It was the silence that gave Maria Kubitz the first shiver of dread. While cleaning the house, she suddenly realized that she hadn't seen her 4-year-old daughter, Margareta, in 10, maybe 15 minutes, and that she wasn't sure where she was or what she was doing.
Water-safety experts say when a child goes missing at a home with a backyard pool, the first place you should look is the pool.
The Kubitz family had a pool.
That's where Maria Kubitz found Margareta. Floating in the water, near her, was the child's hat.
Margareta couldn't swim and hated the pool because she thought the water was too cold. She wouldn't have gone in on her own, Kubitz says. She suspects Margareta pulled the hat over her eyes, and stumbled into the water accidentally.
It's been nearly seven years since Margareta drowned at her home in Castro Valley, California, becoming another heart-breaking statistic in child mortality data. Drowning is the most common cause of accidental death of children 4 and younger. Young children drown in buckets, puddles and bathtubs with troubling regularity; all it takes is an inch of water and a few minutes alone.
Many children who drown, however, are not alone, but surrounded by people who were distracted for a few minutes or simply didn't realize the child was in trouble.
A 2004 analysis by the National Safe Kids Campaign said that in 9 out of 10 drownings, the children were being supervised, but drowned anyway, leaving their parents and caregivers with not just the anguish of loss, but of guilt.
Kubitz knows guilt.
Although she and her husband have since had another child — a boy — and have three other sons between them, Kubitz still thinks about Margareta several times each day. Both she and her husband were home when the child ventured outside to an uncovered pool.
Margareta had asked both her mom and dad if they wanted to play, but her father was working on the computer and Kubitz was doing housework and wanted to finish a few more tasks.
"Guilt is the hardest part," said Kubitz, who is now 42. "I'm her mom, and I should have protected her. How many times do you tell your children, 'Mommy's not going to let anything happen to you'?"
In the surreal months after burying her daughter, Kubitz saw a therapist and joined multiple support groups. At first they helped, but after a while, she realized that telling the story repeatedly kept her anchored to pain.
Finally, she decided to focus on the happy memories she had, and began writing about Margareta on a blog. (The website is aliveinmemory.org.)
"I wanted her to be a positive thing in my life, and not just focus on her death," Kubitz said.
“She had just turned 4 years old 30 days before she died, so we’re not talking that many memories, but I was afraid I was going to forget them. I wanted to document them, and I thought that if I shared memories of them, other people who never met her will get to know her."
Kubitz named the blog "Alive in Memory" and opened it up for other bereaved people to share memories about their loved ones. Doing so helps people understand that the beauty of a life, no matter how long or short, should not be overshadowed by one terrible day.
“Once I switched my focus to that, it changed my perspective, made me appreciate life more and respect the sacredness of life and how quickly it can be taken away. I don’t care anymore about how much money I make, the things I have. What I care about now is the relationships I have with people I love.”
Another part of the healing came from therapy, where Kubitz came to accept that she made mistakes — the uncovered pool, the unsecured gate — but that she had to decide to forgive herself.
“When you’re a parent, you get into a mindset that (bad things) won’t happen to your family, and there are hundreds of things that could have happened differently that day that would have resulted in a different outcome. It was a terrible, terrible, terrible accident. You have to get to the point that you can accept that. You didn’t kill your child; you didn’t intend for your child to get hurt or to die, in this case,” Kubitz said.
Kubitz has advice for friends and family members who aren't sure how to help bereaved parents after such a devastating loss: Stay close, watch what you say, bring meals or arrange for a house cleaning.
“When you lose a child, all of the sudden, people turn away from you and you feel really isolated. It feels as if you had some horrible contagious disease other people don’t want to catch. You are the embodiment of everyone’s worst nightmare," Kubitz said.
Bereaved parents need people who will listen if they want to talk, but friends should refrain from offering platitudes that can be hurtful, such as saying the death was God's will.
"Just give them your time. Listen. And people bringing meals was incredibly helpful, because I just didn't have the energy to clean or make dinner. You physically ache; it's not just emotional, it's physical as well," Kubitz said.
For other parents who have suffered the loss of a child, she encourages them to find a support group, either in person or online, and not to succumb to the temptation to isolate themselves. "The longer you hold it all in, the worse it gets," she said, adding that a bereaved parent needs support outside of the immediate family.
"Don’t expect to talk about this with your spouse or your kids. Everyone grieves differently; it’s too raw and too much. And expect your relationships to change," she said.
"You can't fix the death of a child," she said, but you can replace pain with sadness, and work to get to the place where your predominant emotion about the lost child is simply love. If you're parenting other children, that will change, too, but it can be for the better.
"Cherish every moment you have with your kids and realize it's not going to last forever. Be on your phone a little less, spend more face time with your kids," Kubitz said. "Your relationships are what matter most. Use that as a guiding principle as a parent."