September 16, 2019
Amanda The Panda Grief & Loss Camp: The Stokka Family
When Rachael Stokka returned home from church on January 27, she immediately knew something was wrong. Her husband's car wasn't in the driveway. He had left church before her and should have already arrived home.
"I was 15 minutes behind him," Rachael recalls. "I just thought something was wrong. I had a sinking feeling."
When Rachael checked her cell phone, she noticed a missed call and voicemail from someone in their church group who had been traveling behind Grant's vehicle and witnessed as it crashed along Ingersoll and Grand Ave. in Des Moines.
Rachael quickly took her two daughters, seven-year-old Riley and two-year-old Lila Jean, to her in-law's house, and her brother-in-law drove her to Blank Children's Hospital where her eight-year-old son, Zeke, was being cared for.
After about 10 minutes with Zeke, Rachael was taken out of the room and informed that Grant, her husband of 10 years, hadn't survived the crash.
"We had family and our church family show up," she recalls, noting that in all about 50 people arrived at the hospital to offer their support.
That night, Rachael's children went home with their cousins, while she stayed with a friend.
The next week was filled with funeral preparations, family time and remembering Grant.
Rachael and Grant had met in 2006 when they both worked as counselors at Camp Wildwood Hills Ranch in St. Charles.
"It was love at first sight," Rachael recalls. The couple started dating that summer. Two years later, they got married.
Rachael and Grant settled in Beaverdale and welcomed three beautiful children to their family.
"He was a people-person. He didn't know a stranger," Rachael says of Grant. "He made friends with everyone around him and he loved to have fun and make people laugh. He would do anything for a laugh."
Shortly after Grant's death, Rachael remembers talking to the kids about their loss. When Zeke and Riley asked if they were going to be okay, Rachael reminded them of the loss of her own father when she was just five years old.
"I asked them, 'Do you think mom turned out okay?'," she recalls. "I told them, we'll be okay."
A week after the crash, Zeke and Riley returned to school.
"The guidance counselor asked if we knew when the kids were going to come back to school," Rachael said. "We talked about allowing the kids to have a space where they could go if they needed time."
The school, Moore Elementary in Des Moines, arranged for Zeke and Riley to have hall passes to the office, where they found baskets filled with stuffed animals, a feeling chart, Play-Doh, and other items that could help comfort them.
But that wasn't all. The school had also just begun a support group with EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' Amanda the Panda program.
The support group met once a week for an hour, providing a place for students to discuss their grief. Amanda the Panda hosts similar support groups at other metro school districts, allowing students to access grief services without having to travel outside their schools.
Rachael was familiar with Amanda the Panda. Twenty-six years before Grant's death, when she'd lost her own father, her family had planned to attend the Amanda the Panda Grief & Loss Camp. However, five-year-old Rachael fell sick that weekend, changing the family's plans.
While Rachael wondered if the Amanda the Panda support group at Moore began because of Grant's death, she learned the program was just there at the right time.
The week they returned to school, Zeke and Riley were able to join the support group, which was now in its second week.
"It's important for the kids to have that outlet," Rachael said. "They are vital. It's easier for an adult to comprehend you'll eventually need to talk, to have an outlet. But for my children, they don't know that."
"I was blessed by those services, that they were already with them in school," she notes.
Both Zeke and Riley have also joined another Amanda the Panda support group, which met on Monday evenings at the organizations' West Des Moines office.
The six-week long Grief through the Expressive Arts support group aimed to help participants address their grief through expressive art methods, such as painting, writing, and drawing.
Lila Jean isn't old enough for the group yet, but spent the two hours in childcare with others her age.
Through the family's new relationship with the program, they were also reintroduced to the weekend-long Amanda the Panda Grief & Loss Camp.
In late March, Rachael, Zeke and Riley attended the camp in Story City, where participants gather to honor, remember, learn, and grow in their grief journey through support groups and activities that focus on remembrance and healing.
"I asked the kids if they wanted to go, and they said 'yes,'" Rachael says. "I didn't realize at first that we'd be separated and that I'd be doing groups alone."
At Camp, participants are broken into group based on their age. So Zeke and Riley were with their peers, while Rachael was paired with other adults.
"Overall, it was extremely good," she recalls. "At first, I was…looking through the packet, getting teary-eyed. I knew it was going to be hard."
Rachael's loss was the most recent of any of the other participants.
"I went at the right time," she notes. "To tell it for the first time was difficult, but amazing. It was the first step."
Rachael found camp to be a calming place, where she was able to talk with others about how they cope with loss.
"The conversations were very natural," she says. "And the kids loved it. From being outside, to making t-shirts. That night they talked about going back."
"I wasn't anticipating the weekend to be as fulfilling, but I walked away refreshed and a little lighter," she recalls.
When Zeke and Riley ask Rachael if they're going to be okay, despite her grief she unequivocally has the answer.
"There's no doubt in my mind, faith plays a huge role, we're going to be okay, we're going to be survivors. I'm very thankful for things like Amanda the Panda," Rachael says. "It helps you breathe, if you don't deal with grief, it finds you when you least expect it. I'm thankful my kids can talk about it now instead of late in their teens or 20s."
Learn more about EveryStep Grief & Loss Services and the Amanda the Panda program at www.everystep.org/services/grief-loss.