A year of grieving for Carroll teens Tragedies: A saddened community struggles to cope with the loss of 12 young lives in as many months.

August 01, 1998|By John Murphy and Donna R. Engle | John Murphy and Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

When a Liberty High School teen-ager died in a car crash in June, Shen Poehlman was reminded of the disturbing number of Carroll County teen-agers who have died in the past year, friends say.

And she thought about her own mortality.

"If I ever died, I'd want you to think about all the good times," close friend Lauren Tupis, 17, recalls Shen saying. "I know she wouldn't want us crying."

Today, at Shen's funeral, her friends will try their best not to.

There has been a lot of mourning among the county's teen-agers in the past 12 months. Shen, who was killed this week when she was lured to a baby-sitting job, is the 12th Carroll County teen-ager to die.

Though the causes have varied -- accidents, a heroin overdose, disease, a suicide, and this week a homicide -- Shen's death has underscored how many young lives have been lost. And in this county with its strong sense of community, many residents are asking how they can come together to grieve.

"This is a succession of tragedies," said Ron Shadoff, a friend of the Poehlman family. "It's not a matter of if. It's who and when in this bedroom community. We've experienced more tragedy in our area than in any other area of Maryland."

Asked Tupis: "Is it like that everywhere or just here?"

State statistics show that per capita, the numbers are not unusually high.

But in the gentle hills of this rapidly growing county of 150,000, there is a sense that the order of life has somehow unraveled.

County merchants display eerie black-and-white signs of toe tags that warn "Heroin Kills." Teen-agers discuss ways to memorialize their friends. And in these slow, lazy days of summer, neighborhood talk that might otherwise focus on the 4-H fair or the height of this year's cornstalks has instead turned to the death of another teen-ager.

"It seems like each year one school experiences a tragic death. I've never seen this much in one year," said Randy Clark, principal of Liberty High School, which lost two students within five weeks. "I hope its an aberration. I hope it's not what we are going to face in the future."

In April, Jessica R. Bassler and Domini Wigle, popular juniors at Francis Scott Key High School near Uniontown, died in an auto accident in Pennsylvania. State police reported that Domini lost control of her car on Route 194 and slid into the path of another car whose driver, Martha Sheets, 61, of Littlestown, Pa., also died in the crash.

After Jessica's memorial service, her family and friends became aware that the number of young people lost in Carroll County was growing.

"There was a need for kids to reach out to one another and heal," said Patti Robinson, Jessica's aunt.

In answer to the need, the Basslers formed Circle of Friends, a group that has scheduled a memorial service and youth rally for Sept. 12.

Plans for the rally have mushroomed as 20 local churches and several religious youth groups have become involved. Organizers expect 2,000 to 3,000 teen-agers to attend. The teens will munch refreshments, listen to a concert by the alternative Christian funk band Roger Record and the Groove, view a memorial video and talk about what it's like to lose a friend. The rally and service will end with lighting of candles.

"The purpose is to bring kids together so they can grieve together and bring them to the point where they can put some closure on their feelings," Robinson said.

"It will give them closure," said Pat Bassler, Jessica's father. "It will let them know that they are not the only ones grieving."

Janai Bassler, Jessica's mother, added, "We hope if the Lord takes it, it will become an annual event."

Pat Bassler, a Westminster police officer who was first on the scene when another teen-ager died of a heroin overdose in January, said he struggles to see any one cause for the tragedies, but can't.

"Kids will be kids. When I was 16 or 17, I thought I was invincible. I drove like crazy on my motorcycle. It never caught up with me," he said.

"You can't watch kids all the time. You can't keep them shut in their bedrooms."

Last month, the Basslers began meeting with a Westminster-based group of parents who have lost a child. Bassler said he's learned that it takes years to put the death of a child behind you.

"You'll be fine. You'll look fine and then something will hit you," he said.

Perhaps a song on the radio, a whiff of perfume or a certain place will call back the memory of the loss, he said.

For Bassler, those moments come at the dinner table, when he sees four plates at the table instead of five. Or at a restaurant, when he must remind himself that his family is smaller by one.

"It's hard," he said.

Just days after Shen's death, her friends and family are also learning the scope of their loss.

Late Thursday night, a group of her friends talked about how they could best remember. Some are planning to have tattoos etched above their hearts with the initials "S.P." Others still plan to go on a trip to Ocean City they had planned with Shen.

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