It was about a year ago. Sarah, then 10, was at home with her mother, Rachel, when she took a terrible fall, hitting her head and gashing her eyebrow. Stunned but aware she was injured, she walked to a neighbor’s house and tapped on the door.
“I’m hurt,” she said. “My mom can’t help.”
The two of them had been living an isolated life together recently. In a battle with a brain tumor, Rachel had become incapable of caring for Sarah, and the accident had the effect of alerting the Department of Children Services (DCS) to their situation. A caregiver was assigned, and Sarah was allowed to remain in the home.
Then in October, Rachel passed away. With no relatives available to take her in, Sarah was placed in a group home. Though she wasn’t a victim of abuse or neglect like most kids in the dependency court system, she was soon assigned a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), Nancy.
For their first meeting, they went to the mall to get know each other. Over cheeseburgers and milkshakes, they talked about Sarah’s circumstances and what might come next.
“Sarah was very sad about what was happening,” Nancy says. “She missed her mother, her cat, her bed. She talked about how beautiful Rachel had been, how she had dark hair and bright eyes. Their lives had become very small, but she loved their time together.”
Sarah was up against several developmental delays too, which made Nancy wonder how well she was able to process everything that was going on. In addition, Rachel had left no plans for Sarah’s care or her estate, so there were some big decisions to be made.
Perhaps the most important to Sarah’s grieving process was how to get her mother’s body out of the hospital morgue so a funeral service could be held. There were no family members to assume that duty, and though it isn’t something a CASA normally does for a child, Nancy began looking into doing it herself.
“I learned that, since I had no legal relationship to Rachel, I would need what’s known as an ex-parte petition,” she says. “I worked with the court to get that, but DCS then explained that I was not permitted to take on that responsibility. I had put together a long list of Rachel’s friends and neighbors, so I started making calls and within a few days I had identified a friend who was willing to help.”
By this time, Rachel’s body had been in the morgue for several months—several months that Sarah had been deprived of a funeral service and a formal occasion to say goodbye to her mother. Another decision had to be made.
“Rachel had talked with Sarah about her wish to be cremated—in large part because of the cost savings over burial—but they were Jewish, and their faith doesn’t allow cremation,” Nancy says. “So we took Sarah to lunch one day to try to determine how much of this situation she could comprehend and whether we should go ahead with the cremation or have her buried, which would permit us to give her a proper Jewish funeral service.”
Sarah really liked the idea of a ceremony to honor her mother. She also talked about wanting to be able to visit her grave, have a picnic, and bring her a stuffed animal. She decided to forgo the cremation.
Rachel’s friend jumped in again, this time to recruit a rabbi to perform the service without compensation. The rabbi, in turn, located a temple in the South Bay to host the service.
The day of the funeral, in late April, Sarah showed up in a new dress Nancy had helped her shop for the week before. Sarah had earlier noted her mother’s love of lilies, so Nancy and others had the temple decorated with lily plants.
“Sarah was delighted that people were there to honor her mother,” Nancy says. “But she really seemed to comprehend the finality when her mother’s caregiver arrived. Seeing her for the first time since her mother’s death, she broke down and embraced her.”
There has since been a lot of interest in Sarah in the Jewish community as a result of the funeral-planning process. A prospective adoptive family has already come forward and is being evaluated by DCS.
Nancy, a lawyer who used to work in the dependency court system, notes that Sarah has serious needs and will require a special kind of home. As her CASA, she is also her educational rights holder and recently got her an individualized educational program at her school.
Meanwhile, Sarah, now 11, has something to look forward to. She is very focused on having a bat mitzvah—something Rachel had wanted for her—and her faith has become a constant connection to her mother and a source of consolation. She’s going to Hebrew school and learning her letters. She’s thrilled to draw them in the air for anyone who asks.
“Sarah is a delightful kid. She’s funny and engaging and curious. All the people who work with her adore her,” Nancy observes. “You can’t help it. Despite her tragedy, there’s this wonderful light around her.”
Identifying details were changed to protect the child’s privacy.