tara and sons

Tara and her sons.

The only thing harder than losing a loved one may be explaining that loss to your children; it can be particularly challenging explaining the death to an individual who is differently abled.

Oftentimes individuals who are differently abled are identified by others as overly emotional or even “robotic” and emotionless as compared to many of their peers.

I do not believe this is true. All people feel a variety of emotions, and the death of a family member or friend can be extremely devastating to many individuals.

There are several things that are important to remember when you are talking with someone who is differently abled about the loss of a loved one.

  1. State the facts and remember that a lot of individuals are concrete thinkers. It is important to explain death in this way by saying, “She died. That means we won’t see them anymore.” It’s also important to give a concrete answer to why they died so that individuals do not think or fear that people just die for no reason.
  2. Explain religious beliefs, customs or traditions relating to the individual’s passing. Don’t be afraid to explain the concept of heaven (if that is what you believe in); just use clear and concise language.
  3. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and your own. Be clear that it is acceptable to feel sad, angry, or confused. Children look to you for cues, so it’s fine to let them see you cry. Talk to them about feelings in clear terms.
  4. Give them time to process. Sometimes it may take time to fully understand what has happened.

Recently our family lost someone who was very important to us, Mrs. Jan Stephens.   Jan was a friend, a Coach, a mentor, a volunteer, an amazing person inside and out.

Our family has been involved in Special Olympics since our son Rye was 8 years old.  Jan gave us our start. Jan founded the Mid- Missouri Special Olympics agency years ago and organized a team of talented athletes through the years, including her son Larry who serves as a Global Ambassador and is in the Special Olympics Missouri Hall of Fame. All made possible by the ever present support of his mother.

Jan carrying the unified relay torch with her family on it's way to the World Games last summer.

Jan carrying the unified relay torch with her family on it’s way to the World Games last summer.

Jan was a fighter. She had suffered from a neurological disorder and tremors since she was a child. In the last 10 years of her life, her health situation got worse, but she never stopped doing what she loved. I still recall her getting out of her motorized scooter, grabbing her walker and going over to Rye to show him what she thought he needed to do to dribble a basketball better during one of our practices.

Jan never saw any limits for herself or her athletes. Jan also saw all people as equal. Jan’s passion for supporting Unified Sports programs within the Special Olympic Community will be what I will always remember and admire the most about her.

She understood that an athlete and unified partner competing alongside one another, each in a meaningful and integral role, had benefits for everyone involved and the entire community.

When I had to break the news to my son Rye that Coach Jan had passed he didn’t have a lot to say at first. A few days later at bedtime he said “maybe Coach Jan just coached too much and she should of had a break.” I told him Jan never did anything she didn’t want to do and she always expected the best in every athlete. He said “yep, like Mickey and Rocky, I will miss seeing her”.

Rocky Balboa said “Life’s not much about how hard of a hit you can give…It’s about how many you can take and still keep moving forward.”   I guess Rye was right Jan, you were our Mickey! Because of your legacy many individuals will keep moving forward no matter what life throws at them.  Thank you for the many life lessons you taught my son and so many other athletes across the state of Missouri.