Austin American Statesman - Going Home: Film Shows Kids View of Death
March 22, 1993

By Elaine Ayala - American Statesman Staff

Filmmaker Cindy Pickard believes the last words Jessica heard before her death were prophetic. Seconds before the car crash that took 8-year-old Jessica's life, her mother gently shook her awake and said: "We're almost home now." The phrase used by many dying children and adults about their transition to death struck a cord with the filmmaker’s philosophy about death and dying - That death is part of life, and when discussed and dealt with, it can help the living heal, accept the inevitable and live better, more meaningful lives.

The Austinite's new documentary is titled We're Almost Home Now: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on Children in the Face of Death. It's dedicated to Pickard,s mother, who died of cancer, and her brother, who committed suicide. The film which showcases six Austin families that experienced the death of a child, is very much Pickard's way of dealing with her own loss.

Weaving together the stories of the Austin children are the words of Kubler-Ross, a longtime friend of Pickard, who is considered the foremost authority in the field of death and dying. She is the author of 10 books on the subject including On Death and Dying, To Live Until We Say Goodbye, Death. The Final Stage of Growth and On Children and Death.

We're Almost Home Now is the sixth video Pickard has produced. She co-produced this -one with her son, 'Andy. The previous one, Jason: The Way We Live Today, about Austinite Jason Briggs and his life and death from AIDS, has been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The stories in the Pickard's' latest work are those of Jessica Erin Locke, 8, who died in a car crash in 1989; Kevin Michael Haro, 11, who died of leukemia in 1988; Christopher Dale Chavez, 21, who committed suicide in 1985; Jason Matthew Briggs, 2, who died of AIDS in 1991; Eliza Hope Thomas, 17, Who was murdered in 1991; and Lauren Ashley Taylor, 6, who died of cancer last year.

From each family, the Pickards draw a message of hope about the wisdom of the dying and the survivors' ability to heal in the midst of a culture still largely unwilling to discuss death. Each of the families is in a different stage of grief and acceptance.

The Lockes, for example, have come to think of Jessica's death which occurred a few days after her eighth birthday - as a graduation. "I'd like to think that children who die like that," says Clifford Locke, "got it right. They didn't have to go through the pain of learning, of trial and error."

Kubler-Ross believes that's a healthy outlook on death and dying. She also believes there's much to be gleaned from the things that these six left behind. Their notes, letters, poems, drawings or songs helped the families cope with the tragedy, anger, guilt and loss. The mementos also have persuaded some family members of life after death, a tenet Kubler-Ross teaches.

After Jessica's death, the Lockes found a drawing of their daughter floating into the clouds inside a hot air balloon. It was drawn a few days before she died. She also wrote a note that says, "Dear Mr. God. Am I needed? I hope so. But can you tell me if I am needed?"

Pickard, Locke and Kubler-Ross view both items as evidence that Jessica knew on some subconscious level that she was going to die. "I don't think God killed her, and I don't think it was her time," says Locke, who'll soon be ordained a Lutheran minister. "But that God prepared her."

Pickard realizes that some people will consider the topic of We're All Most Home Now depressing and morbid. She hopes they might see it and come to understand that from the deepest tragedies and sadness, there can emerge acceptance and happiness.

"Life and death are connected," Pickard says. "There is life after death. There are people who would not choose to see the significance of Jessica's note or the picture that she drew, but those things to me are as much proof as anyone would need.... All those children were old, wise souls."

Kubler-Ross acknowledges the death of a child is the worst loss a parent can experience. And of those, she says in the film, the most difficult to resolve is that of a child who is murdered. When the death is a violent one, parents always feel guilty and responsible. But all parents of children who have died must work through the loss, grief, anger, guilt and depression. Parents must forgive themselves, Kubler-Ross says. Parents who cannot heal, who don't work through the anger and pain, or who make shrines out of their children's rooms "need to know that there are children who need to pass very few tests, learn very few lessons and then they can graduate." Pickard, director of Rites of Passage, a nonprofit agency providing emotional and spiritual care to terminally ill patients, says the film doesn't romanticize death but deals with it head on.

For her, filming the work has helped to heal some remaining wounds of her own. "With my mother and my brother, I went through years of hell before I could see anything positive in the experience, Pickard says. "But I know they gave me my purpose in life. "We are not at all denying the pain people go through or the tragedy of it. The videos are saying that this is something that in all of our lives we are going to have to face. And the children are giving us the hope, the courage and the inspiration to do that."

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