Where They Are Today

Richy, Shane (with Brendan), Steven and Avery

Today we convened the Patrick Straut Foundation Board to compare our review of applications for the scholarship this year. This is always a special day for me, bittersweet because I’d rather not have a memorial fund in my son’s name, but it feels great to help deserving graduating seniors as they plan for their futures.

The applications this year from the Wheat Ridge High School Gifted and Talented Center seniors were amazing. All of the students have a plan, all showed resilience and growth throughout their high school years. I will say more about them once we surprise them with the scholarships next week.

One of my Board members said today that it would be great to provide updates on the students who receive the scholarships at time intervals after they receive them. That sounded like a great idea, and where better to start than with the first four recipients, four of Patrick’s closest friends.

In May 2012, the Board of the Jefferson Country Association for Gifted Children and other donors provided $600 in funding in Patrick’s name for scholarships to high school graduates in 2012. I was extremely honored and grateful for this funding. I also want to acknowledge that this brilliant idea was Jean Willis-Brown’s, a dear friend and fellow advocate for gifted and talented kids over the past two decades.

As we believe would have been Patrick’s wish, we split the funding among four very close friends of his who met their graduation requirements in 2012. Those recipients were: Richard Lewis Benton III, who graduated from Dakota Ridge HS, Steven Malunat, who graduated from Brady Exploration HS, Shane Michael Mason who completed graduation requirements at Long View HS (his graduation ceremony was in May, 2013), and Avery Worland, who graduated from Dakota Ridge HS.

What still amazes me and fills my heart is that all four of them are still family friends. In fact, three were on my porch this very afternoon. Here’s a brief update on where they are today.

Richy with Brendan and an awesome new Star Wars toy, March 2018.

Richy has lived with us for much of the past five years. He arrived in February of his senior year in high school. In so many ways, Richy has filled the space left by Patrick. He has truly become part of our family. Richy has taken some college courses, works full-time, has a lovely girlfriend, and is finding his way. He plans to attend college again as soon as he gets his own place this spring.

First dance at the wedding reception.

Shane married the love of his life, Tyne, nearly two years ago. We were honored when they each asked us to host their pre-wedding events at our house. We had an awesome bridal shower for Tyne, we hosted the “Merry Men” party for Shane where all the guys collected for a video game shoot out, complete with beer and loaded nachos. Both of them currently work at King Soopers. They are saving their money to fund college plans, one at a time.

Steven high on the job site, February, 2018.

Steven bought a house late last year. He’s a hard worker, working two jobs pretty much since graduation from high school. He saved up to get a beautiful home in the mountains and his love for it shows when he talks about his new place. Steven is working full-time as a plumber and taking the required courses to obtain his certifications and licensure.

Avery with his new car, June, 2017.

Avery completed most of his Associate degree without taking a penny in loans. He postponed completion until he has more confidence regarding how he would use the degree. Avery is currently working in water management for a metro area city.

I am so proud of all of these initial scholarship recipients. I am honored that they still stop by, just to visit; that they show up for every milestone honoring Patrick. I am happy that they have welcomed Brendan into their friend group, and that they let me “mother” them when I need to.

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Posted in Celebrations, friendships, Growing Up, Patrick's friends, Remembering, Shane, time, Tyne | Leave a comment

Canary in the Coal Mine

Years ago I was searching for summer camps to keep Patrick engaged and learning. He had expressed interest in coding and game design. I found a camp that looked amazing, a perfect fit for him. But as I got to the bottom of the description it said, “This camp is for girls only.”

I reached out to the professor who was going to be teaching that summer and got her on the phone. I explained that the camp sounded amazing for my son. She explained that the grant she received to support the camp specified that it must be attended by girls only. It was an early attempt to bring girls into the STEM world…

We talked at length about gifted kids and engagement in learning. She shared that she had an adolescent son too, and shared many of my concerns. At a point in the conversation, she said, “Our gifted boys are the canaries in the coal mine.” They are the first to reject the traditional ways of teaching and they are often the first to disengage in classroom learning. That idea has stuck with me for well over a decade. It was certainly true for Patrick, if he didn’t connect with the content and the teacher, he checked out.

More recently, I am the canary in the coal mine. In recent years, I have been in a couple work environments that were toxic and unfair. I tried to stand up when a boss made a ridiculous assertion that I would not be able to present at a conference on gifted and talented topics after my presentation had been accepted. She wouldn’t budge, so I quit on the spot.

Oddly, not even a year later, I was approached by a member of the board to consider applying for her position because she had apparently stepped over lines with the board too, not just employees. Suddenly, my statements from the prior year made all the sense in the world. I was just the first to see this person’s true nature.

I wonder if this is a common phenomenon among the gifted. Is it that we are  less tolerant, more sensitive, see the whole picture more than the average? Is it really all explained by our overexcitabilities? Maybe a little bit of all of the above. I’m not sure, but it sure makes living and working in a politically charged and thoughtless world challenging for me.

I remain the canary in the coal mine, hoping that I don’t get overcome with noxious elements and drop right off the perch.

Posted in Healing, Overexcitability, Reaching Educators, Recovery, Remembering, school | Leave a comment

“We Miss Your Sage-Like Counsel & Smart-Ass Demeanor”

I talked with Shane today. I love that young man. The quote is his, as he was talking about the pending anniversary of Patrick’s death. He said this is the first year that he is angry. He went on to say that so many people would have benefited from Patrick’s perspectives and reality checks in these past seven years. He really was wide beyond his years in some ways. Then there is the whole life time of friendship and kinship that is totally lost.

We talked about the various crossroads and choices that stack up to result in where we are in life. We talked about job changes, boredom, and doing what you have to do. He’s grown up so beautifully and he makes me proud.

I feel so blessed to continue to have Shane and Tyne in my life. I haven’t seen them much this year, but I’m hoping they will come and release balloons in Patrick’s name next week. I need a right-sized hug; he’s a great hugger and a good friend.

Posted in Celebrations, friendships, Gathering, Grief, Growing Up, Healing, hugs, Patrick's friends, Recovery, Regret, Remembering, Shane, Suicide, time, Traditions, Tyne | Leave a comment

Reflections on the Columbine Shooting

People flocked to Clement Park for days to pay tribute to the victims. It was cold and dark for days, it seemed.

Post Started on 2/16/18:

Another school shooting, another one with a high-powered weapon. I find myself sad and with no hope that this will ever stop. I am also reminded of my own experience as a parent  in Jeffco schools when the Columbine shooting happened, nearly 19 years ago. I recall, very distinctly, that it was inconceivable to me that a shooting was happening in a school. Now it’s happens nearly every day.

Patrick was in second grade at Mount Carbon elementary school. I was working almost an hour away at the Lowry campus of Western Governors University in Aurora. I had taken my old boss, Marvin Loflin, out to lunch that day to celebrate his retirement from CU Denver. We had a long, leisurely lunch and talked all the way back to campus in the car, so the radio wasn’t on.

As I entered my office at WGU, my whole team was collected around my radio listening intently. They quickly filled me in on the events of the shooting, as they were known at the time. Then they scattered back to their desks and I sat down to work. Someone said, “Don’t you need to go pick up Patrick at school? They are on lock down, the whole district.” I didn’t even know what that meant at the time. I realized I need to get to Mt. Carbon and pick up my boy. He was locked in his school. Again, inconceivable to me at the time.

2/22/18:

A colleague and I left the office and started driving west to Littleton. She had twin boys at Chatfield HS, who had walked home from school. As we drove there were helicopters circling the whole of south Jeffco. We got to Mt. Carbon where Patrick was in the afterschool program in the lunch room, eerily familiar with the long windows to the images I had seen of the Columbine library where much of the killing had happened. Kay and I approached the door. The manager of the after school program came to let us in, but saw Kay and didn’t recognize her. I said, “Tanya, it’s me and she’s with me.” We went into the school and collected Patrick. I don’t recall any of the conversation between there and Geneva’s house, our daycare Mom where Brendan was.

Brendan was oblivious, he was 2 1/2 years old. But Geneva was a mess. One of her other “kids” had been in a closet in the music room at Columbine. While she was alright and home and safe by the time we arrived, the fact that this could have happened to one of “our” kids had a real impact on us all.

We came home, had I don’t know what for dinner. I just could not shake the feeling that this was all surreal. I admit to probably spending too much time watching the media coverage of this event that night, while still hearing the helicopters overhead. I was shattered. As it approached Patrick’s bedtime, I remember checking in with him. I asked him if he was ok.

My 7-year old said to me, “I’m fine Mommy, no one shot anyone at my school.”


It has been nearly 19 years since that day in April, 1999. There have been too many lives lost and too many families shattered.

As I have watched the kids’ response to the Florida shooting unfold, I actually find myself feeling a little bit of hope that they can make a change.

Heaven knows we need serious change.

Posted in guns, Jeffco, rebels, Recovery, Remembering, school | 1 Comment

Emotional Intensity and the Truth About Santa

Poppop Taylor reading to Patrick, 1995?

Patrick loved Christmas. In fact, it was looking at the Christmas lights while driving home from Geneva’s house in 1993 that prompted his first sentence. I was pointing out the Christmas lights on the houses driving home. His first sentence was, “No home Mommy, more ‘yights’ pease”.  He spoke that sentence from his car seat as we pulled into the drive way, he was not quite 18 months old. Needless to say, I backed out of the driveway and took him around the neighborhood to see more ‘yights’.

Finding out the truth about Santa was a very painful experience for Patrick. He was in fourth grade and I think he’d suspected for a while, but one afternoon after school he asked me if Santa was real. I gave him the speech about how the Christmas magic is in your heart and he was devastated. He marched into the living room and started to pluck all of his Santa ornaments from the Christmas tree. I asked him what he was doing. With tears in his eyes he said, “It’s all a big lie.” I put my hand on his to stop him removing the ornaments and asked him to come with me into the kitchen.

With tears in our eyes, I told him that he couldn’t do that. Now that he knew, it was his job to keep the Christmas magic for Brendan, who was only three at the time. Patrick promised to help keep the secret and agreed to put his Santa ornaments back on the tree.

A little while later I found him laying under the Christmas tree, looking up into the tree with tears filling his eyes. He said, “But Mom, the wrapping paper that the Santa gifts are in is always different than the paper on the gifts from you and Dad.” I explained that I had rolls of wrapping paper and tags in the crawl space, just for the Santa gifts. I could see him grow even sadder. He so wanted to believe in the magic of Christmas.

For a few years, we kept the magic alive for Brendan. Patrick took that job very seriously. Then Emily joined our family and we had more years of Santa magic, as both boys conspired to make Santa real for Emily. We had a wonderful 9 1/2 years together as a complete family. They are Christmases that will live in my memory forever. They were truly enchanted times.

As I have learned about the overexcitabilities that often co-exist with giftedness, I keep thinking about this exchange with Patrick about Santa. All kids are sad when they learn the truth about Santa, but this was a really big deal for Patrick. His belief was shattered and he didn’t know how to handle the situation. The emotional intensity that was part of the fiber of his being made facing this reality very hard for him.

I know these intensities, as I have them too. So often I am disappointed when a situation is not what I had hoped it would be. I can see all the possibilities with such clarity that it makes them almost real, but they are not. And when reality sets in, it can be so very disappointing that I can’t keep my emotions in check. This is the plight of many who I know and love, family and friends who feel so deeply and fully and are often disappointed by the world we live in. It is a blessing and a curse.

As I was preparing to write this blog, I searched Christmas photos of Patrick. Every single one I found shows this intensity, even in 2010 when I had to bribe him to put his ornaments on the tree with gourmet chocolate covered pretzels. Like I said, Patrick really loved Christmas.

Since he left us in 2011, I have not been able to write the family holiday newsletter. Perhaps we can chalk that up to my own emotional sensitivities. My world is no longer simple enough to summarize neatly on a single sheet of paper with tidy accomplishments and photos for each family member. I haven’t even tried.

So this year, this blog will suffice. Below are a selection of  images from Patrick’s teen years that show the sweet intensity and love for Christmas that I will cherish always.

Hanging Ornament 2007, He had the most beautiful wavy hair.

Patrick helping Emily hang her stocking, 2004

The classic Koala Bear hug that they shared!

Christmas 2005, the most wonderful Christmas of all.

A Grinch impersonation, I think.

Patrick & Emily share a hug while decorating her little tree.

Patrick hanging his ornament, 2009

Kids hanging ornaments, 2009

2010 Patrick’s last Christmas with us

And this one from the Christmas parade is perhaps my favorite, those wide blue eyes in absolute delight with the wonder of Christmas.

Patrick & Peaches, Christmas parade

Merry Christmas!

Posted in Christmas, engagement, Gathering, Gratitude, Grief, Growing Up, Healing, hugs, Overexcitability, Remembering, Santa, Traditions | 1 Comment

Post-Traumatic Growth is Real

A portion of my 2017 Vision Board

I am very excited to be bringing my most talented friend Marguerite Ham to lead a Vision Board activity to many of my Jeffco friends this holiday season. The image above is the bottom corner of my 2017 Vision Board that I made with Marguerite last year.

I remember distinctly being very excited when I saw the image of the tree, mostly dead, but with new growth in a magazine last December. It seemed to me to be a perfect visual representation of personal growth in the aftermath of loss or trauma. The concepts of growth and expansion have been a big part of my personal goals this year. My vision board sits next to my desk, so it is an ever-present reminder and serves to center me and help me set intentions throughout my work day.

A couple of months ago I had the great honor to meet and talk with Joanne Cacciatore, author of Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief. Dr. Jo lost a child, so she is a counselor, academic, and a healing Mom herself. I mentioned the idea of post-traumatic growth to her and she said that she has seen incredible growth through loss in many of her clients, as well as herself. She shares some of their stories in her book.

There is still much I need to learn about this concept, but it feels like an accessible way for me to describe my own grief journey and how my lessons learned have made me feel more centered, accessible and compassionate. This growth will never give me my son back, but I hope it makes me a better Mom to Brendan and Emily. And I know it has allowed me to open my heart to the kids in the GT Center at WRHS.

As another quote that made it to my 2017 Vision Board says, “I’ve lived long enough to know that every hiccup, heartbreak, and setback is really just a setup for something better than I can imagine right now.”

I will carry those hopes and beliefs into 2018.

Posted in Christmas, friendships, Grief, Healing, Jeffco, Marguerite, Reaching Educators, Recovery, Remembering, Success, teachers, time, Traditions | Leave a comment

Caring for the Newly Bereaved

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had friends reach out to me to ask for advice about how to best help their friends (or themselves) who have recently lost a loved one. Yesterday, I was talking to one friend on the phone whose dear friend lost her son to suicide a few weeks ago. I started through my own list of what helped me in those early, most awful days and weeks.

Then I remembered that my dear friend and grief buddy, Marguerite Ham, wrote a list in April, after we’d both lost our boys in March, 2011. I looked up that post and it’s all right there. So I am referencing Marguerite’s great list here. The only thing I would add, is JOURNAL, even if it’s rambling crazy talk. I have one composition book with ripped pages where I held the pen so tight with anger and sadness. No one else ever has to read it, get it OUT of your system. Better out than in!

With gratitude to Marguerite for her wisdom so early in her own grief journey. http://eyeofthestormfoundation.org/2011/04/09/grieving-how-you-can-help/

 

Posted in engagement, friendships, funerals, Gathering, Gratitude, Grief, Grief triggers, Healing, hugs, Marguerite, Recovery, Regret, Remembering, Suicide, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Gratitude for a Special Role Model

I had the opportunity to attend the WCET annual meeting last week. I haven’t attended the full meeting since 2009. I am appreciative to be a part of the WCET team, even if my work is not the most challenging or appreciated. My first WCET meeting was in 1997, 20 years ago when I presented about CU Online the first time.

I was moderating a panel discussion about the cost and price of distance education, based on the research I conducted with a colleague last year. One of my panel members is a colleague who was instrumental in the creation of the Western Governors University (WGU) in the late 1990s. She was someone who I looked up to at the time, and still do.

It was my plan to tell her about the influence she had on me as a young professional during the crazy start-up phases of CU Online and then WGU. I remember being heavy pregnant with Brendan in 1996 and watching her talk with incredible enthusiasm about the vision for WGU, how competency-based distance education would change lives. And it did! WGU has 80,000 students today and 90,000 graduates. They just celebrated 20 years this summer.

As it turned out the second day of the conference started with a panel of young female computer science students and recent graduates. These articulate young ladies talked about what it was like to still be the minority in most of their classes. They also talked about how they recognized and utilized their unique skills to be successful. Near the end of the panel, talk turned to the women who had inspired them, their role models. I just knew that now was the time to talk to Sally. She happened to be two tables away from me.

I approached her and said, “You know you were that person, a role model, to me.” She looked genuinely surprised, then touched. We shared a hug. Then she said, “You know that’s my Emma”, pointing to the young woman next to her. Emma and Patrick were the same age. We had discussed potty training strategies back in the day.

My eyes filled with tears and I said, “You know my Patrick…” She nodded, knowingly. Another big hug. I said, “I really want to talk to her, but it’s hard. You might have to explain why the lady had tears in her eyes.” Another hug.

Then I turned around and met Emma again, as a grown-up. I had a few wonderful conversations with her and her colleague from WGU over the course of the conference. Both are young people on the front lines at WGU, working daily with their students.

It was a full circle moment, and the highlight of conference for me.

Posted in friendships, Gathering, Grief, Growing Up, Healing, hugs, Recovery, Remembering, time | 1 Comment

Thousands of Lives Shattered

I have been struggling to write something about the devastating loss of life in Los Vegas this week. I sat looking at a blank blog page and flashing cursor for quite a while on Monday. I simply had no words. I was inspired by Jimmy Kimmel’s discussion and his straight-forward words about gun control (specifically controlling access to automatic assault weapons). He simply said, “It’s a safety issue.”

And I am overwhelmed with grief for the many thousands of lives impacted by this tragedy. I know from my own experience that the ripple of an untimely death is wide and long-lasting. I keep thinking that my own grief experience is magnified by thousands. It makes me very sad. So today, I will simply re-post what I wrote a couple of years ago when I learned the news that another Jeffco students had completed suicide. We’ve had a few suicide attempts too close for comfort this fall and this lesson is timely, again.

Originally published in January, 2015:

We lost another Jeffco high school student to suicide this week. As I read the text from a friend, I found myself in tears. I know very little about the situation, but I do know that another family has been shattered. Anyone who hasn’t experienced the loss of a child, has no idea the long term effects on the family and friend group that are left behind. Any loss is devastating, but knowing that your loved one choose not to live in this world is just so hard to bear. The guilt, feeling like you didn’t see their pain, you didn’t do enough to help, is just awful. Patrick’s situation was not the typical, he gave us no chance to intervene, to put him into counseling or on medication. He just made a decision in the heat of the moment and we were faced with the consequences many hours later.

He was suddenly just gone from us, no explanation, just gone. There is forever a huge hole in our family. We are shattered.

It makes me wonder which is harder to face. Is it worse to have a loved one you know is at risk for suicide, to worry for days or years and ultimately, they take their own life anyway? Or is the fait accompli worse? I don’t know, I guess it really doesn’t matter. What I’ve learned through my own grief journey is that missing the person, no matter why they left too soon, that is key. How you come to terms with the hole in your life. How you find ways to keep their memory alive. How you recognize them on special days. How you ease your own pain and find comfort in the good memories. And how you eventually find the elusive “new normal” so that you maintain some stability for those who are left behind.

In the case of my boy, I feel that I must tell his story and I believe that it will inform the field of Gifted Education. My hope is that the research conducted by William and Mary (I have blogged about the study previously) will lead to better identification of GT kids at risk, and better interventions to stop this madness.

I fear that we are facing an epidemic of suicide among young adults. I have to do something, but I don’t even know where to start. I know that another Jeffco family is shattered and I don’t even know how to tell them that I’m sorry for their pain and I’m here to help if they ever want to talk about it…

They have just become members of the club that nobody wants to be a member of.

For that, I am sorry.

Posted in funerals, Grief, Grief triggers, guns, Jeffco, Regret, Remembering, Squaw Pass, Suicide, suicide prevention, Telling Patrick's Story, The Study | Leave a comment

Grief Burst at the Mexican Market

Saver’s Market Bakery Chips Patrick’s Favorite

Back to School week has been tough for me. I don’t like the constant scurry to procure odd school supplies that we weren’t informed about ahead of time. I don’t like to see my kids stressed when they are placed in a class that’s a bad fit. It’s hard to watch them go through the transition from happy go lucky summer schedule to waking up at ‘oh dark night’ to get a 6:30 am bus. And it always reminds me that one kid is not ‘rising’ to the next level. My friend Jenny blogged about being triggered in a coffee shop last week and the picture she painted stuck with me. I can kind of feel it when I’m due for a grief burst.

I have blogged about back to school previously, and I know that I have anticipation for it that doesn’t help the situation. But on Wednesday, I totally lost it at the Mexican market. It was my first day off in well over a week, so exhaustion was involved as well. I had to take Leisa back to her place that morning, so I texted Shane to see if I could take him out to breakfast. Shane is such a blessing to me and when I miss Patrick, a Shane hug and/or visit usually goes a long way to let me get those emotions out. He gets it and he lets me hold the hug as long as I need to. I really appreciate that.

Shane wasn’t feeling well so he declined the breakfast invitation. He did come down and give me a very big hug while I was at the Nugget. We visited for a few minutes and then I headed off to do some grocery shopping at the Mexican markets on Federal Boulevard. I got my fruits and vegetables at the one where I usually shop. But the Savers has the very best tortilla chips. They can’t be good for you, cooked in oil and the bottom of the bag is usually slippery from the oil leaching through the plastic. But boy are they good.

Patrick loved those chips. A couple of weeks before he died, I had bought four bags of them. I put two in the usual place and I hid two bags of chips so that Patrick didn’t eat them so fast. After he died, I kept thinking about the chips. I was convinced that he’d found my hiding spot and had devoured all the chips. I should add that Richy has since told me that he also loved them and that he was often party to complete demolition of a bag of chips over night.

A couple of months after Patrick’s death, I found the two hidden bags of chips. This threw me for a loop. I felt so guilty that I had denied Patrick these stupid $1.89 bags of chips. It truly was one of the biggest guilt trips I put myself on at the time. And the chips were stale, so I had to throw them out.

Subsequently, I’ve been able to face the Savers and buy the chips. But Wednesday, I had the bag of chips in hand (they’ve increased the size of the bag and increased the price to $2.99) at the register. There was a woman about my age and her daughter with a cart full of groceries ahead of me in line. There was only one register open.

So I put the single bag of chips on the snack cooler while I waited to pay for them. This nice lady said, “You go ahead of me, you only have the one thing.” I thanked her and then I told her about Patrick loving the chips and that he died. And I turned into a puddle in the middle of the check out at Savers. She was kind and asked if she could give me a hug. I let her.

I came home and ate some chips and salsa, just like Patrick’s used to. I sure do miss that kid.

Posted in Brendan, Emily, fall, friendships, Gratitude, Grief, Grief triggers, Healing, hugs, Patrick's friends, school, Shane, Traditions | Leave a comment