Gracie James

Danelle Atwood
June 6, 2024
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Gracie James

Losing a child in a senseless car crash is far worse than any nightmare. A nightmare ends; eventually, you wake up.

Gracie is traveling to Moab on a school trip 2,600 miles from home. At over 70 mph, the driver of Gracie’s vehicle tries to get the attention of another driver and rolls the vehicle three times. One girl dies immediately of head trauma, still secured in her seat belt. Gracie, ejected through her window, lands among the sagebrush, her head gushing blood on the stony earth.

We leave for Utah in a panic, desperate to be with our girl. We try to explain to Gracie’s little sister Zoe. We call her brother Craig, our families and closest friends, trying to bring this horror into focus.

It takes us an excruciating 21 hours to reach Gracie in the ICU. When we arrive, the neurosurgeon explains that the damage to her brain means she won’t recover.

I excuse myself and stagger to the restroom. I close the door and muffle my wails. Collapsing, my nose bleeds all over the cold, white tile floor.

Two days later, we broadcast an appeal: Please help us say goodbye to our girl at 10 p.m. EST. We surround her with her art, photos and beloved foods. We play her favorite music. We bathe and dress our precious, broken daughter.

The nurse extricates the breathing tube. Gracie coughs, producing hideous orange phlegm. I climb into bed with her and whisper, stroking her sweet face. We are here. It is okay to go.

But it is NOT okay.

Our girl’s dying takes 45 minutes—the same amount of time, exactly, it took me to push her into the world, 17 years ago. A devastating symmetry. We call Craig. He says little then posts to Gracie’s Facebook wall. “I’m shattered in a thousand ways. I can’t even believe that you’re gone, that this is my reality. I love you now and I loved you the day I met you. There’s nothin’ now, there’s nothin’.”

Not long ago, I sang to my little Gracie. Today, this tune haunts me:

Someone’s momentary distraction took my sunshine away.

My beautiful, creative, wise, vulnerable, sensitive girl is dead and now my world is dark, hostile, treacherous, hollow. I sometimes sob so hard I cannot breathe, suffocated by what Gracie will never see, never do, never be.

I am triggered easily, by seemingly everything: flip-flops, chocolate chip cookies, girls with long brown hair, teasing siblings, prom dresses, college brochures, pregnant women.

Two months after Gracie’s death, Zoe wrote: “I have a dream that everyone stops driving cars because then there will be no more car crashes.”

Zoe raged and exploded. She threw objects at her Dad and teachers. At eight years old, she was afraid to sleep alone.

Someone took her big sister away.

We joined a grief support group—our new tribe of the permanently marked, the interminably miserable. Even 20 years after, there is no “moving on,” the others told us, only resigned survival.

Another six months later and Craig graduated from high school. Our pride battled with loss. Gracie’s absence filled the room; her silence muted the applause.

Someone took our sunshine away.

And now, the sky never changes; it is gray every day.

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