- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

WATERLOO, Ill. (AP) - Cold winter days are difficult for Karen Kohler Kaiser as she looks out over the partially frozen lake of her home on the outskirts of Waterloo. She despises frozen water and the danger that lurks below.

It reminds her of that tragic day - Feb. 19 - almost five years ago when her younger sister, Kathy Baxmeyer, Kathy’s son Kadin, 7, and his good friend Steve “Austin” Baum, 6, drowned in a frozen pond on the property of Kathy’s Waterloo home.

“Even though it’s going to be five years in February, the pain never goes away. It just feels like yesterday to me,” Karen said. “I miss them so much all the time.”

The loss was almost too much for Karen to bear.

“It was quite a blow to me - very unexpected,” she said. “You don’t ever anticipate grief like that. In one minute, you’re fine, and in the next moment, your life is totally changed.”

She ignored her grief for a long time and focused on caring for others, including her father Richard Kohler, 77, of Waterloo, and her nephew Keegan Baxmeyer, Kathy’s older son, who was 12 at the time.

“Grief to me was more pain,” Karen said. “I was more worried about other people’s grief.”

Almost a year went by before Karen realized she wasn’t grieving, but barely getting through each day.

“I wasn’t dealing,” she said. “I was hanging on.”

She decided to start seeing a counselor and sought out self-help books about grieving. However, Karen couldn’t find a book that was geared toward sibling loss. After much thought, Karen decided to write one. It took three years for Karen to get to a point where she was satisfied with her book, how it portrayed precious memories of her sister and nephew and coping mechanisms for grief she hopes will help others like her.

“I wrote the book hoping I would help other people that have gone through more of a convoluted grieving process,” she said. “I’m happy to help someone get through some of the heartache.”

She decided to self-publish her 304-page book “Frozen Grief: A Sister’s Story of Grieving Sudden Loss,” which is available for sale through Amazon.com for $16.

Karen has come to realize her grief will never go away.

“Living with grief is a daily heartache, but you really have to pray to get some peace,” she said.

She advised others to not rush through their grief and store up their memories. “Take grief as it comes. It comes in waves, like the ocean. You need to feel it and you need to remain in the pain in that moment, because you experienced a major change in your life.”

Karen described sudden grief as “intense. People don’t truly understand sudden grief unless they’ve gone through it themselves,” she said.

Regardless of what type of grief you experience, Karen said, you will feel happy again.

“Your joy will return, but it’s on your own time line,” she said. “It doesn’t happen instantaneously even though you feel like you’re (irreparably) broken.”

Karen admits her book is full of raw emotion and the horrific details regarding her sister’s and her nephew’s deaths from the moment she got the phone call from the sheriff’s department to rescuers pulling their lifeless bodies from the lake to applying the makeup on their faces in preparation for their wake and funeral.

“I really don’t hold anything back in the book,” she said.

The tragedy occurred the night of Kadin’s seventh birthday. Kathy, Kadin and Austin were headed to the movies to celebrate Kadin’s birthday, and the two children went outside first. Kathy told her older son, Keegan, she was going out to get them.

Keegan was not alarmed when the group didn’t come back inside because he thought they went to the movies. When Kadin’s father John came home, he believed they were all at the movies until the Baum family and law enforcement showed up.

When Austin’s mother made several calls to Kathy’s cell phone and didn’t hear from the trio by midnight, she phoned police. Deputies went to the Baxmeyer home to investigate. A Monroe County police dog tracked the smell from clothing to the lake, where a hole in the ice was visible.

Police who investigated the incident and family members believe Kathy went into the pond to try to save the boys.

“By the frozen waters bank along the driveway and up the icy entry point further out on the little lake, footsteps showed the pounding prints of frantic running. These footsteps beat a straight path upon the thin ice as it gave way underfoot reaching the ice opening,” Karen wrote in the book. “‘Were these my sister’s last steps taken on earth?’ Horror filled me as I imagined the heart wrenching last moments my sister and the boys endured.”

Karen knows “there was a lot of bravery there (that day). I think any mother would do something like that,” she said.

When she first found out the rescuers at her sister’s home were there to recover the bodies of Kathy, Kadin and Austin from the 12-foot-deep pond, Karen said she couldn’t breathe.

“You just want to die at that moment along with them,” Karen said. “I just wanted to run out and jump in the water and save them.”

First Austin’s body was recovered and then Kathy’s body.

“I saw her lifeless on the stretcher and immediately felt her panicked struggle in the water rush through my entire body,” Karen wrote in the book. “Her perfect body was so very cold, so frozen. I took her hand and rubbed it deeply as if I could warm her to life.”

Kadin’s body was the last one pulled from the water about an hour after his mother’s.

“I found myself not wanting to go home. More than anything, I felt them when they were alive here a few hours before,” she wrote. “Around the inside of the house, birthday balloons and decorations were hanging in celebration of Kadin turning 7. There was no celebrating now. …”

Karen also writes about fond memories of her sister Kathy. They were very close, especially after their mother Phyllis died in 1989 when Karen was 23 and Kathy was 20.

“My sister was the brave one. She was always the one who was adventurous and selfless,” Karen said.

In the book, she wrote about the last time she saw Kathy when she stopped by her house to meet Karen’s new puppy - a basset hound named Dalilah.

Karen said the dog has brought her much comfort over the last several years. “She helped me through a lot,” she said of Dalilah.

It’s difficult to live without her “other half” - her sister Kathy, who was an artist and equestrian.

“She was a quiet person to others, but she was definitely my sounding board. … She was the real part of me,” Karen said. “That’s the part I miss the most. I don’t have that person anymore in my life.”

She described Kathy as “very caring. She had a great soul. She helped everyone. She was selfless, and she was beautiful inside and out.”

Karen misses Kadin’s smile.

“Kadin had the most awesome smile,” she said. “He could be so loving and so full of energy and life. He was a fun little guy. He was very adventurous.”

Over the years since her sister and nephew’s deaths, Karen has developed a series of coping strategies she uses to help with her ongoing grief.

“I didn’t have any anger,” she said. “I was more of how do I get through this.”

One coping mechanism is going on what she calls grief vacations. Karen said she and her sister Kathy used to go on trips together once a year. Now, she continues the annual trip tradition with a good friend from high school. The grief vacations coincide with the time of year Kathy and her son Kadin died.

“It makes it easier to spend that time away,” Karen said.

She also escapes from reality through creative outlets, whether its painting, writing or playing the violin.

Karen had no interest in learning the violin until Kathy died. It was something Kathy had always wanted to do so now Karen plays in memory of her sister.

“I love it,” Karen said of playing. “I really do.”

Karen was painting the night Kathy, Kadin and Austin died. The painting was supposed to be a wedding gift, but it turned out to be a dark painting, which she said she would have painted over the next day.

“It’s not a painting I normally would have kept,” she said, but now “it’s really near and dear to me. It’s one of my favorite paintings.”

She used the painting titled “At the Time of Death” for the cover of “Frozen Grief.”

When she needs to grieve or wants to be with her sister or nephew, she goes into her grief closet, which is full of mementos of the two of them.

“Whenever I feel really sad, I go in there,” Karen said. “It’s where I go when I’m really down.”

Karen also has a memory tattoo - a blue butterfly on her wrist like her sister had as a constant reminder of the bond they shared. Their father also got the tattoo.

In hopes of preventing a similar tragedy, those close to Kathy and Kadin formed a foundation called Project Skipper in 2011 to educate children about ice safety.

Project Skipper is named after a Navy Seals acronym SKPR which stands for: Stay calm; Kick like a swimmer; Pull yourself up out of the water; and Roll off the ice.

“I know my sister and nephew never had an idea how dangerous that ice was,” Karen said. “We never really heard about it. It’s not something we grew up around.”

Karen and her daughter, Danielle Dunlap, collaborated on a children’s book titled “See Ice, Think Twice: A Story About Ice Safety.”

Karen said copies of the book were recently donated to elementary schools in Monroe and Randolph counties.

“There is no safe ice around,” she said. “I just know if they (Kadin and Austin) knew ‘see ice, think twice.’ They wouldn’t have done it.”


Information from: Belleville News-Democrat, https://www.bnd.com

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