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Shared loss: Turning grief into kindness, compassion and action

People by: Joanne Kountourakis, April 11, 2023

East Northport resident Karen Paquet, pictured here on her most recent trip to Kenya with Students for 60,000, turned the loss of her son Caleb into a life of service to others. Photo courtesy Karen Paquet.

"Train yourself toward solidarity and not charity. You are no one’s savior. You are a mutual partner in the pursuit of freedom.”

The above quote, from Aboriginal activist and artist Lilla Watson, demonstrates the type of service that has guided East Northport resident Karen Paquet through her deepest pain, a collective giving that has connected her with homegrown charities like the St. Baldrick’s Foundation and school organizations like Students for 60,000 (SF60K). The relationships she has created via these groups weave an interconnected web of humanity she speaks about openly and passionately, a world that – while full of challenge and loss and vulnerability – is held together by love, empathy and action.

A shared sense of loss, including the death from cancer of her oldest son Caleb, carried Karen into a life of service that has taken her to multiple places in and out of the country; she most recently returned from trips to West Virginia and Kenya with SF60K, a group to which she is now proudly an advisor.

Whether visiting the center of an opioid epidemic, living in the aftermath of a hurricane, or standing beside a mother struggling to feed her child, Karen said in a conversation with the Journal last month, the idea of unity and service toward others reigns supreme, “not because we’re better than, or that we can help fix it, but that if we don’t come alongside one another, life is too much to bear alone.”

A chance pairing begins…
An elementary and preschool teacher with a degree in special education, Karen took two years off for medical reasons in 2013. Uncertain of her own health, she returned to work as a teacher assistant at Northport High School in 2015, in the classroom of social studies teacher Darryl St. George.

“That was Caleb’s senior year and he was enamored with Darryl,” Karen said. “He worshiped the ground Darryl walked on.”

At the time, St. George was running Project Vets, a club that helps veterans transition back to life at home, and Caleb – a life skills student with aspirations of becoming a Marine – was too shy to go to after-school meetings alone. So Karen joined him. St. George was an inspiration in and out of the classroom, she said, and a wonderful role model and mentor for her son.

In August of 2016, just a couple of months after graduation, Caleb was diagnosed with cancer.

During one of his many visits to the Paquet home, St. George, a U.S. Navy veteran, gave Caleb a medal meant to protect people going into battle. The medal had been in the St. George family for generations.

Karen spent the following year at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where Caleb was treated for his cancer, a rare form of leukemia called hypodiploid ALL, they learned. Right before he passed in August 2017, Caleb told his mom he needed to give the medal back to St. George. Karen hesitated; she said she didn’t want to hurt Darryl’s feelings.

“Just tell him that I love him for supporting me in my battle, but this really belongs to his son,” Caleb said. At the time, St. George wasn’t married and had no children.

The pathway to healing
The following month, Karen was back at work. “I knew that I needed a routine or else I was never going to leave my house,” she said. She was welcomed by an entire community of people – colleagues and staff, her son’s former teachers and fellow students – who wanted to help her heal. Karen quickly became involved with different fundraising and cancer awareness efforts at the high school, including the Relay for Life movement and St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which originated in Northport and is the top charitable funder of childhood cancer research grants in the United States. She spoke openly about her family’s journey with cancer and wasn’t afraid to share Caleb’s story with the world.

“It was for my own sanity,” she said. “I couldn’t let him disappear like that”

St. George was a huge support as well, with his own personal history of grief – his 21-year-old brother Corey died from a drug overdose in 2012, after a long battle with addiction.

“There was a lot of loss for the both of us,” Karen said.

Five months later, in February 2018, St. George asked Karen to help chaperone a SF60K trip to West Virginia, where opioid-related overdose deaths are still the highest in the nation. “So I’m doing the healing in the cancer journey, getting involved in St. Baldrick’s, and he… after losing his brother, was trying to find a way to engage in that community to help him heal,” Karen said. “He saw that I wanted to make a difference and I think he realized my suffering and his suffering were similar, even though they were different.”

It was a great partnership. By that point, St. George had become an advisor to SF60K and Karen was ready to volunteer. She later joined the organization on a trip to Puerto Rico, a hurricane relief effort St. George arranged with the help of Tim Gibson, the President Emeritus of World Servants. “It was a huge success, and Tim encouraged us to go to Kenya with him,” Karen said. “We thought it was a pipe dream, but with dogged persistence, Darryl got the paperwork approved.”

Through their shared loss, Karen said, she and Darryl found a way to give: “We both felt so strongly, in the two trips we had that year, that the pathway to healing was service to others.”

In February of 2020, SF60K took its first trip to Kenya.

“I felt like my opportunity to join Darryl and SF60K was the biggest gift in the world because I didn't fall into a hole of grief and I didn’t see only my own grief,” Karen shared. SF60K gave her a lifeline, she said.

A long history – and – love of community
Born and raised in East Northport, Karen attended Pulaski Road Elementary, East Northport Middle and Northport High School, which she graduated from in 1986. She spent eight years as an elementary school teacher out of district before moving back to East Northport to raise her children (she had three – Caleb, Noah and Olivia – in four years).

In 2005, Karen returned to teaching, this time as a kindergarten enrichment teacher at Village Pre-School in Northport, the same preschool her children had attended and where Karen, like many new parents, forged many family friendships. She also taught the twos and fours classes.

Some of her students were the children of former high school peers, a community of people who grew up in the area, then raised a family here. “Many of the kids that I took to Kenya,” she said, “I’ve already known since they were three. And a lot of them were my preschool and kindergarten students there at Village.”

Rejoining the Northport-East Northport community as a new parent, then ingraining herself into the lives of so many other families in her children’s schools, activities and sports clubs foreshadowed a coming together of residents and neighbors Karen never could have imagined.

Years later, her friends and neighbors followed Caleb’s cancer journey, and set up a GoFundMe that allowed Karen to live in Philadelphia while Caleb was being treated. “All of that was very open and I was open with my story because I felt the trust of the community,” she said. “There was just such a deep amount of love there from generations of people who knew us. Our community kept our family together.”

Karen’s husband Michael took care of “all the normal” at home while she was out-of-state with Caleb. Noah was now a senior, and Olivia a sophomore at Northport High School. A meal train supported by teachers from the elementary, middle and high schools, among others, offered a weight off the family, and helped them get through the day-to-day.

“It is truly humbling when you realize that you are one tragedy, one medical event away from total ruin,” Karen said. “We would have lost our house, we would have lost everything if it wasn’t for the community. And then to see people come along and care enough about little old us so that we wouldn’t collapse. I still to this day, I can’t put into words how much I want to give back because of what was given to me.”

It all comes together…
When Karen looks back, she’s amazed by the connections formed while her kids were younger and the web of mutual support they would weave in their future lives. John and Theresa Braun, an East Northport Middle School science teacher and school counselor, respectively, were organizers and active participants in the district’s St. Baldrick's efforts.

Pre-cancer, Caleb would watch John shave his head at St. Baldrick’s events – freshly shaved heads and the wearing of green are the hallmarks of the foundation – and the day he was diagnosed with cancer, Karen shared, the Paquets received a binder from the foundation filled with his protocol, all the medications he would take, their side effects, and what to expect. “It was everything you needed to know,” without the heaviness of Googling for information, she said. “It’s such a beautiful interconnected group of people truly trying to get to the bottom of the over 258 different types of cancer for children alone.”

Noah Paquet at the March 2023 St. Baldrick’s event at Northport High School. His brother Caleb, who passed away from cancer in 2017, is pictured in the photo behind him. Photo courtesy Karen Paquet.

Karen remains open with her journey, wanting to break the shame and the stigma attached to a cancer diagnosis. No one likes to talk about it, she said, because it’s sad, and a lot of the children die.

“I don’t ever want any family to go through what we went through. Unfortunately, I know far too many that do,” she said.

During last year’s Relay for Life at Northport High School, an annual nationwide event hosted by the American Cancer Society to help support cancer survivors and caregivers, Karen was again reminded of the broad extension of community as family, friends, students and neighbors from all aspects of her life joined her on the track to rally against cancer.

The loss of Caleb, Karen said, has made her a better human, with a deeper understanding of the human experience. “Life has just gotten a lot simpler and clearer for me,” she said. Her tenets are simply to exist, do no harm, live and let live, and help others.

She told the Journal she would not be doing what she's doing without the many hands holding her up. Now all she wants, when she sees others in need, is to reciprocate that kindness.

Karen recalls, on one trip to El Paso, Texas with SF60K, listening to migrants speak about the loss of their children in some “unspeakably horrific ways,” during long journeys to get to the border.

“I'm just a mom at that point who has lost a child talking to a mom who has lost a child,” she said. Whether from cancer, addiction, murder, “It’s a lot. It goes out of the natural order of things. This baby you were bound to protect, you couldn’t protect despite your best efforts.”

Karen continues to witness a wider world with all types of grief as a part of SF60K; a piece of her heart remains in all of these places. “It’s at the border, it’s in Kenya, it’s in West Virginia,” she said. “Until you see it, you just can’t own it. You have to work alongside it, you have to give your heart, you have to inconvenience yourself and fully buy into what it is you’re doing. And then suddenly your own problems go away and you’re invested in somebody's life.”

The past five years with SF60K, Karen continued, with St. George, now the group’s lead coordinator, and fellow group advisor Alison St. George, a Northport High School teacher Darryl married and, in 2021, had a child with – a son, as Caleb envisioned – have been about sharing with students through firsthand experiences that message of solidarity, about sitting beside people during the difficult times, and working with them to better their lives and the lives of the people they love.

“Knowing that you have hurt and I have hurt, and trying to prevent hurt from somebody else one day, it just shows that despite everything we think is different about us, we’re really all the same,” she said. “We all love people, we all want the ones that we love to move forward and to be well, and to experience dreams and visions and futures and hopes.”

Editor’s note: After speaking to Karen last month, she shared with us via text the following story and image from her trips to Kenya. We wanted to share her experience as well, in her words.

Photos courtesy Karen Paquet.

This is a little boy in Kenya who I met in 2020. Our students were asking the children what their names were, and he couldn't understand. They motioned for him to write it in the sand. He wrote “Caleb.” The students cried, came and found me.

He came up to me last month when I visited, touched the tattoo on my arm (which is Caleb's last signature in a card to me and his father) and pointed to himself, saying, “I am Caleb.”

I met his father this time too… and he’s a pastor. He said that since my Caleb lives with God, we can both share his Caleb on this Earth.