Photojournalist Tina Russell spent months documenting the lives of three local families coping with the loss of a child.
Through portraits, candid photos and interviews, she shares their stories of grief and perseverance.

The last time Debbie Cathey of Rome really cried was the day her daughter, Katie Cathey, died. "I'm afraid if I cry I won't stop," she said. Occasionally, though, she sheds what she calls "happy tears." (TINA RUSSELL / Observer-Dispatch)

Debbie Cathey goes to her Rome kitchen each morning and changes the magnetic number on her fridge.
Magnetic letters spell out "Katie," and underneath is the number of days sheís been gone. Today, itís 1,863 days.

Before she leaves for work, she smells Katieís jacket thatís been unworn for five years. Cathey said it smells like Katie -- clean, fresh and soft like a baby -- but the scent is fading.

Debbie Cathey shows a photo of her daughter, Katie Cathey, left, inside her home in Rome.
Debbie lost her daughter five years ago when Katie was run over by a train. (TINA RUSSELL / Observer-Dispatch)

"I always think of her," Cathey said. "It seems like every second I think of her. Everything reminds me of her."

"I always think of her," Cathey said. "It seems like every second I think of her. Everything reminds me of her."

Itís been five years since Katie, 20, was killed while trying to flatten pennies on the train tracks.

Read her mother's story here.

The day Katie died, Cathey joined a club no parent ever wants to become a part of. One that has far too many members -- those who have experienced the death of a child.

In 2004, Betty and John Mercer of Utica lost their son Ricky Powell, 22, along with his best friend, Brian West, when they were shot and killed.

In 2012, Amy Accuri of Rome lost her 8-year-old son Ashton Fox to leukemia.

All the parents agree on one thing: There is no getting over the death of a child. You accommodate it into your life.

Overcoming guilt

According to the state Health Department, 2,973 people between birth and age 24 died in the state in 2012, the latest available statistics. In Oneida, Herkimer and Madison counties, 54 people in that age group died in 2012.

Hospice & Palliative Care bereavement counselor Lisa Wolfe said when a person dies, the people left behind initially are in shock and denial.

"Parents, no matter how old the child (who) died, have intense guilt," she said. "There is always that feeling of, ĎI am responsible for this life and somehow I failed. Somehow I didnít know. Somehow I wasnít there.í"

A childís death isnít easy for law enforcement, either.

Utica police Lt. Steve Hauck said he never will forget the day Makiah Johnson, 5, was thrown from a motor vehicle into the Erie Canal during a car crash in August 2009. He recalled her "beautiful face" when she was pulled from the water and handed to him.

"You have to keep your emotions in check: sadness, disbelief and frustration," Hauck said.

The next day when he opened his locker at work, his senses went into overload.

"I lost it," he said, remembering his damp uniform and the smell of canal water. "As human beings, you understand when people get older that death is inevitable. You donít expect children. Itís senseless. They are just starting their life. ... You put yourself in their shoes. What if it was my kid or brother or sister?"

"There is always that feeling of, ĎI am responsible for this life and somehow I failed.'" -- Lisa Wolfe, bereavement counselor

"Every day that goes by, I think of my son," Betty Mercer said. The Mercers lost their son Ricky Powell, 22, nine years ago after he and his best friend, Brian West, were shot and killed by Delmar Brown. A memorial for Powell and West is located on the corner of Arthur and West street in Utica. (TINA RUSSELL / Observer-Dispatch)

What might have been

Thereís also what that childís future might have been and who they would have become.

For the Mercers, itís the loss of a potential grandchild.

"I wish my son would have had a child of his own -- a little girl that would look just like him," Betty Mercer said. "It would be a child I could raise that would belong to him. I could always look at that child and think of my son."

Wolfe said that when a child dies, survivors change. Itís important to seek out people who are "supportive, who listen non-judgmentally" and who donít try to make you be someone youíre not.

Sometimes, those people are not the ones closest to you.

While Cathey comforts those at Compassionate Friends, a support group for those who have lost children, Accuri finds consolation through a therapist.

Despite the therapy, Accuri still is struggling with her sonís death. For close to two years, she visited her son every day -- tending to his grave and decorating it on holidays. Now itís every other day.

"For a long time, every time I went there I kept thinking when I showed up heíd be there waiting for me," she said.

"I kept thinking when I showed up heíd be there waiting for me." -- Amy Accuri

Amy Accuri, left, visits her son almost every single day. Even during snowy weather, she visits him with the help of her boyfriend, Steve Thurston, right, who shovels a path to his grave for her. Ashton Fox, 8, died of leukemia in 2012.
"I tell him good morning, good afternoon, goodnight, I miss him, and I tell him I miss hearing his laughter," Accuri said. (TINA RUSSELL / Observer-Dispatch)

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