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Thursday December 13th 2018



A death in the family

dawnBy Jianna Hoss–Sometimes, a mother’s love is what keeps her children alive.

Just over a year ago, Dawn Burlage faced every parent’s worst nightmare when her 7-year-old daughter, Grace, passed away.  For six years, Grace battled meningioma brain tumors, while Dawn battled the thought of losing one of her children. From treating Grace with chemotherapy at home, taking her to countless doctors appointments and surgeries, and going to radiation, along with taking care of her two sons, Austin and Mason, Dawn learned a lot about being a mother.

At the age of two, Grace had her first surgery to remove a brain tumor. Throughout the years, Grace had other surgeries, one round of at-home chemotherapy, and went to Indiana to have two types of radiation at one time. However, the tumors came back every time.

“After her last surgery, she said, ‘Mommy, I don’t want any more surgery,’” Dawn recalled of the time right before Grace’s s November birthday two years before she passed away. “At first they said she had a year, and that if she went to Indiana, she would have two. She ended up having two, ‘cause we went out to Indiana.”

While at a care facility in Indiana, Grace received doses of radiation, including proton therapy, which targets a specific location that is needed to dissolve the tumor.

Despite everything the doctors tried, the tumors came back yet again. The day came when the doctors brought Dawn in and told her the news that they tried everything they could.

“I asked them, ‘Are you sure, there’s nothing else?’ And they said there were things they could try, but they never worked, and that they’d mostly be doing that for me,” Dawn said. “I had to make the choice on whether to put her through more treatment and have her sick the whole time, or let her enjoy the rest of her life.”

No More Treatments
The next couple years were spent on road trips to Duluth with family, to waterparks where Grace laughed like an everyday kid, and days spent cuddling with her mom. Knowing Grace would miss a lot of things, everyone surrounding her tried to give her the best opportunities.

Two high school girls, Becca Splichal and Anna Skipton, both seniors at the time, developed an amazing bond with Grace after they took her to prom. Grace wore a golden ruffle dress, her hair was curled, and she looked like a princess. It was Grace’s night, and she radiated beauty.

“Once the dancing started she hardly left the floor,” Splichal said. “When she had to leave, she wouldn’t even acknowledge that her mom had come. It was so cute! Then she cried and Dawn had to carry her to the car, and we told her the whole time out the door how beautiful she was and how glad we were that she came.”

Both Splichal and Skipton are now freshman in college. Skipton goes to college near home, and still visits Dawn and her boys every week. “I go see Dawn about every Monday night and she is still as strong as ever,” Skipton said.

Coming together as a family
Strength keeps a family together, but so does love. The trying times that the Burlage family faced changed their entire world. For years, they went appointment by appointment, hoping for the best, and taking all of the doctors’ orders.

Dawn supported her family through the hard times, and listened to all the doctors’ orders. “You’re told to do something by the doctor, and you do it. You hope and pray for the best even though you never get it,” Dawn said.

Telling the kids about Grace’s diagnosis was a hard spot. How do you tell your children that they are dying, or that their sister is dying? “The first thing Gracie did was hug me and say, ‘Mommy, I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna leave you.’ And then she was sad about it. Really, really sad. But as time went on, you know, I think she accepted it more, and right before she died, I knew she was okay,” Dawn said quietly. “That’s when everyone was at the house, and it was just me and her. And she said she’d be holding my hand forever and ever and ever, and that she loved her brothers.”

On November 12, 2011, Grace passed away at home with her entire family surrounding her. For the people who witnessed her death, the day will never leave their minds.

Just a few minutes after her passing, Dawn asked for her boys to be by her side. Austin sat beside his sister and mom on the bed, and Mason stood to the side.

“I love you,” Dawn said to Mason. The ten year old at the time scoffed and rolled his eyes, in a typical Mason fashion. A few chuckles came from the family and friends standing around the room.

Dawn turned to Austin and said, “I love you,” to which he responded, “I love you too, Mom.” The room laughed as Dawn gave Mason a dirty look.

After many tears were shed, the pastor said a prayer, followed by many tight hugs.

Her wake was held six days later on her birthday, followed by the funeral the next day. The rainbow colored assortments of flowers brightened the sad room, but so did the pictures of Grace’s warm, kind smile. Mason and his cousin Aaron played “Amazing Grace” on the guitar with vocals done by friends during the service, which brought tears to many of the people gathered.

Lives changed
Just over a year after her death, Dawn laid on a couch in her brother’s basement on Thanksgiving, wiping the tears from her eyes as she explained the hard times, and laughing a lot while remembering the good times.

“Our life changed so much. There were doctors’ appointments and Gracie’s spitfireness and her age level and all that stuff going on… And all of a sudden there’s not of that. The age level of my family went up.” Dawn said.

“There’s no girl, there’s no 7-year-old. I have two preteen boys and life just changed completely. I went from having this needy, needy, needy little girl… then the boys could care less and that’s just their age, I understand that. The most significant part of our lives just went away. There’s so many doctors appointments and stuff to keep up with… It was just hard, it was really hard,” she said.

Her two red-headed, pre-teen sons, Mason, now 11, and Austin, almost 13, both deal with the loss in their own ways.

“Mason is less independent emotionally, and he seeks help with things he’s done independently before. He uses humor to lighten the mood around the house,” Dawn’s sister, Deb Carr, says of the eleven-year-old. “I would say his anger comes out as aggression towards his brother.”

Mason, a sixth grader, is as rambunctious as any 11 -year-old. His red-brown hair, freckle spotted cheeks, blue-green eyes and pink braces make him a unique character.

Similarly, Austin changed after losing his sister. “He isolates himself from his family, and he’s much more in his own world. He’s frustrated with others, but he’s super patient with his mom, in almost a protective sense,” Deb said.

“All of us just kind of go day by day. Me and Mason read a lot and Austin secludes himself away. Every now and then we talk about her,” Dawn said quietly. “I don’t know what else there is to do to heal. Everyone says time will heal, but that’s not it.”

A few months after Grace’s death, Dawn and her boys moved to a neighboring town. Moving from the house they had spent the past few years in was hard for Dawn and her boys, because it will filled with images of Grace: her loud laughter, her soft footsteps, and ultimately, memories of the day her life ended.

Life after life
Walking in the new house, you would not see that it is not a home. It has pictures of Dawn’s three kids, a very occupied living room, and a television with Spongebob Squarepants on. It appears to be a home, but it is not without Grace’s presence.

“It’s not hard to remember her, but it’s harder to find the sense of home without her,” Dawn said about the move. “It was like, she was there and she was everywhere and then she died, and that was home. The boys and I moved to a different house, and that can’t be home, because we were never a full family there.”

The house has evidence of a family, but what you can’t see is that it is not fully intact. The pictures that hang on the walls and sit on shelves capture the meaning of the Burlage family- smiles, laughter, love, and most of all, strength.

“She was a wild child in high school and now she’s not so much,” Dawn’s brother, Dwayne Hoss explains. “She got a degree, had a family, and then had a huge event in her life with Grace. She’s grown a lot from that.”

The quirkiness of Dawn’s family is evident, especially in her boys–loud laughs, red-brown hair, and sly jokes to make hard situations lighter make up their personalities. It was the same for Grace, family members recall. Grace, despite her age, had a lot to say and knew exactly how to say it. She taught everyone a lesson, whether they knew it at the time or not .

“Gracie taught me to smile through the pain, but I can’t,” Dawn said after a few minutes of thinking. “She’s stronger than I am, ‘cause even right after surgeries, she’d be just smilin’ away. Through chemo, she laughed. She didn’t mind it. She didn’t get sick. She’d just smile, happy-go-lucky, and she’d get tired, but even being tired, she’d be happy. Or demanding,” Dawn laughed, smiling at the thought of her daughter.

“She was stubborn, happy, and caring. She really wanted to make sure that I was taken care of. She was a little spitfire, but yet, she had a heart of gold. That fiery red hair and blue-green eyes… She could look at you in a way that you knew she was mad. I can still hear her saying, ‘Mom!’” Dawn said, laughing yet again.

However, Grace learned to have a heart of gold from the very best–her mother. Dawn would do anything for her kids, and she loves them unconditionally. A mother’s love is never ending, even when a child is no longer around. “She was so strong,” Dawn said about her daughter, not realizing how much strength she herself had within her.

Remembering Grace is a rollercoaster. The high points bring happiness, and the low points bring sorrow, yet no matter what kind of a day it is, the Burlage family marches on.

Dawn cares for her boys and it’s evident in everything she does, from working multiple jobs, to showing up at every football game that her boys play.

“One of her greatest strengths is her ability to help others by using her own story, but it’s too soon for her to do that with Grace. I think in time she will, and I think she’ll be good at it,” her sister Deb says.

With Dawn’s strength, determination, and her story, she’s sure to do something with it in time. “I’d love to,” Dawn said about wanting to tell her and Grace’s powerful story. Perhaps one day she’ll become a motivational speaker at conventions, or write a book.

During the six years of treatment, Dawn learned a lot. Perhaps those lessons will one day be moved on to someone else.

“There’s one thing that really sticks out in my mind that I did right, and it wasn’t even something I did to Grace,” Dawn said. “But I told each of the boys that I was glad it wasn’t them. That I was really, really sad it was it was their sister, but that it wasn’t them at the same time. I didn’t want them to grow up thinking, ‘Well mom would have preferred it was me.’ No, no I wouldn’t. Make sure that the living kids know that even if you have to go away, that they’re so important to you.” Dawn said with a hint of sadness. “And number two, don’t worry about the dishes.”

There is no saying what is in store for the Burlage family in the next few years, but one thing is for sure: Dawn will continue to be a strong and loving mother, the boys be as comical and animated as ever, and Grace’s spirit will still be everywhere.