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Life, death, parenting and Katie Allison Granju

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Parenting through tragedy

For over a month, writer and parenting blogger Katie Allison Granju detailed the tragic sequence of devastating events that culminated in the death of her eldest baby: Her 18-year-old son, Henry. Like parents all over the world who are following Katie's journey through heartache in her blog, Jen Klein tries to find meaning in this senseless tragedy.

Katie Allison Granju and Henry Granju

parents growing up on the web

The Web is a small place. No, really -- it is. Point, click… connection. And you're tied in across the country and around the globe. It happens all the time. Fifteen or so years ago, it was an even smaller place. For 'net denizens of [ahem] a certain age, it was something special and new and cutting edge. We were participating in things most of the world didn't understand yet. It was before "blog" was a word, before "twitter" was a sparkle in some geek's eye -- and Amazon was only a bookstore.

It was a place where people were experimenting with building virtual communities. We were all figuring it out and doing it together, whether that was expanding the Web's possibilities or finding our way in real-life issues such as parenting -- and somewhere along the way, the two began to merge. Indeed, it was in those times that the seed of SheKnows took root.

One of those early online presences -- a pioneer of sorts in both parenting and online connection -- experienced the worst of tragedies in recent days. Yes, tragedies happen all the time. They do. Children are diagnosed with horrible diseases, parents are taken too soon, and people are hurt and trying to heal. Which tragedy -- and triumph -- catch your eye and your heart online varies person to person, but this one was somehow different for many of us.

a community's heartbreak

Henry GranjuKatie Allison Granju literally wrote the book on attachment parenting and actively participated in early online attachment parenting communities. Her words guided many a new mom through rough nights with reassurance that responding to her baby's cries was the right thing to, that her instincts were spot on. She practiced what she preached and is raising her beautiful children with attentive and thoughtful parenting. She taught them right from wrong; she thought out every parenting decision. She really worked at her parenting, in the way that so many of us try to do. She believed with her whole heart that this approach to parenting was the best way for her to raise smart, happy and healthy children. In short, by all accounts, she did everything "right."

Despite all that, her oldest son developed a serious drug problem, and the heartbreak and challenge of parenting in that situation played out over the years -- and not on the Internet. It was a challenge Granju bore privately, with her family.

In late April 2010, in a murky sequence of events, he overdosed, was assaulted, and ended up in the hospital with severe brain injuries. After a few weeks of hopeful progress, his condition suddenly deteriorated, and he died a few days ago.

Here's the thing: If it can happen to Katie Allison Granju, it can happen to any of us. Yes, any of us.

Now, I didn't know Katie Granju personally. I've known her name for years, I know several people who do know her, and I feel like she was a part of my parenting emergence -- as if we were on parallel paths. Since I'd learned what was happening to her family, I'd begun following along on her blog, reading as she experienced some really horrible things. There were moments when I identified with her intensely -- I, too, have had to parent a critically ill child in an ICU -- but there were also moments when I felt there was a chasm I could not cross: A chasm of not just vastly different experience and circumstance, but also of fear.

If it can happen to Katie Allison Granju, it can happen to any of us.

Are there any lessons here?

Like many out there in Internet-land and beyond, I'm trying to make sense of the senseless here. I'm trying to figure out what it all means. My heart aches that someone I've admired from afar has to endure such pain, that she has to do what no parent should ever have to do: Bury her child, her first baby. I'm also determined to learn something from this. There has to be a lesson, right? But, what, exactly? And is there more than one?

In the harsh light of this tragedy, I'm looking backward at my own parenting, wondering what I could or should have done differently already -- and how I will do things differently going forward. I'm parenting a teenager now, too, and it's hard. I look at him and think I know him, but do I? Really? I believe that my child will never become a drug user, a statistic -- but is that based in reality and confidence in my parenting? Or cocky naiveté?

If it can happen to Katie Allison Granju, it can happen to any of us.

The obvious lesson to be learned from this tragedy, perhaps the easiest lesson, is about talking to your kids -- again! -- about the risks associated with substance use and abuse. Talk to them early and often on substance abuse issues, and take everything seriously. Because we never know which conversation is going to take, which action is going to have the impact, we have to keep at it. And not just on substance abuse issues, but on every issue associated with risky behavior. We can take for granted no opportunity for a conversation.

I think there are less obvious lessons here, too -- about why and how we parent, about coming to accept that we can't control everything, in spite of always doing the best we possibly can for our kids.

Because Katie Granju was -- and is -- a good parent.

She did the best she could with the information and resources she had in front of her. She was loving and respectful and thoughtful and firm, and she still lost her son to a senseless tragedy.

If it can happen to Katie Allison Granju, it can happen to any of us.

So if it can happen to anybody, even the "good" parents, what are the rest of us to do? How do we keep going, keep trying to be the best parents we can be, when we know it still might end up like it did for Katie Granju's son?

acts of optimism

Henry Granju

I've said before that I believe choosing to bear a child is the ultimate act of optimism. To paraphrase Carl Sandburg, it's tangible proof that the world should go on. In spite of the hard stuff out there, the mean stuff, the hurtful stuff, the world is worth the effort. I still believe there is beauty and good in the world. I also believe that our continued efforts at parenting our children is that same initial optimism, ongoing. We parent and make choices based, in part, on that optimism.

But I also know this: No parent has all the answers. The choices we make as parents come from the influence of our experiences, and the information and resources we have in front of us at any given moment. We can look back and say, "I should have...," but in the moment, we make the best choice we can so we can move forward. That's just the way it is.

The choices we make aren't the only factors at play here, however. More than a few unknowns come to bear. How two children of the same parents and raised in the same home can be so vastly different in personality, temperament -- even body chemistry -- is awe inspiring. Even in families who haven't experienced such devastating tragedy, these dramatic differences in siblings are striking.

I think a measure of luck involved, too. Yes, luck. Oh, you might call it something else -- grace or the holy spirit or what have you -- but it's an intangible influence on a situation. It's what makes you turn right instead of left, thus missing getting in a car accident (or not). Unfortunately, some people call this "fault." I guess it depends on whether the outcome is good or bad.

So we raise our kids with love and knowledge and optimism, and still so much of it is left to chance and unknowns. Perfect storms of events occur, over only some of which we have any semblance of control -- and things happen. The unexpected happens. Sometimes wonderful, and sometimes horrible. So then, what's the point?

That deep, abiding optimism that led us to bear children in the first place: That's the point, I think. That's the lesson for me. That in spite of the hard, the unknown, the difficult -- and all the things out of my control -- parenting is still worth the effort . The belief that, in the end, the good outweighs the hard. I'm going to screw up -- I already have! -- but these kids in front of me and the beauty in the world are still worth the effort. The passing of Katie Granju's son and the ordeal she continues to endure reminds me of this.

If it can happen to Katie Allison Granju, it can happen to any of us.

And that's reason enough for me to keep trying, in spite of the unknowns and the chance. That's the lesson for me.

Send your prayers to Katie Granju and her family right now. Kiss your babies, however big or small they may be. Resolve to keep trying your best amid all the uncertainty and unknowns. Our children and our world deserve the effort. I think Katie and her Henry would want that.

*Special thanks to Polli Kenn for helping me coalesce my thoughts. Photos provided by Katie Allison Granju.


Special note:

The Granju family is starting what they hope will become a permanent, endowed fund that will provide scholarships for families who cannot afford to pay for needed drug and alcohol treatment programs for their children. They ask that you remember their boy and his struggles -- as well as all children being lost to the scourge of addiction -- by considering a donation to:

The Henry Louis Granju Memorial Scholarship Fund
c/o Administrator: James Anderson
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney
2000 Meridian Blvd.
Suite 290
Franklin, TN 37067


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