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  • Jill Heilman

Salisbury Steak and the Strength of Children

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

We have found that you never know what will be a trigger for grief. Yesterday, for Neeley, it was Salisbury Steak. First off, who brings, Salisbury Steak for lunch in middle school? I guess, Halle would have, if we had given her the option. Halle loved those damn Banquet Salisbury Steak frozen meals – it comes with mashed potatoes and corn and a ‘lovely’ gravy sauce. Who was I to question her choice of dinners? For one it was cheap (often on sale for a dollar)! Second, she ate it all and there were days we could barely get any calories in her. In fact, when she started middle school herself, she weighed 90 pounds, but within four months she had dropped to only 70 pounds – it was then that we realized her body was starting to fiercely attack itself.

I am not sure all those images, of weight loss, gravy and Halle’s deterioration entered Neeley’s mind yesterday when she saw someone eat that lunch in the cafeteria, but I do know it reminded her of her sweet, beautiful, older sister. It was a happy memory, that quickly brought tears to her eyes. It was a trigger for her. A trigger of sadness for the sister she will never see again. She texted me “I am sad.” I texted back “Why? What happened? What is going on?” – There was a delay and then she simply said, “I will talk to you tonight.” I worried all day. Usually when she is sad, it had to do with Halle. Usually when she was sad, she would ask me to come get her. Usually she asked for a hug and for her momma.

Well, she didn’t do any of that. Yesterday was different. Neeley stayed at school and took care of herself! That evening she explained what triggered her sadness, and after lunch, she found her friend, who also knows grief, as his step-dad died a few years ago. They talked and comforted each other and then she made it through her day. My, how far this young woman has come. What changed in Neeley’s life? Is it just time passing that allowed her to cope differently? Perhaps. Is it natural maturity? That could be. Kids do grow up and learn to handle life more on their own. But I don’t think that is the whole story.

You see, Neeley shouldn’t be doing this well. Don’t get me wrong, I am one proud momma! I am beaming with pride at her strength and resiliency, but my scientific brain wants to know what’s causing this change. And again, in the world’s eyes, Neeley shouldn’t necessarily be doing this well. On top of dealing with the greatest loss of her young life, the death of her sister, Neeley recently had another huge loss. First, let me preface…beyond God and her family, Neeley’s biggest love in life has always been soccer. Not only was she really good at the game, but she had a true passion for it. Soccer was her crutch on tough days, she could just grab a ball and go outside and juggle for hours (often getting well over 2000 juggles at a time). When she missed Halle, she took shots on the goal in our side yard, when she was sick of homework she would make soccer videos, when she…well you get the idea. It didn’t matter what was going on, it was always soccer. She played at an elite level and traveled around the country with amazing friends and teammates. She had participated in national training clinics for more than 3 years and was told there was a good chance she was getting pulled up for a national team camp this Fall! She dreamed of playing in college and playing on a national team. And to be honest – she had a good shot at all that. Have you noticed I am writing all this in the past tense? Well, three months ago…Neeley experienced her second crushing loss. Soccer.

You see last season, Neeley sustained two significant concussions. Her second being in April of this year. We have amazing doctors – who soon ordered an MRI of the brain. By late May we were informed Neeley was born with a rare brain malformation, called Chiari Malformation. Many people live their whole lives, never knowing they have this. But for Neeley, her battle with chronic neck pain and headaches now had a reason. More importantly, we now knew why she was more susceptible to such significant concussions. With this news, Neeley was told she could no longer play contact sports! Including her beloved soccer. It wasn’t just one doctor, but four who confirmed this news (pediatrician, sport medicine doctor, neurologist and neurosurgeon). We are “very lucky she wasn’t more severely injured” is what we were told. How did Neeley handle this?

Well we got in the car, after the sport medicine doctor confirmed our fears, and Neeley got on her phone. I sighed – such a teenager – but I figured she earned some time on her electronics. I nonchalantly asked, “whatcha doing?” Neeley quipped, “looking up how tall Olympic swimmers are.” “uhm, ok – would you like some lessons to learn the different strokes first?” “Yeah, that is great idea. Can I get a few private lessons before I try out for a competitive team?” And that was it – off she went. We had lunch after that appointment, then went over to Dick’s Sporting goods to get a swimsuit, goggles, fins and a bag. Within a week we found Neeley a private coach and got her a few lessons to learn the basics. She then met the director of swimming at our local club. He recommended she “dive right in” and try out their intensive summer swim camp. She started two days later, swimming with kids who had been competing for years. Swim Camp was five weeks long, five days a week, from 6am – 1pm. She found a way to refocus her athletic endeavors. She rebounded. Not all days have been easy. She still grieved for soccer and for the many friends and coaches she made over the past 8 years, but she found a way to cope.

Surprisingly, just two weeks after entering the world of swimming, Neeley got another significant blow. Her immune system was continuing to weaken…something we had been monitoring for years, had now become a reality. When she hit puberty, Neeley’s immune system could no longer keep up with her growth. She would now have to begin life-saving gammaglobulin infusions. WHAT?! What more can this one 13-year-old girl handle? My heart broke for her and for our family. Now all three of our children were diagnosed with primary immune deficiency. On that night, her sweet 11-year-old brother, Ben walked over to her, gave her a hug, and said “this is a good thing…the infusions will make you healthier…you won’t miss school as much … and you will be an even stronger swimmer. Hang in there Neel. I love you.”

In that moment, I realized we are doing something right. But what is it exactly. What are we doing that gives these kids the ability to get through life-altering events that are changing them forever? They don’t come out unscathed, but they are surviving. And as I watch both Ben and Neeley enter middle school this year, I dare to say they are also thriving. My shy, non-athletic, self-conscience Ben is making new friends at a new school. My biggest fear for him was P.E., changing in the locker room and having to take that damn pacer test. You see, Ben has lung damage from having pneumonia so much as a baby. He lives with asthma and the immune deficiency. Some of the medications (and grief) have caused him to gain more weight than other kids his age. His lungs don’t function like other healthy middle schoolers. In layman’s terms, he can breathe in at 95% but only breathes out at 75%. How is he going to handle the treacherous years of middle school? Quite well – so far – is the answer I found (although we are only a week in). Today I asked him how P.E. was going. “Are you nervous changing in front of other guys?” “Nah, why would I be? They have to change in front of everyone else too. It’s a middle school thing. Not to mention I don’t know many of them…so that means they don’t know me either. As for the pacer test, I can only do my best. Most of the guys don’t even know my name, so there is no way they will be paying attention to my time.”

Way to go Ben! This kid continues to amaze me. But why am I so surprised? I guess, like most moms, I worry about my children. I worry about what might happen. I try to anticipate any struggle my child could face and then I do my best to prepare him/her for the challenges ahead. Or am I just preparing myself?

Why are these kids so resilient? How are they surviving and thriving? I recently read an article online by Karen Young, Building Resilience in Children – 20 Practical, Powerful Strategies (Backed by Science). She notes that,

“Research tells us that it’s not rugged self-reliance, determination or inner strength that leads kids through adversity, but the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship. In the context of a loving relationship with a caring adult, children have the opportunity to develop vital coping skills. The presence of a responsive adult can also help to reverse the physiological changes that are activated by stress. This will ensure that the developing brain, body and immune system are protected from the damaging effects of these physiological changes. Anyone in the life of a child can make a difference – family, teachers, coaches – anyone.”

Anyone. Anyone. Anyone. Anyone can make a difference in a child’s life. Anyone can help a child through adversity. Anyone can be a reliable, positive presence in a child’s life. Anyone can provide that supportive relationship. Anyone can help build vital coping skills in a child’s life. Anyone.

Many kids face some major struggles in life – especially these Heilman kiddos. Halle certainly did. She didn’t just have anyone in her life. She had many caring, supportive adults in her life. They gave her strength and courage to face each and every day. And, she, in turn gave that strength right back to them. Halle had mom and dad, grammy, grandparents, aunts, uncles, Girl Scout leaders, children’s ministers, youth ministers, pastors, amazingly special teachers, a pedestrian that cared beyond measure, an immunology nurse, neighbors, quilt shop ladies and so many more. She had a foundation of loving adults that guided her and loved her through life….and through death.

Neeley and Ben have those same keys to resiliency. I am insecure in many areas of my life, but when it comes to my role of being a mom, I take great pride in the job I do. I take advantage of all the time we have together and do my best to create positive memories for them. I snapchat them. I annoyingly take many pictures of and with them! I bake special treats. I give them silly kisses and tuck them in at night. I am NOT perfect in ANY way, but I love my children and do my best to be there for them through anything life hands them. And Neeley and Ben have been dealt some tough cards in recent years. But they also have a dad that listens to their day and texts them when he works late. He gives them nicknames and finds ways to connect with them on their level. It may be a night of Star Wars watching or bonding over a sword fight in the living room. But he is there. My kids have a Grammy that brings them up to the quilt shop to work the sale days. She walks them to town and listens to their day. She texts them and checks in on how they are doing. She takes them swimming and keeps them busy. Ben and Neeley have a Grandma that texts them daily, with silly pictures and sweet messages. They have aunts and uncles that love them and pray for them. Neeley has been blessed with some amazing soccer coaches in her life. Most recently, Coach Denise and Coach AB who still reach out to check in on how she is doing. If anyone thinks I put my child in sports because I think she will make the Olympics or get a college scholarship, they are wrong. I put them in sports to build relationships with other caring adults that can give them life lessons that I can not offer.

Neeley participated in two years of Coach Denise’s Future 50 Leadership program. Yes, half the session each week is on the soccer field, but the real impact is in the first hour, where these girls are learning leadership skills to be stronger women in life. I truly believe, Neeley’s experience with Future 50 and Denise’s mentorship is how Neeley learned to face the loss of soccer. She had learned to be confident in the woman she is becoming. She learned goal setting and overcoming adversity. She learned to be strong, even when she felt weak.

My children also have amazing adults in their life that commit to pray for them, Arianne, Rhonda, and Amy Jo, just to name a few. There are adults in their life that make them laugh and remind them to be just kids. They have Ms. Jody, Ms. Tracey, Ms. Arianne, Ms. Kelley, Ms. Angela, Mr. Larry, Ms. Beth, Ms. Michelle. They have carpool moms who ask how their day was. They have new and old teachers that take the time to know them and their family and take the time to be aware of their medical challenges and emotional needs. They have quilt shop ladies that follow their stories on Facebook and pray for their needs. They have new coaches in their life to share a different set of leadership goals. They have Coach Katie, Coach Rich, Coach Dan and Coach Svet. They have medical professionals that normalize, the Heilman’s not-so-normal lives: Dr. Tappan, Nurse Carla, Dr. Winesett, and Dr. Gunderman. They have former Coaches, like Coach Andre, that check in on how Neeley is doing, even though he hasn’t coached her in four years! They have other moms and dads who invite them to sleepovers and hang out with their kids. They have Ms. Jody and Mr. Anthony. They have Ms. Jodi and Mr. Jim. They have Ms. Deb and Mr. Bob. They have moms and dads who we don’t see as often, but know they are there for them. They have Ms. Marsha and Mr. Guy. They have Ms. Trish, Ms. Suzanne, Mr. Billy, Ms. Janine, and so many more. They have new neighbors and old ones. I know I am missing so many of you – and I am sorry for that…because you matter to my children and you matter to me. You are our “Anyone.” These “Anyones” don’t have to impart worldly wisdom to my children or give them hugs and shout their praises on a daily basis. You are just there. You are a part of our past, present and future. With each contact with a caring adult in my children’s lives, they realize they are not alone. They realize there are other people in the world that care for them, whether it is caring for their medical needs, or just giving them a ride home. They realize we are not isolated in this world, we are part of something far bigger than us. We are all a part of humanity.

Many of you have chosen to be an Anyone in the Heilman children’s lives at some point in time and for that I am thankful. With each caring adult my children come in contact with, my kids gain another perspective on life. They may pick up a new coping skills, or a better appreciation for sarcasm. They may see another adult pray for their day or another mom curse like their own mom. Regardless, they get to see they are not alone. Be that ‘Anyone’ in someone’s life today. I know I will.

Young, Karen (2017). Building Resilience in Children – 20 Practical, Powerful Strategies (Backed by Science).

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