Karli’s Story

April 17, 2020

She walked into parent-teacher conferences with a scarf tied around her head. The beautiful silk covered her shaved head. It covered the side-effects of cancer treatment. I knew the look, it’s the same look my mother had worn during her treatment. 

Immediately I felt connected to this woman. Not only because I had the privilege of teaching her child, but because I knew the pain and fear they were facing. I suddenly had so much more in common with a five-year-old child than ever before. 

Both of us had mother’s with cancer.

Life isn’t fair. I already knew that statement to be true, but this felt different. This felt unfair in ways that made me ache with anger and sadness. 

This woman was young. So young that she had a child in my class, a child in kindergarten. She was young and beautiful and kind. She had a radiant soul that was easily recognized and felt. She smiled effortlessly when I complimented her daughter. I can still remember the way she exuded pride and love.

I didn’t know it at the time, but she would pass away just months later. 

Months later this beautiful soul was taken from the world and her family. She was taken from the charismatic bright-eyed girl that sat in the second row of my classroom. She was gone too soon. Her future and her love were robbed from the very being that she created. It was heartbreaking.

This loss changed my heart, my compassion, and my mission as a teacher. It changed the way I loved my students, and the way I showed up for their families. 

Watching a child grieve fills you with both debilitating emptiness and earth-shattering inspiration. This sweet little girl was hurting, but she never stopped showing up. She smiled through the pain and confusion. She played and learned and connected with her peers, despite the loss and destruction of her family structure. 

Her story and her path would be forever changed. She would be different. She would hold a loss deep inside of her. She would walk the world with her big sparkly eyes and energetic spirit and most wouldn’t know the depths of her pain and loss. She would be motherless, but still full of all the things that made her radiant and captivating. 

Her story would inspire others, even if she was too little to understand her influence. It inspired me. It inspired an entire classroom. 23 children and 23 families were forever changed that year. 

In October, a mother walked into parent-teacher conferences. In March, that same mother would be buried and laid to rest. Just months after meeting her, I walked into that mother’s funeral service. I hugged a motherless five-year-old. 

Years later, I became motherless. At the age of 35 my mother passed away. I had my mother for thirty-five years. That little girl had hers for five. The day I fell to my knees broken by grief. I remembered her. I remembered the little soul in my classroom all those years before. I remembered her grace and her faith and her hope. I remembered her resilience and her spunk.

I remembered Karli and her story.  

The day grief found me, I prayed to be like that sweet child. The child I had watched handle grief with poise and sparkle. The child that never lost the hope of the future, even though her world had been shattered. 

Death steals pieces of our future. 

It steals love left to give, memories left to make, and life left to live. 

Grief changes, and transforms, and reshapes lives and souls and futures. 

Love heals. Love inspires. 

And so do stories. 

I will never forget Karli, or her story. Years later they still provide reminders and lessons of hope, resilience, and the faith in tomorrow. 

xox, Chels

Karli and I during her kindergarten year.
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Chelsea Ohlemiller

Chelsea Ohlemiller

A thirty-something wife, mother and educator who has Indiana roots and a passionate spirit. Chelsea is a sappy romantic, coffee junkie, book collector, and person who wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s sarcastic, full of jokes, full of tears, and enjoys writing most when life gets messy or complicated. In 2017, Chelsea's mother passed away. Through her grief journey, she decided to take her mother’s advice and share her writing with the world. One day she gained the courage to honor her mother's wishes and write. It turned out to be one of the best decisions she's ever made.

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