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When tragedy strikes twice

by: COURTESY PHOTO: TERSIA THEEL - Tersia Theel poses with daughter Abigail Robinson and son Brennan Theel. Every September, Tersia Theel starts dreading Oct. 22.

If her mind forgets as the day approaches, her body doesn’t. “I’ll cry for no reason. I’ll think, ‘Why am I feeling like this?’ Then I’ll look at the calendar.”

Oct. 22 was the day, 20 years ago, when Theel’s car hydroplaned during a horrendous storm on Highway 101 in Washington and slammed into a tree, shattering both of Theel’s hips — and killing her 7-month-old daughter, Kristian.

Theel has struggled to accept the loss. It was 18 years before she could bring herself to get a headstone for Kristian’s grave. This year, after moving from Forest Grove back to her Washington hometown, Theel was “finally feeling like I could move a little more forward,” she said.

On Oct. 20, Theel was busy cleaning her father’s house, where she’s staying now with her 13-year-old son, Brennan. She wanted it to be spic and span when her 11-year-old daughter, Abigail Robinson of Forest Grove, came to visit in November. by: COURTESY PHOTO: TERSIA THEEL - Tersia Theel shares a tender moment with a young Abigail Robinson, whom she last saw in August, when her daughter visited her in Washington. One rainy day that week, the two cranked up some music and played the video game Burnout on son Brennans old X-box for six hours. It was completely out of character for both of them.

Her cellphone rang and flashed the name of her ex-husband, Tom Robinson.

“Oh yay — she’s calling,” Theel thought, assuming Abigail was using her father’s phone.

But the voice was Robinson’s: “Abigail’s been hit by a car and I don’t know if she’s okay.”

“Everything went away at that point,” Theel remembers. “I almost fell down. I just knew. I couldn’t feel her anywhere.”

On Oct. 21, while on life support in a Portland hospital, Theel’s last child was officially pronounced dead — one day before the anniversary of the death of her first child.

Great place for Abigail

Theel moved to western Washington County in 1998, landing first in Gales Creek and later in Forest Grove. She and Tom Robinson met at MasterBrand Cabinets in Hillsboro and married in 2001 at McMenamins Grand Lodge.

At the time, they each had two children from previous marriages. Abigail was their one child together — the one child, Theel says, they didn’t have to share with other households.

“She was kind of our rock.”

Theel “loves her kids very much,” said Forest Grove resident Cindy McIntyre, whose daughter, Paige, has been Abigail’s best friend since preschool.

“We’re considering going up there in the next couple of weeks,” said McIntyre, who feels like Abigail was part of her family.

Over the years, Theel and McIntyre took turns getting Paige and Abigail to ballet and tap classes at Forest Grove Dance Arts, to soccer practice and to Young Actors Summer Theater (YAST) at Theater in the Grove.

McIntyre also watched Abigail and Brennan while Theel spent weeks volunteering in Vernonia after the 2007 flood, setting up a volunteer center.

With all that time together, Abigail felt like another daughter, McIntyre said. “She went on vacations with us. There’s really three of us who raised her.”

Flashing back to grief

In November 2003, Theel was driving down to Dilley one morning when she found traffic diverted due to a fatal accident she could just glimpse up ahead on Highway 47.

A Forest Grove mother had just lost her 13-year-old son. The family was on Theel’s mind for years afterwards.

The suddenness of any accident-related death “just rips my gut out,” Theel said.

Theel remembered praying for them and wanting to do whatever she could to help.

She also found herself reliving the moment she learned Kristian had died. “I am so sad another mother has to feel what I felt,” thought Theel, who never had any grief counseling after Kristian passed away.

Last year, she took a grief class at Chemeketa Community College and shared one assignment with Abigail, letting her answer questions about death.

“Death is when something is gone forever. And you won’t have that thing anymore. And death is sad and grief in your world,” wrote Abigail, who’d seen photos of Kristian and heard Theel talk about her.

“She would actually cry with me,” Theel remembers.

When asked to think about her own death, Abigail wrote: “It makes me shiver a little bit, thinking that I will not be here anymore on earth, seeing everybody. And it makes me feel sad and uncomfortable that I won’t be here in 70 [or] 80 years.”

Keeping in touch

Theel and Robinson had separated in 2008 due to Theel being “completely stupid,” she says of herself. It was relatively amicable, with Theel living just two blocks away. “We didn’t even have attorneys.”

In June, Theel moved back to her Washington hometown, where Abigail visited for a week in August. They went mushroom picking, elk watching and fishing together on the Quinault River.

by: COURTESY PHOTO: TERSIA THEEL - Abigail secretly snaps a selfie on the cellphone of a Forest Grove friend. She loved to snatch someones cell phone and take a few quick shots of random things, Theel said. One time I looked through my pictures and had about 10 in a row of her ear, big toe, eyeball -- then her beautiful face being silly and having fun.Back in Forest Grove, Abigail called her mom Oct. 11 and asked how she was doing. Oct. 22 was coming up and Abigail knew it was a difficult emotional time for her mother.

On Oct. 18, Theel and Abigail spoke again by phone and talked about how much they missed each other.

Abigail had a great relationship with Robinson’s current wife, Susan Dieter-Robinson, but “she worried about her mom,” Robinson said.

By Oct. 20, Theel had decided to move back down to Forest Grove sometime in the next year, in order to be near Abigail and also her 19-year-old daughter, Taylor, who still lives in the area.

But by Oct. 21, Taylor was at the hospital holding Abigail’s hand while she was on life support and Theel sat, emotionally paralyzed, five hours north of them, begging and hoping that the doctors would not pronounce Abigail dead on Oct. 22.

As traumatic as Kristian’s death was, Abigail’s is so much harder, said Theel. “I have lost 21 pounds since the day this happened,” she said last Friday.

Brennan is having a tough time too. “He just adored Abigail,” Theel said. “The first week, I couldn’t get him to even eat or sit up or move.”

Faith and questions

At a memorial service up in Washington, Theel read one of the grief questions Abigail had completed, where she talked about her “oldest sister,” Kristian.

“I wish I could have known her,” Abigail wrote. “It’s just horrible that she died. I feel I could have done something so I could see her right now. Like maybe I could have stopped my mom from driving somewhere the night she crashed.”

But for all her sorrow, Abigail believed Kristian was in heaven and that she would go to heaven, too, when she died, Theel said.

“That was one thing that gave her peace — that she’d see her sister again someday.”

Theel herself isn’t as sure about heaven as she used to be.

“I’m really having my first-ever huge struggle with my belief,” she said.

How could the God she’s believed in for 37 years let something as awful as this happen to her twice, she wonders.

“I’m not sure what I believe right now,” Theel said. “I hope beyond anything that there is heaven — and that I get to see Abigail there.”



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