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Some ‘things still absolutely crush us’: Wichita family copes with tragic death of daughter

Shelby Cramb views the 2017 eclipse in Wyoming

Shelby Cramb and her family drove from Wichita to Wyoming to view the eclipse. Shelby Cramb was 11 when she drowned on Aug. 27, 2017, at a church lake party.
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Shelby Cramb and her family drove from Wichita to Wyoming to view the eclipse. Shelby Cramb was 11 when she drowned on Aug. 27, 2017, at a church lake party.

Everywhere in his Wichita house, Andy Cramb can still see, hear and feel his daughter. It’s stored in his memory.

There’s Shelby sneaking up close behind him and silently following him — one of her favorite pranks.

There’s Shelby standing in his jeans — way too big for her. She holds the jeans up around her pajamas and grins into the camera. Thick hair frames smiling eyes. A photo of the pose caught her shadow on the wall.

And he can still see her coming down the stairs to say goodnight.

Andy — at 42 a father, husband and electrical engineer — can still feel what it was like to carry his little redheaded daughter as she rested against his shoulder, from the car to her bed after a 14-hour drive home from Wyoming to see the total eclipse. Even at 11, she liked her dad to carry her.

Andy and Joanna have no plans to move from the house their daughter inhabited.

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The Cramb family dove hunting together in northern Kansas in 2016. Dove hunting is a family tradition for the Crambs. Andy Cramb

“The sorrow is in your mind, and moving away from a home is only leaving behind every precious memory you had of them,” Andy wrote. “There’s not a square inch of floor space where I can’t remember her in this house.”

Everything changed that moment on Aug. 27, 2017, when Andy found Shelby’s neatly folded clothes — but not her — near the private lake where she was among a throng of kids at a church party. She disappeared amid the playfulness. Then came the devastating discovery — Shelby drowned.

Ever since, the father’s emotions have swung back and forth. From pain to comfort. From joy to sorrow.

Like an emotional pendulum.

“The fact that that pendulum could swing so high towards joy was why the sorrow was so strong swinging the other way,” Andy wrote.

The image of a pendulum helped him to understand, he says, “why I hurt so bad.”

That day

That summer day, Andy, Joanna and younger son Gavin went to the church lake party to pick up Shelby. She was among more than 100 children, at what was supposed to be an end-of-summer celebration.

When the Crambs arrived, they realized that she was missing — and that she had to be in the lake.

Andy “anxiously emptied” his pockets, “threw off” his shoes and “zig-zagged” the water along the shore. He felt the bottom with his feet.

“There was a frantic, ultimate sense of urgency,” he wrote.

When he couldn’t find her, he said, he fantasized that she was still in the house and they would find her.

“But we had found her clothing by the house when we arrived, folded neatly on the steps.”

They knew she had to be in the water.

Andy wanted to be the one to find her, to carry her out of the lake, “and I couldn’t do it. There was nothing I could do.”

It took hours for the divers to find her body. A medical examiner ruled that it was an accidental drowning.

To Andy, there’s a vital safety message that should be repeated: No matter how strong and experienced a swimmer a child is — and Shelby was — he or she can quickly disappear and not be rescued in deep, murky water. That afternoon, she had no life vest on.

“Even if your child is a great swimmer,” he said in a Facebook message, “please insist on a floatation device.”

Why sharing now

It’s been almost a year and a half since Shelby drowned. Recently, The Eagle reported that a petition to approve a legal settlement over Shelby’s death had been filed in court. The agreement is between Shelby’s parents, the church that invited her to the lake party and the west Wichita homeowners where the party occurred.

As part of its reporting on the settlement, The Eagle called Shelby’s father. The conversation prompted Andy to write down intimate details of how he and his wife and son have dealt with Shelby’s death over time.

Andy said he wanted to be clear about his motivation in sharing personal insights: “Please remember to mention this isn’t about me. This is to honor God, Shelby and help those in similar situations.”

He decided to write about his feelings, starting with the simple sentence: “We can’t express how much we miss Shelby.”

Relentless tears

At first, “simply ‘living’” without Shelby was crushing, Andy wrote.

He described the feeling as “a ‘welling up’ of emotion that actually felt like something inside me growing … a sludge filling me up that made me heavy and sapped my energy.” The feeling began in his torso, he explained. And it came out in tears.

“It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t ‘over the top,’ but it was completely uncontrollable,” he wrote.

Sometimes, the crying lasted 45 minutes. Immobilized, he stayed on a couch for weeks after it happened.

“I didn’t know you could cry for hours on end, over and over.”

But after a month or so of relentless crying, he wrote, he “kind of ‘Dried Up’ and couldn’t cry anymore. It was a strange feeling … I felt the sludge, but it wasn’t the same ‘output.’”

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Shelby and Gavin Cramb at at Fall River Lake on July 5, 2017. Andy Cramb

How they coped

They stopped drinking alcohol for nearly a year, he wrote, “because we were already so depressed.”

For months, they cut out TV. It was too dramatic, too sarcastic, too cynical, too rude. Some jokes stopped being funny.

They have avoided some films.

“Visuals in movies where a child is in imminent danger is amplified by 1000% … I can’t watch some movies without getting a sick feeling when something is going to happen … and I know it’s not real, and most times it all turns out OK … but it takes me back to that place where it didn’t turn out OK for us.”

“We are finding ways to cope,” he wrote, “but certain things still absolutely crush us.”

Shelby played the violin. She had just started sixth grade at Maize Middle School. Last year, Andy, Joanna and Gavin still attended orchestra and vocal music concerts where Shelby would have performed.

The first time they drove away from a concert after her death, Andy recalled, “it just felt so wrong that she wasn’t with us.”

He has avoided riding in his wife’s car. Because Shelby usually rode in it.

“Feelings for her are always right below the surface, even when we’re smiling and laughing,” he wrote. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt joy and sorrow at the same time.

“The Lord has placed so many wonderful people in our lives to help us navigate this, but it still hurts so bad.”

‘God’s gift’

Lora Jones is the aunt of one of Andy’s friends. In 2004, Lora was in an ice-related traffic accident near Kingman that killed her husband and two children. She has a ministry now. She helps people “find their way through crises,” Andy wrote.

Lora says she guides people through their “faith journey” as “they wrestle with God” over their losses.

“My friend offered to have her stop by whenever she comes through Wichita and I agreed,” Andy said. “God’s gift to us that day was the fact that she was coming through Wichita that weekend and offered to meet with us. She came to our house and we spoke for probably three hours.”

Lora was the one who explained to him the emotional pendulum.

“She said that people who try to stop that sorrow block the pendulum at the bottom and they can get stuck there,” he wrote. “Trapped in a place where they try to block the sorrow, but they cannot find joy either. You must try to find joy again to get the pendulum to swing the other way.”

The problem of 5+6

Shelby was the leader. She would direct her younger brother in what to do and say as they played together.

“The loneliness he’s suffered angers me,” Andy wrote. “He feels this loneliness when he’s playing, watching a movie, going to bed.

“She’s not in the next room anymore; that gave him confidence to sleep at night.”

For Gavin, bedtime was the toughest. Andy has a vivid memory of Gavin lying there and sobbing quietly, repeating his sister’s name.

As if the boy was in a trance.

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Shelby reading to her younger brother Gavin on their way to see the 2017 eclipse in Wyoming. Andy Cramb

“He was completely broken,” Andy wrote.

“I can’t believe I sent Gavin to school less than a week after her burial when I felt so bad I didn’t go to work for a month.”

It made it impossible for Gavin to concentrate on school work, his father wrote.

“He would explain to us that when he was doing his math lessons, he would be stuck on the first problem of single digit addition and would stare at it. When we asked why, he explained it wasn’t because he didn’t know 5+6 … it was because 5+6=11 and that’s how old Shelby was.

“Every problem that was less than 11 was a year that she had lived, and it stopped him in his tracks.”

People asked whether Gavin was old enough to understand the impact of his sister’s death. Definitely, Andy says.

Shortly after the drowning, Gavin pointed out that he wouldn’t become an uncle. It struck Andy that at age 7, his son was thinking decades ahead. It made Andy realize that adults underestimate kids’ awareness, that grown-ups need to have “simple, honest conversations with children about these matters.”

“We told him we don’t want to be afraid of life,” Joanna said.

Andy told their son that there was no need to fear water. The boy went swimming in a lake — with a life jacket — about a year after his sister drowned.

Good memories

Andy called Shelby “my sneaker.”

Because “she perfected walking silently behind me,” he wrote.

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Shelby Cramb goofing off to make her father laugh on July 14, 2016.

She would follow him into the house and “through the living room without me knowing” when he came home from work.

He misses her sneaking down the stairs to say goodnight.

“Her room is the same.”

Gavin “plays in her room occasionally to feel closer to her.”

There’s a glow-in-the-dark pad where “I would write messages to her every night before bed. … I still wrote on it every night for more than a year afterwards. I’ve fallen off doing it nightly, but still do. It’s kind of like lighting a candle for her, I guess.”

‘Shelby-age girls’

When the Crambs go out, they get reminded.

“We see ‘Shelby’ age girls interacting with their parents and it brings many mixed emotions,” Andy wrote.

“A year and a half ago, we would hold it together till we left wherever and hold each other while crying, asking ‘why…’.

“Over time,” he wrote, “it got easier, but there would always be a pit in my stomach. We love watching her friends grow up and do this and that activity, but sadly, they’re getting bigger, maturing .. .they don’t look anything like they did a year and a half ago and it hurts to know our forever 11 baby girl is not going through all those changes. And Joanna was preparing for it. She had read a few books with Shelby about boys and adolescence, had a simplified version of ‘the talk’, and we were excited for a new chapter in life. Watching her become a young woman.”

A healthy distraction

Grieving parents often “throw themselves into an activity to distract themselves from the pain,” Andy wrote. He’s been designing “a very custom headstone for Shelby for over a year now ... that’s been my distraction.”

The plans include a solar-powered lighting system configured inside the headstone. “It’s something I’m capable of and can do special for her,” he wrote.

“She doesn’t need it, she’s in heaven and God is taking good care of her,” he wrote. “I’m doing this for myself, our family, her friends. The pain doesn’t go away with these distractions; it’s a chronic condition you learn to accept.”

The headstone will be black granite with a sculptured cat, Andy explained, because Shelby liked to play “Hollyleaf,” a black cat with green eyes that is a character in the “Warriors” book series about clans of wild cats.

‘Forever’ children

Fifty feet from Shelby’s grave, there’s a burial plot for another “forever” child. The other child died from an accident a few months before Shelby.

“Because she was so close to Shelby’s age and near her burial site, I hoped they could be friends in heaven and I would talk to her when visiting Shelby at the cemetery.”

The Crambs spent many hours at the cemetery, knowing that Shelby was not there, but feeling they had to do something for her.

Andy watered trees near her plot. “I wanted to do anything for her.”

One evening he was at the cemetery by himself. He wrote about how he asked the other child “to help us get in touch with her parents because I had tried to contact them a couple of times and was unsuccessful. The next night when we were there, we were sitting on a bench in the middle of the area and someone opened up a lawn chair behind us.

“Startled, we turned around.” It was the other girl’s mother.

“We sat there and spoke with her for over an hour. She cried with us and we felt better talking to her.”

The other mother “helped Joanna realize that there’s always going to be a worse situation than ours.” The other mother “got to spend a couple of days with her daughter ... while in a coma and kind of got to say goodbye. She thought it was so awful that Joanna didn’t get to do that. Joanna says we were lucky to find our daughter, there are people who lose children and never know what happened; they never have closure, and that would be so much worse.”

The Crambs still visit Shelby’s plot often. And when they notice a new plot, Andy wrote, “We go to see who is there and offer condolences to those who come to visit, if they seem open to it.”

The families who are there regularly have forged a community, he says.

The Crambs have become friends with the parents of several children buried “within 200 feet of Shelby.”

“We’re friends with a widower that is out there daily, and have met several other very nice people.

“We’re all finding our way,” he says.

Tim Potter has covered crime and safety for The Eagle for more than 20 years. His focus is the story behind the story and government accountability. He can be reached at 316-268-6684.

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