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Cheyenne's Family: "How can you forget a family member?"

Cheyenne never had an easy time of it. And neither did her parents and her sisters. Born blind, with a variety of disabilities, Cheyenne fought to live every day of her two years. Her parents, Anita and Bernie, and Cheyenne's sisters, Nicole, Brandi and Jen, created a space within which little Cheyenne could grow and love and be loved. That space remained, cold and hollow, after Cheyenne died.

Although they knew Cheyenne would probably die sooner rather than later, her death was still a devastating blow to the family. After Cheyenne died, Anita recalls, "We were angry. We were fighting all the time. We're a close family, but then we just quit doing things together. Everyone went their own way."

And then there were Nicole's nightmares. Nicole, who was five at the time of Cheyenne's death, had recurring dreams of being entirely abandoned. She had panic attacks. She couldn’t allow her mother or father to leave a room without her, always looking around to make sure they were there. If they did leave the room, Nicole would jump down, fighting a rising fear, and quickly find them.

Jen and Brandi, both in high school, mentioned that their peers had a hard time knowing what to say or do with them. Brandi talked about a close friend who, she says, "practically lived in our house" for years. Then, after Cheyenne died, the friend couldn't bring herself to even enter the house. The girls found themselves having to deal with their grief over the loss of their sister and at the same time having to deal with the inability of others to approach the subject of death.

Brandi and Jen also say that many people expected them to "be over it" by now. Their mother agrees. "People tell you, 'It's been a year. Shouldn't you just forget this and get over it?' How can you forget a family member? The loss stays with you forever."

When the family began attending the Highmark Caring Place about a half-year after Cheyenne died, even that wasn't without anger. "We fought the whole way to the meetings," Anita recalls. "'I'm not going,' the girls would say. 'You're not making us do this.'" But they did go.

Anita talks about how good it is to be able to see people who are further down the road of grief. "It really helped to see what to expect by looking at those who have already been there. We knew from hearing others that Cheyenne’s birthday, and the anniversary of her death, would be hard. So we were ready for that. And we could also see that the first intense pain wouldn’t last forever."

Being able to talk to someone who understands is also important. According to Bernie, Anita's husband, this was good for him, and even more important for his daughters. "Adults can sooner or later find someone who will listen. But kids have no one to talk to. They're left alone."

Brandi agrees that that is what makes the Caring Place a special place. "At the Caring Place, you can talk with people who understand you. They know what you're feeling. You can say what you need to say, or you can just listen. You can even cry, and that's OK. People accept you."

"But you do have to talk about it. If you don't, you'll explode. You'll end up going crazy over all the little things that you should be able to handle. At the Caring Place, you can relieve the big anger — the grief — and then you can deal with the little angers."

Jen sums up what the Caring Place offers to families where death has walked in the door. "You have to talk about the person you lost," she says. "But at the Caring Place, nobody looks like they're going to die when you bring up the subject of death."