A Fort Collins’ Bauder Elementary second grader, Marlie Walker, glowed as she walked down the emergency room hallway at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital on Monday, Nov. 27.
In her arms, Marlie, 8, clutched a slightly worn green stuffed octopus and a brand-new white unicorn. Her mother, Taylor Strope, followed closely behind, also holding several new stuffed animals, while relatives pushed two large stacks of green bins.
The bins held 616 stuffed animals that Marlie collected to donate to PVH. But the green octopus in her arms was hers. It was her dad’s favorite color.
Emmy, which is what Marlie named the octopus, was given to her by UCHealth registered nurse Reatha Blumenthal as something to hold on to when a big part of Marlie’s life crumpled. Now, six months after her father’s death, Marlie is determined to give other grieving kids the same comfort she got while she waited in the ER for word about her father.
“I want to help kids going through a hard time like me,” she told a room full of UCHealth nurses, administrators and reporters on Monday.
Blumenthal remembers that day she gave Marlie the octopus and the nurse was there on Monday to thank Marlie for the gifts she was giving. Her mom was also happy to be able to see Blumenthal again — reunions are somewhat rare occasions for ER nurses.
“She’s a brave kid,” Blumenthal said.
On June 29, Blumenthal was about to get off her shift when Marlie’s father, 27-year-old Cody Walker, was transported to PVH after crashing his motorcycle head-on into traffic. Blumenthal stayed to help Marlie and her family, who spent more than three hours in the ER, during which time Cody succumbed to his injuries.
“I’m happy to see and know that Marlie has found a little purpose, something to help her move through the grieving process,” Blumenthal said.
Giving a child a stuffed animal is a common practice to provide comfort and ease anxiety while children are in the ER.
A few months after her father died, Marlie asked her mom about collecting stuffed animals for other kids in the emergency room.
“We saw the impact it made on Marlie, so we thought it would be pretty special to be able to make that impact for others,” Strope said.
And so the “Stuffies for Emergencies” drive began on Nov. 1 — Cody’s birthday. The family collected stuffed animals through Thanksgiving and a huge surprise came on the first day, her father’s birthday.
“Almost 10 boxes came on the first day — there were so many boxes,” Marlie said with a big smile. “I just want to make kids as excited as I was when I got mine.”
Strope was amazed by how many people came together to help her little girl, so much so that it may become an annual drive, she said.
Marlie approves of UCHealth distributing the stuffed animals at all four of its emergency rooms in northern Colorado. Staff is working to place a special tag on each animal that will identify it is from Marlie, so her story of hope and love will continue.
Children don’t always grieve the same way as adults. Christina Gerteis, a licensed counselor with UCHealth Mountain Crest Behavioral Health Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, provides insight and tips into children’s grief.
Children may have more difficulty articulating their grief than adults and instead express it by acting out, exhibiting regressive behavior or having physical symptoms such as body aches or headaches. They may not want to separate from a parent, or they’re afraid to sleep alone. And it might occur much later than an adult’s grief.
Families may consider skipping a holiday or ignoring a tradition, but Gerteis advises otherwise.
“While this might feel like a way to avoid further pain and sorrow, it typically is not the best strategy,” she said. “Avoidance of trauma reminders typically reinforces negative thoughts about the grief process and can become non-supportive to healthy healing and recovery.”
Instead, she recommends a plan and bringing intention to memorializing and remembering a loved one who is deceased, much like Marlie Walker did with her Stuffies for Emergencies drive. Other ways include lighting candles, cooking a favorite meal, sharing stories, planting a favorite flower or visiting a special place.
“It’s a great way to model healthy coping and give opportunities to share the pleasant stories and valued memories of a loved one,” Gerteis said. “It will be sad, but help tremendously with the grieving process.”
When acute stress reactions and grief don’t resolve naturally, they can transform into a much more significant condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which would likely require professional treatment, she said.
“Being of service to others and engaging in activities to promote awareness – while grief and deep loss can be painful – healing is also possible is a powerful message to spread to others,” Gerteis said. “We are never alone in grief and sharing this message of recovery with others builds hope for all of us.”