Kate Atwood was six years old when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. All she knew about that illness was that it started with the letter ‘k’. As time passed, Kate saw her mother grow sicker and weaker until one evening she came home from a little league softball game to pounce into her mother’s arms and found her bed empty. The next day while sitting in the middle of Ms. Kerewich’s Social Studies class, Kate heard her name called over the intercom. She sat frozen in her seat, not wanting to go down to the office. Somewhere inside Kate knew that the time had come. She was 12 years old and her mother was dead.
Her mother’s passing was the first real turning point in Kate’s life. Her parents had done such a good job of letting Kate and her brother live a “normal” childhood while her mom was sick that Kate really didn’t understand what having cancer meant and what the future held for their family. When her mom died on April 25, 1991, her whole life just changed.
“I went from being a young girl with the mindset that parents don’t die—it certainly wasn’t something that happened in my world!—to feeling really alone starting with that day on forward. I didn’t really know how to navigate life.”
Kate wasn’t the only one struggling. Her father had lost his life partner and co-parent and her brother had lost his mother as well. The nuclear unit was shattered and they all sort of went into survival mode, coping as best as they could independent of one another.
“It was unchartered territory without our emotional caregiver. A distance came between the three of us, not out of an absence of love but more out of this constant presence of grief.”
While trying to handle the turmoil going on inside, Kate tried to make everything on the outside appear perfect. She hurled herself down a path of overachievement, determined to excel at school, sports, activities, and friendships. She became involved with everything from the school band to basketball and community clubs - you name it. It wasn’t until eight years later when she got to college that Kate realized how broken inside she still was. Becoming aware again that she was lacking her emotional caregiver, freshman year became probably the hardest year of her life.
“Sometimes you process the grieving when you face another huge transition. When I went away to college, I was suddenly thrust into this new environment where everything is new and foreign. I was in the same boat as every other freshman but I also had all this bottled-up grief. I was like a volcano! I remember coming home from class one day and everyone was on the phone with their mom. When everybody was struggling or upset, they’d call their mom. It hit me hard…I didn’t have anybody to call.”
The child then proceeded to calmly tell Kate her own story about losing both of her parents. Kate later found out that the girl had never talked about her parents, not with anyone. It was a moment Kate could not walk away from. She was hooked.
Although she was just a regular coed on the outside, on the inside Kate wrestled with loneliness and insecurities surrounding her grief throughout her college career. “It’s a wound that isn’t necessarily visible to everyone around. I didn’t walk around with this label on my forehead proclaiming ‘my mom died.’ It just becomes this thing that you have to navigate around that makes you different, but at the same time you don’t want to be different. You want to be normal.”
The summer before entering her senior year Kate finally found a place that made her feel whole again. Attempting to boost her resume, she had decided to volunteer and had come across a camp in Virginia for grieving children.
“It totally spoke to me. I was the youngest volunteer there who had had an experience similar to the kids, so the camp director asked me to open camp by telling my story to the campers. I never told my story to even my closest friends and all of the sudden there I was, standing in front of 200 unfamiliar kids. I got up there totally unrehearsed, totally unscripted just beginning with ‘Hi, my name is Kate Atwood and I lost my mom when I was 12 years old …’” As Kate spoke, she suddenly found herself bonding with the group. It was something she’d never experienced, this feeling of peer support. As camp went on, she was amazed that these kids were getting such profound degree of support at such a young age. It was something she could never have even hoped for when she had lost her mother, something she didn’t even realize it was possible.
One night while camp was in session Kate stood brushing her teeth in the bathroom when a little girl came up to her and said “You’re Kate, right?” The child then proceeded to calmly tell Kate her own story about losing both of her parents. Kate later found out that the girl had never talked about her parents, not with anyone. It was a moment Kate could not walk away from. She was hooked.
Moving to Atlanta to take a job in sports marketing after college, Kate returned to the bereavement camp time and again. “I kept going back to volunteer because the camp was so healing to me. Helping and giving back to others isn’t a sacrifice at all if it’s what you really are meant to do. It gives you the greatest gift. It helped me heal.”
Even when she wasn’t there, Kate couldn’t stop thinking about camp. The kids and the healing that took place there meant the world to her. During a dinner with her father on one of his visits to Atlanta she said that she really wanted to do something more with grieving kids. His reply was that she should start something in Atlanta. “I was like, ‘I’m only 24 and I don’t have any money.’ I will never forget what he said back: ‘See the dream and find the seed.’ Two weeks later I walked into my boss’s office and said, ‘I’m going to start a non-profit.’ Things in my family started to change when my father and I had that sit down. I never would have done Kate’s Club without my dad’s belief in me.”
Kate’s Club (http://www.katesclub.org/) started with one small program and expanded organically. Once a month Kate and a handful of volunteers would pick grieving kids up and take them on an outing for the day.
“There was no funding behind this at all and I’d only been in Atlanta for a few years so I didn’t know a lot of people. But, I had a good community among the sports and entertainment community from my job and we’d take the kids to do something fun. The main goal was to give these kids a social outlet where they could bond with other kids who shared similar experiences.”
When it first began, Kate’s Club serviced just six children. It is now at 250 and counting! There are no fees and the club is open to kids from all different backgrounds; the only credential they need is to have lived through the loss of a parent or sibling. “We’ve added professional emotional support and a more structured curriculum, but at the end of the day it’s very much about the peer-to-peer support in an environment that’s uplifting. We’re as much focused on helping child navigate through their grief as we are on showing them the great life they still have to live. It’s really an important message for grieving children: You have so much opportunity ahead of you. Dealing with a parent’s death is something that changes your life forever. You can look at how it changes your life as a victim or you can look at it as a survivor. We want to make sure we’re there to help these kids be survivors.”
Kate’s Club is constantly evolving and growing, as is Kate as a person. The latest milestone in her journey is her soon-to-be-released book, A Healing Place: Help Your Child Find Hope and Happiness After the Loss of a Loved One. It is a book that Kate wishes had been around when she was a child and something she hopes can help surviving caregivers as they navigate through their own grief with losing a partner and try to create a healthy, happy environment for their children.
“One of the hard things about doing this work is that, as great an environment of support we can provide when Kate’s Club is open, if kids aren’t going home to a healing environment the entire grief process remains a challenge. It’s hard to remember that the loss of a family member is the loss of a relationship for every single person in that family. I feel like the one key role I can play at this point in my life is sort of as a liaison between a grieving parent and a child. I have been in the child’s shoes, but I’m now an adult. The book I wrote is my story intertwined with empowering tools and broad tips for a surviving caregiver to help build a supportive, healing home environment where the family can both grieve in a positive way and keep on living.”
Kate believes that at the end of the day a socially conscious life is a great gift. She is extremely passionate about the work she is doing and loves touching the lives of the kids around her.
“I fundamentally believe that there’s no bigger hope than in kids. I love working with kids and I love handing kids opportunity. I feel like being somebody who’s walked in a child’s shoes and wanting to make that path for them a little bit easier is sort of every adult’s duty. How do we make the generation after us a little bit better, a little bit stronger? We teach them what we know and we help them grow.”
Working with the kids at Kate’s Club has also been a huge blessing for Kate, personally. “When you experience the loss of a parent at a young age, I think you are always healing. It is always a process and it’s ultimately about the people who surround you during all that. So, that’s what I try to do everyday, be happy personally and surround myself with supportive, good people. I also want to remind people who are grieving that they are not meant to do it alone. You have to reach out for help. The point of it all is that every corner in life is an opportunity to have a positive, exciting experience and you don’t have to go it alone.”
Thank you Kate, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Tamar Burris and Story of My Life