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After grieving, a new reality

A mother and daughter rebuild their lives after the sudden death of their loved one.

Published December 3, 2006

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Sandra Michaud and her daughter, Lexi, 8, visit the tomb of their daughter and sister, Katelyn, who died in a drowning accident at age 2 in January 2004.

TRINITY - The kids at school called her a liar.

Lexi Michaud's third-grade classmates at Trinity Elementary School were skeptical of the 8-year-old's story. So she decided to bring proof.

"I need to bring a photo of Katelyn," she asked her mother, Sandra.

"For what?" Sandra said.

"I just need one," Lexi said.

Sandra called the school to find out why. A teacher said classmates were taunting Lexi about the death of her sister, Katelyn, who drowned in the family pool nearly three years ago. The kids thought Lexi made it up.

A photo of the cheerful toddler stifled the pint-sized naysayers. But proving her classmates wrong didn't ease the pain.

This is a story of what grief leaves behind, of finding ways to face the world after the funeral, of patching a hole in your heart as life lurches forward.

For the Michauds, the healing process meant building a house a mile from the large marble wall that houses Katelyn's ashes, and gathering the courage to take another dip in the family pool.

* * *

On Jan. 27, 2004, Sandra checked phone messages while Katelyn ate cookies and milk and watched TV.

Soon, she discovered Katelyn missing. The house's rear sliding glass door was ajar. Sandra rushed outside and found Katelyn floating near the deep end of the pool.

The moments after are a blur. Sandra raced to a hospital, where Katelyn died. Hours later, someone placed 5-year-old Lexi on her lap.

"I said, 'Honey, Katelyn is no longer with us,' " Sandra recalled. "She said, 'Mommy, does that mean you have one little girl now?' "

For Sandra, guilt rushed in like a flood.

What if I hadn't listened to those messages? What if I hadn't answered the phone?

In the months after Katelyn's death, Sandra's already-strained marriage buckled.

She needed someone to talk to, she said, and her husband became more withdrawn. The two divorced.

Lexi landed in both grief and divorce counseling at school and hospice camp for grieving kids.

Close to their hearts are memories of the girl Lexi played Barbies with, who mugged for the camera in family photos, dressed in hues of pink.

About a mile beyond Trinity Memorial Gardens, where Katelyn's ashes are stored in the large marble wall, Sandra is building a home for her and Lexi. The moment she saw a sign for the subdivision, she felt drawn to be there.

"I don't want to say it gets easier, but I have a place for her in my heart, always," Sandra said. "No matter what, she's around us all the time."

Family faces its fear

A few months after Katelyn's death, Sandra and Lexi came home from a boating trip with a neighbor. They decided to take a swim in the pool -- the same pool in which Katelyn died.

"It wasn't the pool that killed my daughter," Sandra said. "I had to prove to my (then) 5-year-old that it's okay to get into the water."

For kids who have lost a sibling, it's important to face those situations and talk about their feelings, said Philip Fauerbach, a family therapist.

"The big difference is that in her life, she will recognize that you can lose someone," he said. "It's going to be a fact of life, a lesson learned, but an unfortunate lesson."

At times Lexi thinks about her sister. She feels lonely. She cries.

"But now I feel better because I got some people that (are) cheering me on!" she wrote in blue magic marker in a letter to a reporter.

They're even building a pool in their new house.

Katelyn's legacy

The marble wall at Trinity Memorial Gardens is cluttered with names emblazoned in gold.

One reads, "Katelyn T. Michaud, Dec. 19, 2001 - Jan. 27, 2004. Our precious little angel." Red and gold poinsettias sit in a vase near the marker.

In a few weeks, Sandra and Lexi will release a dozen balloons into the sky at the cemetery, a tradition on Katelyn's birthday.

Sandra busies herself with the Katelyn Foundation, a nonprofit she and her brother started to provide scholarships for kids and child-proofing devices for homes.

She goes to counseling and wants to start a crisis center for people who have lost a loved one.

"If I sat and did nothing," she said, "I'd cry over her."

Lexi is a well-adjusted, chatty cheerleader who's tall for her age. She often speaks of Katelyn in the present tense.

She continues to make new friends. Sandra calls their parents to explain Katelyn's death. She fears they, too, will think Lexi is lying.

Lexi has developed a close bond with her new best friend. This girl listens as Lexi talks about her sister and hugs her when she's down.

Her name is Caitlin.

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at (727) 869-6229 or

[Last modified December 2, 2006, 22:04:37]

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