Kat Schilling experienced every parent’s worst nightmare on March 30, 2012. She lost her oldest son, Zach. He was 16.
Hoping to honor her son and ease some of her pain, the town of Seymour woman tries to help others.
One particular effort has garnered national attention. On the fourth anniversary of Zach’s death, Kat took the day off from work, hopped in the car to run errands and used her income tax refund to perform random acts of kindness for strangers.
“I’d pull in for gas, and I’d pay for someone else’s gas,” she said. “If I pulled into McDonald’s for something to eat, I’d pay for the person’s food behind me.”
For those on the receiving end, Kat left behind messages printed on orange paper in honor of Zach’s favorite color. The message said: “Four years ago today, my son, Zach, went to heaven. He was 16. In an effort to find joy in this day, I am performing random acts of kindness in his honor. Zach’s mantra was, ‘Keep praying.’ Please do.”
Her story is being featured in How We Heal, a national campaign from CaringBridge, a nonprofit organization that offers free personalized web pages, where users, like Kat, can keep family and friends updated during a difficult time.
“Kat’s story was very unique and inspiring,” said Liwanag Ojala, CEO of the Minnesota-based CaringBridge.
CaringBridge and National Geographic photographer David McLain teamed up to share 20 inspirational healing journeys, including Kat’s, through words, photos and videos.
“Kat went through one of the hardest things in life — losing a child,” Ojala said. “What was so appealing to me was that she wanted to … honor her son by doing something for others.”
“If you have never done something for someone you don’t know, there is nothing like it,” Kat said. “It really made that day so much better.”
Kat’s life changed nine years ago. Zach had been complaining of leg pain, and they had chalked it up to a pulled muscle, Kat said. When it didn’t heal, they had more tests done and learned Zach had a fracture on the lower left portion of his pelvic bone.
Zach had a CT scan, which revealed a tumor near the location of the fracture, according to his CaringBridge page. Additional tests revealed the tumor was the size of an adult fist, and Zach had some spots on his lungs.
On April 14, 2009, Zach was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ewing sarcoma, a type of tumor that grows in the bones or in the soft tissue around bones, often in the legs, pelvis, ribs, arms or spine, according to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital website.
Ewing sarcoma is the second most common type of bone cancer in children, but it is rare, according to the website. About 200 children and young adults are diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma each year in the United States.
“Our lives are forever changed,” Kat wrote in a post that day, which detailed the rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments to come. “We know that in all things God works for those (who) put their faith in Him.”
They did, and Zach never lost his faith — or his manners — through all the tests and treatments. But the Altoona High School student eventually did lose his battle with Ewing sarcoma.
“I had no idea when we got in the ambulance that day that he wasn’t going to be coming home with me,” said Kat, choking up at the memory.
More than six years after his death, the pain is still great. “I lost my child,” she said. “It’s a fact. I can’t do anything to change it, but I can do things to make it better.”
For example, she makes quilts to donate, and she always puts an orange circle tag on the back with Zach’s mantra — “keep praying.”
She also involves her two younger children — son Carson, 15, and daughter Mila, 14 — in some of those occasional random acts of kindness. “That makes us all feel better.”
Good from bad
In 1997, friends of CaringBridge founder Sona Mehring had a premature baby and asked her to let everyone know what was happening. Rather than making dozens of phone calls and repeating the same information, she decided to create a website.
“The same night their baby Brighid was born so was the idea that became CaringBridge,” Mehring, a UW-Eau Claire graduate, said on the website.
Brighid lived for nine days. On June 7, 2017, which would have been her 20th birthday, her mother, JoAnn Hardegger of Somerset, said, “You don’t ever fully heal from the loss of a child. But our daughter has a legacy.”
To honor that legacy, the CaringBridge team and McLain set out “to distill the wisdom of healing from good and decent people with the ultimate credentials,” like Kat.
“There is nothing like hearing it from the storyteller themselves,” said Ojala, who said the response to the campaign has been positive.
“There is a lot of hope and positivity that has come from it,” Ojala said, “and that is exciting.”
Like Hardegger, Kat doesn’t believe the wound caused by the death of her son will ever completely heal.
But she is hopeful that sharing her story might help someone else get a little bit closer to that.
Contact: 715-830-5838, email@example.com, @CTOBrien on Twitter
• How We Heal campaign: caringbridge.org/resources/healing/stories