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Writing through the grief

Grad with grit: Madison Kohn

Caledonia – Madison “Maddie” Kohn wrote a poem describing grief as “a never-ending rollercoaster with no seatbelt/ you must hang on tight to survive/ you must not let go.”

Approaching the end of her senior year at Caledonia High School, Maddie has ridden that rollercoaster since eighth grade, when she lost her sister, Macayla.

“I’m going to be the first senior in the family and I wasn’t supposed to be,” Maddie said. “I never thought I would be the first to graduate in my family.”

Madison Kohn is a senior at Caledonia High School (courtesy)

‘Older Than my Oldest Sister’

In a 100-word memoir assignment for Sarah Wrubel’s English class, Maddie wrote, “I am older than my oldest sister.”

Growing up in Caledonia, Maddie’s life included her mom and dad, older sister, Macayla and younger sister, Marisa. She went to school and played a sport for every season, including soccer, basketball and volleyball. 

Maddie’s life took a sharp, unexpected turn in 2016, when Macayla died following a car crash during her junior year of high school.

“I was too young to even understand at the time, and even now that I’m even older, I still don’t understand it,” Maddie said. “My younger sister was in fifth grade when the accident happened, so she was really too young to understand.” 

As Maddie began her high school years, the Kohn family found themselves going through holidays and milestones without Macayla. 

While balancing school work with her family, friends and personal grieving process, Maddie found less time for her many sports and more of a need to vent her complex, and at times, overwhelming feelings. 

“I always knew I liked writing, so I turned to writing as an outlet after my sister died,” she said. “After everything happened, I wasn’t one to talk about my feelings; I couldn’t find the words to talk about it, so I started buying journals to write in and poetry books to inspire my writing. That helped me to start opening up to my family about my feelings.”

From L to R: Maddie’s mom, Jessica; younger sister Marisa; Dad. Scott; and Maddie spent her senior spring break in Florida (courtesy)

An Unexpected Connection Inspires

Writing and making art became Maddie’s own personal therapy, as did learning about poetry in her senior English class taught by a teacher with a special and unexpected connection.

“My English teacher, Mrs. Wrubel, lost her sister when she was younger, and when we started learning about poetry in class she inspired me to start writing more about my sister.”

Maddie said Wrubel also taught Macayla’s AP English class.

“She actually reached out to my dad when I was in eighth grade and he didn’t see it until a year later, after the flood of messages and emails we got,” Maddie explained. “During my freshman year, Macayla’s friends told me Mrs. Wrubel lost her sister, so I hoped I would get her as a teacher my senior year.” 

In many of her 11 years of teaching English at Caledonia High School, Sarah Wrubel intentionally shares her story of loss with her students to encourage vulnerability in their writing. 

“About eight or nine years ago I started telling my students about the loss of my older sister,” Wrubel said. “To inspire them for a free-writing assignment about courage, I quoted Atticus Finch from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird:’ ‘Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.’

After sharing her story with that first group of students, Wrubel continued sharing with hope she would help them feel more comfortable sharing in the classroom. 

“You never know who it’s going to impact, and it happened to touch Maddie more than the others,” Wrubel said. 

As a family friend, Wrubel understands the untimely loss of an older sibling. As a teacher, she helped Maddie navigate her emotions and improve her writing skills.

“It’s a challenge for me, because as a sister I understand the raw emotions she was feeling. Her original writing was beautiful, but wasn’t always as well crafted as it could have been. I wanted her to have ownership of her feelings and worked with her to communicate her feelings of grief through her writing.” 

After losing her older sister in 2016, senior Maddie Kohn is learning to grieve with grace (courtesy)

Growing Through Grief

Having witnessed Maddie’s growth during her senior year, Wrubel describes her as sincere and authentic. 

“Maddie doesn’t try to change anyone or her experience with grief and loss,” Wrubel said. “She acknowledges what she’s learned and is vulnerable when she does have a bad day. Grief sometimes can cause people to harden, but at such a young age, Maddie has learned to suffer with grace and courage.”

Wrubel also credited the community with helping Maddie grieve. 

“Everything with grief is such a cycle,” Wrubel said. “Maddie experiences the love and compassion she needed to now pay it forward. I hope Maddie continues to uphold Macayla’s legacy and help people who’ve experienced grief. I told her, ‘you have bad days and bad years, but it’s not a bad life.’” 

Maddie plans to spend the summer camping with friends and going to graduation parties. In the fall, she will attend Grand Rapids Community College and pursue “something involving kids,” she said. 

“I’d want to be a grief counselor one day and use my experience and my story to help the people around me and help them feel less alone.”

She also is working on a book of poems.

Her mantra: “I remember I need to be grateful for every day I have, because I might not have tomorrow.”

The Kohn family, from L to R: Macayla, Scott, Jessica, Maddie and Marisa (courtesy)
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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN. Read Alexis' full bio

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