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A year ago March 4, after her parents’ texts and phone calls to 23-year-old Brittany Kock had gone unanswered, police delivered the grim news to Robert and Sheryl Kock’s Johnston home. Their only child had been found alone, unresponsive in a run-down Des Moines rental house where a drug dealer was believed to have abandoned her. She’d been dead an estimated 12 hours.

It capped a six-year struggle with heroin — hers and theirs, as her parents. She had stolen from them and hawked her mom’s jewelry for drug money. They had repeatedly sent her to treatment, tried to have her involuntarily committed and even got her arrested. Two weeks earlier she had been released from Warren County Jail after two months there.

“For six years it’s controlled us,” a grieving Sheryl Kock told me after Brittany’s funeral March 10, 2017. “For the rest of our lives, we’re going to fight to control it.”

They worked together to, in his words, make “something positive” come of Brittany’s passing. After putting the word out to treatment centers, they used memorial contributions to help individual addicts who had been through treatment pay their living expenses. They were setting up an organization. Sheryl had been tapped to help with the formation of a county opioid coalition, which is working to increase public education and awareness about opioids and make more resources available for treatment. Bob has been speaking publicly, along with the county medical examiner.

They had opened their hearts to others in need of help with addictions.

And on March 10, after a year of self-imposed isolation, Sheryl was ready to live again. She and Bob had spent much of the past year trying to put one foot in front of the other. But on Brittany’s death anniversary the week before, they had resolved to return to some semblance of normalcy.

“Sherry said, ‘We’re not going to stop grieving. The pain is not going to go away but we have to start living, for us,’” Bob told me. “We had a really good week … . The color was back in her face that week. That spark was back.”

She had planned a Saturday night out with her two sisters. But as the night wore on, and Bob’s texts to his wife went unanswered, history seemed hauntingly to be repeating itself. He called hospitals; no trace of Sheryl. Finally his mother-in-law called: There’d been an accident.

It happened soon after midnight. The three sisters had been headed from a bar in one small Iowa town to one in another when one of Sheryl’s sisters, who was driving, ran through a T-intersection without stopping. The car hit a tree on the other side.

Sheryl, 56, was killed. The other two survived with injuries.

A study from researchers at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana and the Rochester Institute of Technology finds mothers of children who died (even adult children living out of the home) have a 133 percent greater risk of dying in the two years following that loss. The report looked at more than 69,000 mothers age 20 to 50, of different incomes, maternal education levels and family sizes whose children were both male and female and had various causes of death, and the numbers were the same. But the study wasn’t conclusive on what caused the mothers’ deaths.

There is also research showing a higher rate of divorce among couples after the death of their child. But Bob and Sheryl only pulled closer after losing Brittany. They were together 30 years. He’s an emergency medical technician and she was a nurse. She wore her emotions on her face while he was more reserved.

He spent much of the past year trying to help his grieving wife cope. Some days it took “everything you had to get out of bed.” he says. They pushed each other to stay active, meet friends and family members: “We realized we can’t both be hermits.”

More than 500 people attended her visitation. “My wife had a heart bigger than her body,” said Bob. “The amount of lives she touched, she never gave herself credit for.”

I asked him what sense he had made of the two deaths coming in such quick succession. As one who has relied on his religious faith for comfort, he answered without hesitation: “Brittany needed her (Sheryl) worse, or she needed Brittany worse than they needed to be here.”

Given the time of night, the nature of the car crash and where the sisters were going, I also had to ask if alcohol was involved. He said it was, though lab tests have yet to come back. He and Sheryl had never been big drinkers, he said — “barely even social drinkers.”

If there is one thing he wants people to take away from his family’s tragedy, it is this: “It’s not just opioids. It can be alcohol. It can be prescription drugs. And one decision can affect your life forever.”

And so many others’.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register


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