees him. 

A month or so back, I went to dinner with Justine.  While driving home, she mentioned that music still hits her really hard emotionally following Kaelan’s death.  I asked her whether she would be willing to expound on that and share what she meant with me, and I was not surprised when she agreed to do so.

Music was always a big part of Kaelan’s life.  He could play bass guitar by ear and had been asking for an acoustic guitar for a while before he died.  He took keyboarding as an elective in high school and even dabbled in a band during middle school.  He seemed to have an innate talent for music.

Kaelan’s taste in music tended toward classic rock.  His favorite band was widely known to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and indeed his first concert was to see that band.  Interestingly, the members of the Chili Peppers have had their own well documented problems with heroin, one of whom even died as a result.  In retrospect, Justine ponders whether some romantic notion about rockers played any role in Kaelan’s path.

In early 2013, Justine and Kaelan were driving to visit Kaelan’s older brother at school in Iowa.  They were listening to one of the two satellite radio stations they enjoyed together, The Coffee House, an acoustic singer-songwriter station (the other being Alt Nation), when an acoustic version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” came on.  Kaelan commented that it was his favorite song.  Sadly, just a few weeks later Justine would choose the lyrics to that song for the back of the memorial card at Kaelan’s wake.

Come a little bit closer
Hearing what I have to say
Just like children sleepin'
We could dream this night away.

But theres's a full moon risin'
Let's go dancin' in the light
We know where the music's playin'
Let's go out and feel the night

Because I'm still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I'm still in love with you
On this harvest moon.

After her youngest son’s death, Justine not surprisingly went through a truly horrific time during which she was unable to listen to music at all.  In particular she stayed away from The Coffee House and Alt Nation stations on satellite as her emotions were still too raw.  As she began to emerge somewhat from her despair, the lyrics to “Counting Stars” by One Republic resonated with her, particularly the line “Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.”

These days Justine appreciates music for the closeness she feels to Kaelan: she describes it as a good thing but a painful thing.  When we talked, she mentioned that both she and Kaelan had liked the David Gray song “Babylon.”  A few weeks later she asked me if I’d like to see David Gray in concert, which we did last week.  It was a great show and held special meaning for Justine as she and Kaelan had a shared love of his music.

Justine will never be the same person she was before she lost Kaelan, but she has opened herself up to feeling him through the music they both loved.

Since Kaelan’s death, Justine has been helped by her involvement in groups such as The Hero Foundation (Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization), Open Hearts, Open Eyes, and PATH (Positive Acceptance Toward Healing).  Though painful, she hopes that participating in outreach efforts will help promote awareness about the heroin epidemic; she even spoke last spring at an assembly at Kaelan’s high school during a week in which former NBA player Chris Herren, himself a former heroin addict, also spoke to the students.

Justine and Kaelan at one of many, many volleyball tournaments.

Justine and Kaelan at one of many, many volleyball tournaments.

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