My Niece Died This Morning

October 13, 2007 | 46 comments
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She was 12 years old, and her death was totally unexpected.

My father called this morning to tell me and my wife that my niece had just died. My sister had taken in three cats very recently, and my niece – a physically healthy young woman – had a severe allergic reaction while playing with them. She passed away before the doctors at the hospital could restart her breathing. (Apparently, I have a nephew and a brother – two different families, as well as one of my own sons – who have had allergic reactions to cats, but they weren’t serious enough to raise concerns among the family.)

My father’s words to us were concise. He is not given to emotional displays, and his natural stoicism was evident in his call. He said two things: “Treasure your children every day of your lives,” and “Keep animals out of your house.” I was struck by how this conversation with my father encapsulated him so perfectly. To understand this, you need to know my father.

My mom has a rare form of schizophrenia. My father was unaware of this, as was everyone else (including my mother), when they got married. He found out after the birth of my sisters (twins), when she was overwhelmed and her mind wouldn’t shut down and allow her to sleep. She had what was termed a nervous breakdown, which led to her clinical diagnosis.

From that moment forward, my dad shielded my mom from every care of the world so her condition would stay in remission, if you will. By all practical measures, he became my father and my mother. My mom wanted more children, so he agreed – knowing that meant his responsibilities would increase accordingly. He shouldered all of the financial, household, emotional, physical, disciplinary, organizational, educational, etc. responsibilities for his family and allowed his wife to be seen by the community as the incredibly spiritual woman we knew as our mother – a modern Mormon saint. People in town admired his work ethic, but they never realized what he was doing behind our doors – because he never once mentioned it in any way to anyone. He didn’t want others to view his wife as anyone other than the sweet angel he had married – to do anything that would lessen her in others’ eyes in a time when mental illness was not understood.

Until her first breakdown, my father served in various leadership positions in the Church. After that, he waited nearly 30 years to serve in another position that required he spend significant time away from home – until his children were gone and my mom could function without the stress associated with raising them. He left an extremely well paying job with incredible advancement opportunities to go back to the small town where my mom was raised, simply to ease her stress and allow her to function normally. He became an elementary school janitor, took a 50% pay cut and focused on loving and serving his kids – both at home and at his school.

Not holding a high profile church position, he came to be known in town as a salt-of-the-earth farm boy – a good man, but certainly not a leader. I bought into that perception until my mother’s second breakdown a few years ago, when her “sleeping pills” stopped working and her whole personality changed. It was only after this experience that I finally saw my father for what he is – as close an example of the Savior’s single-minded dedication to service and family as anyone I have ever known.

Why do I share all of this when it is my niece’s death that rocked our family’s world this morning? It is because my father was able to sum up the situation for his family in such a beautifully concise way. He has a rock-solid testimony of the Plan of Salvation – that he and my sister will see their (grand)daughter again. It is such a given for him that he never even thought to mention it. He knew it; he knew we knew it; it never crossed his mind to address it. Instead, just as he always has, he saw the big picture and acted as both mother and father to his family – giving us two beautifully balanced bits of wisdom – one spiritual that applies to all and one practical that applies directly to his own children. Therefore, I pass them on to you – knowing the second one will have to be adapted to whatever dangers threaten your own children’s well-being – physically or spiritually.

“Treasure your children every day of your life,” and “Keep (serious dangers to your children) out of your house.”

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46 Responses to My Niece Died This Morning

  1. Tanya Sue on October 13, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    I am so sorry about your niece. I am also impressed and touched by the man that your father is. He is someone I want to be like. I will keep your family in my prayers.

  2. Dave Banack on October 13, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    That’s a real tragedy, Curtis. My sympathy to you and the family.

  3. Tatiana on October 13, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    That is so sad. I’m very sorry. What a terrible thing to happen! We should indeed treasure each other every day of our lives.

  4. k l h on October 13, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    I’m sorry–yet enjoyed the loving portrait of your father.

  5. Ace on October 13, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    My heart goes out to you and your family. Thank you for the beautiful reminder about what’s important.

  6. Bob on October 13, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Curtis, you did the right thing in sharing with sad time with us. You know we would take some of your pain if we could. My sympathy to you and your family.

  7. Matt Evans on October 13, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    That is awful, Curtis, I am devastated for your sister and her family. I can’t imagine.

  8. Keri Brooks on October 13, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I’m sorry for your loss.

  9. Julie M. Smith on October 13, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    My sympathies to you and your family.

  10. Proud Daughter of Eve on October 13, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    My heart and my prayers go out to your family.

  11. dangermom on October 13, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    What a terrible loss. I’m so sorry. Your father is a truly amazing man.

  12. danithew on October 13, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    I’m sorry to read about the death of your niece. It’s shocking to read that such a seemingly mundane thing as being around cats could cause death.

  13. Jim F. on October 13, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Curtis, may the Lord bless you and your family in your sorrow, and thank you for reminding us of the transience of our earthly life.

  14. Edje on October 13, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    Condolences.

  15. m&m on October 13, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    My heart hurts for your family. My heart is touched by what you have written — here in this post and in other recent posts. Thank you for opening up your heart to us.

  16. nita on October 13, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    I am so sorry. From what you shared of your father, he seems like a great man and a true leader and a totally devoted follower of Jesus Christ. What an example of spiritual strength-

    My cyber condolences to all in your family. I hope you will have memories of happy times with your niece to give the needed consolation and comfort.

  17. Heather Oman on October 13, 2007 at 7:17 pm

    Wow. I’m so sorry.

  18. Jared on October 13, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    Curtis,

    Thanks for sharing. This is real life and I appreciate the insight you related. Your family is heroic.

  19. MLBEH on October 13, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    Very sorry for such tragic news. I heard a very similar testimony regarding fathers in church not too many Sundays ago. I think from a high council speaker. Either you live in southwest Ohio and bore this moving testimony over the pulpit here; or you have someone with a strikingly similar experience (possibly a sibling) that shared it here. I was moved by the words then and now to read them in relation to such a tragedy – thank you.

  20. Curtis DeGraw on October 13, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Everyone, thank you for your thoughts. I really appreciate them. Obviously, this was not a post I planned on writing, but my dad’s words struck me as advice I should pass along to others.

    #19 – Say hello to Bishop Swift for me.

  21. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 13, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    That is so very sad.

  22. cyril on October 13, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    I am so very sorry. As a father of a daughter with life-threatening allergies, this story reminds me how far I still need to go in my understanding of life, death, and the Plan.

  23. Keryn on October 14, 2007 at 12:06 am

    Wow. I’m so sorry–what a hard thing to have to write. My prayers are with your family in this hard time. And thank you so much for passing the advice and example of your father–besides the sadness, the amazing service of your father brought a tear to my eye and determination to do better to my spirit.

  24. Adam Greenwood on October 14, 2007 at 1:17 am

    The last enemy that shall be defeated is death.

    Thanks for sharing your father’s example. It helps me to be a better man and father.

  25. Natasha on October 14, 2007 at 2:08 am

    Just FYI, what happened to your mother is quite common and [is now] treatable–it is one of the most common forms of post-partum mental illness [the inability to sleep coupled with depression]. If treated quickly, its impact can be really minimal. If you know anyone suffering from it, get them to a psychiatrist who specializes in women’s mood disorders, and you can save her a lifetime of mental illness.

    There are some very good books and specialists out there.[however, many doctors and ob-gyns are abmysally uninformed about post partum mood disorders--so one has to be proactive.] I had that exact illness. The first time I got minimal help and was terribly ill for a long time. The second time I got immediate, very competent help, and was nearly back to myself within a month.–and even able to function in an RS presidency and parent very effectively, among other things.

  26. MCQ on October 14, 2007 at 2:13 am

    I am very sorry to hear of this terrible tragedy, and want to add my praise to your father’s wonderful example of service.

    I have never before heard of an allergy acting this swiftly to cause death in a child. Did the doctors say how rare this is? I also wonder if it isn’t somewhat of an overreaction to advise all to “keep animals out of your house.” Living without our dog would be like losing a member of our family. There must be a way to check for such drastic allergies without banning all animals altogether.

  27. Curtis DeGraw on October 14, 2007 at 2:16 am

    Thanks, Natasha. I really do appreciate your information – but my mother’s condition really is schizophrenia. There wasn’t any aspect of depression involved – with either the original “breakdown” or the second – which occurred many years after my youngest sister was born. I would share more of the specifics, but this isn’t the time or place.

    If there is anyone reading this who knows someone who fits the description Natasha provided, please do as she says and contact a psychiatrist who specializes in women’s mood disorders. I know women who have done so, and it changes their lives dramatically for the better.

    Again, thanks, Natasha.

  28. Curtis DeGraw on October 14, 2007 at 2:21 am

    MCQ, It is extremely rare, but I meant the animals comment to be applied metaphorically – to “Keep (dangerous conditions that threaten your children) out of your house.” That’s what I meant by “knowing the second will have to be adapted to whatever dangers threaten your own children’s well-being.” I probably should have added “physically or spiritually” to that sentence and clarified the advice at the end. I will do so now.

  29. The Wiz on October 14, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    I am so sorry. That is horrible. I knew cats were evil. I just didn’t know they could be life threatening, I’ve never even heard of that.

    Your father sounds like a wonderful man. I hope your mother has good treatment, and that your family can heal from this tragedy.

  30. Dan Ellsworth on October 14, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    Curtis,

    That was an amazing post, and I feel it would be inapproriate to go too much into the pets in the house issue (I loved our cats!).

    All I can say is, your father is heroic. Thanks for sharing this story.

  31. Tony on October 14, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    I’m sorry for your family’s loss, Curtis.

    Re #29- Please don’t turn this post into a cat-hating diatribe. What happened to Curtis’ niece was a one-time-in-a-million freak accident, plain and simple. I love cats. I’ve been around cats most of my life as has most of my family without so much as a sniffle.

  32. Curtis DeGraw on October 14, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    Just to clarify and follow-up on #28: The animal advice from my father was for his children and our own families – simply because so many of us apparently have similar allergies. It was his way of saying, “Better safe than sorry.” I changed the wording at the end to take the cats out of the picture for everyone else.

    Tony, I understand your sensitivities, but please understand that I know The Wiz fairly well for someone I have never met, and I admire her tremendously. I know she didn’t mean anything by her comment. It was an emotional reaction – plain and simple.

  33. CS Eric on October 14, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    My sympathies to you and your family. I, too, try hard to keep my wife’s problems from being made public. I have not been quite as successful as your father. I know how hard it is, and I admire your father for his ability to do so.

  34. Mike the Horebite on October 14, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    Today I found out that one of the boys in my ward was diagnosed with cancer. Although the two situation are different, they are similar in that the families will need a lot of support.

    I’m reminded of Bishop Edgley’s talk on Enduring Together. Specifically, he said:

    “The Lord’s organization is fully adequate to know and care for those with even the most dire emotional and spiritual needs.”

    Right now, that feels like a lot to live up to. I pray that the Lord will support your family in their trial.

  35. Nehringk on October 14, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Curtis:

    Thank you for sharing this story, even though it surely caused you pain to do so, pain added upon the pain you already felt over the loss of your niece. To hear stories such as this — true stories of faith, valor, humility, and charity — reminds us all of why the Gospel truly is good news. In relating a tragedy, you shared good news. Thank you, and may the Lord bless you and your family in this time of grief.

  36. Pam W. on October 14, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    I am so sorry. Thank you for your moving portrait of your family.

  37. Trevor on October 15, 2007 at 12:28 am

    Thank you for sharing. May the Lord grant you and your family peace at this difficult time.

  38. Kim Siever on October 15, 2007 at 12:37 am

    Wow. Your dad seems like an amazing person. I only wish I could be so dedicated.

  39. MSG on October 15, 2007 at 2:49 am

    Curtis–May our heartfelt sympathies comfort you all at this time.
    Thank you for sharing–I will remember your dad’s example. I am reminded that true greatness in men (and women) comes from being humble enough to serve however and wherever one is needed–and in marriage that often trascends gender roles and cultures. Great people serve wherever there’s a need. I’ll remember that. God Bless.

  40. UKAnn on October 15, 2007 at 3:23 am

    Curtis – I am so sorry for your loss. May the Comforter be with you and your family. And as for your father – I think…. greater love hath no man than to give his life…….

  41. Curtis DeGraw on October 15, 2007 at 5:49 am

    #40 – I gained a new perspective on “laying down one’s life” when I realized what decision my father made. It always meant dying to me; now I know it also can mean setting one’s own life aside and living for someone else. I’m not convinced that’s not the deeper meaning, actually.

  42. Jacob M on October 15, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    That is so sad, so my condolences to you and your family. Thank you for sharing the greatness of your father, too. We so often forget the quiet service of love that is given by others. Very insightful as to the essence of the gospel.

  43. Anna on October 15, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    I\’m sorry and thank you. I am an infrequent lurker on this site. Your post made a difference to me today. I needed to be reminded of the \”treasure your children every day of your life\” advice this morning. I\’m inspired.

  44. lamonte on October 15, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Curtis – I know this is a late comment but your other post from earlier today led me to it. I am sorry for the loss of your niece and pray for God’s blessings to be with all of your family.

    I hope it isn’t appropriate for me to share some lyrics to a song that I find beautiful. Music is such a powerful force in my life and I heard thei song on a Kathy Matea album that we own. It seems to describe your father and make a statement about what our relationships should be. The first verse says this:

    There was a gentle man I knew
    A stroke held his wife fast asleep
    And his whole life had come down to
    The vigil he would daily keep
    I asked would he rather be free ?
    And this is how he answered me

    That’s the deal, that’s the bargain that you make
    That’s the vow that two hearts take
    That if better turns to worse you will abide
    That’s the deal, if it were not for God’s grace
    I might be there in her place and she’d be right by my side
    That’s the deal

    May God bless you in your time of need.

  45. Curtis DeGraw on October 15, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    Thank you, lamonte. That was beautiful.

    I absolutely love Kathy Matea’s music, even though I haven’t heard any of her songs for some time.

  46. Matt on October 16, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    Your dad is a true hero. I am so sorry for your loss.

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