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MUMS principal authors a book about recovering from her son's death

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Posted on December 27, 2018 |
By John Flowers



Francouer book 2.jpg
MIDDLEBURY UNION MIDDLE School Principal Kris Francoeur holds a copy of her new book, in which she frankly and passionately chronicles her healing process following her son Sam’s untimely death in 2013. Independent photo/John Flowers

MIDDLEBURY — The calendar.

A simple measure of the passage of time and a marker for special days.

But the calendar, for Kris Francoeur, can be a foreboding benchmark that reaches its gloomy climax in October. That’s the month during which her son, Sam, tragically drew his last breath following an accidental drug overdose.

It’s the kind of tragedy that would make some parents curl up into a ball and give up on life. And indeed, Kim and her husband Paul hardly ate, spoke or went out in public for several weeks after their beloved son’s death on Oct. 9, 2013. He was just 20 years old.

Francoeur, the principal of Middlebury Union Middle School, is sharing recollections of her son through a new book called “Of Grief, Garlic and Gratitude.” She hopes it will serve not only as a loving tribute to Sam, but also as a balm for the souls of other parents who find themselves in the obscenely unfair position of having to bury a child.

She also hopes the book prompts parents to get help for any children who might be abusing drugs in an effort to dull the pain of depression, as Sam did.

“Of Grief” emerged from a series of Facebook posts that Francoeur initially used to give people basic information on Sam’s passing. But the posts later grew in scope and message. The creative outlet allowed Francoeur — an exceptionally good writer — to convey her feelings about all things “Sam,” from recalling some of his playful idiosyncrasies (he once drove the family goat to school in a car), to her frustration about a lack of media attention on the abuse of prescription painkillers.

Her posts gained a lot of Facebook “likes” and drew responses. Francoeur got a sense of the hundreds of people — both young and old — whom her son had touched through the years. Sam was, according to his mom, a person who insisted on making a connection with whomever he met. He was a gregarious, funny and well-like young man who excelled as a young actor at Otter Valley Union High School, where Kris once worked as a special educator at OVUHS.

Scores of others joined in, giving Francoeur a sense of the astounding number of people her son had influenced during his brief life. Some of the posts came from longtime friends and relatives, but others came from folks who had had only brief encounters with Sam but had walked away impressed by his passion, sense of humor and big heart.

“You were always ready with a smile or a joke to brighten someone’s day, all I can say is you will be missed,” reads one post.

“I never saw you in a bad mood, if there was conflict you were there to say something like, ‘Hey guys, let’s just hug it out instead,’” reads another post.

These posts helped Francoeur learn even more about her son following his passing.

“As a parent, you know who your child is to you, but you don’t often get a chance to see who your child is to others,” Francoeur writes in her book. “I’ve learned about how his humor often defused tense situations, how he encouraged young actors to take risks, how he listened to anyone about anything without any judgment…. It wasn’t until he died that I truly got to see how important he was to such an astounding number of people.”

Sam Francoeur was bipolar and his family believes he was using marijuana and other drugs to self-medicate. He died at his grandparents’ house; paramedics found a pain patch in his mouth.

“No parent should ever see their child dead. Period,” Francoeur writes in her book. “That goes against everything that seems right and logical in the universe; it’s just not the natural order of things. Think back to the incredible moment when you saw your child for the first time, that absolute rush of emotion, of love, in those first few minutes. But helplessly seeing your child lie lifeless? It is that same strength of emotion, but pain, and exponentially larger.”

The daughter of a minister, Francoeur had grown up as a religious person. But she could no longer find a connection with a divine force after her son’s death.

“After Sam’s death, I told my father that God and I had ‘agreed to see other people,’” she writes.

So she decided to practice what she called “conscious and deliberate gratitude” for things big and small. Francoeur sprinkled her Facebook page with posts about things for which she was thankful. A rainbow. Receiving kind words.

“Yesterday I was thankful for being able to spend some time with my knitting, and for good news, reads a post from Feb. 13, 2014.”

Facebook provided Francoeur with a window into other people’s lives, and she would occasionally chime in (and sometimes later wish she hadn’t) to help put a person’s “bad day” into context. She noted she would love to have some of the “bad” days others were having.

“I have to say that over the last month, many of my Facebook friends have posted complaints about their children; how the hardest thing they ever had to do was see their child go back to college, how tiring it is to be a parent, etc.,” Francoeur wrote. “I am not saying any of those feelings aren’t valid, but I would suggest gently that being tired because your children have been happily busy that day, or even because they are being difficult — this is a gift to you, be thankful of their presence in your life, be thankful they are there to irritate you, be thankful you are dropping them off at college instead of picking out a casket. To see people whine about a gift they have seems almost sin-like to me.”

SAM FRANCOEUR WAS just 20 when he succumbed to an accidental drug overdose on Oct. 9, 2013. His mother, Kris, shares his story in her new book, “Of Grief, Garlic and Gratitude.”

Photo courtesy of Kris Francoeur

Francoeur’s growing number of Facebook friends saw wisdom, candor and passion in her posts, and it wasn’t long before they encouraged her to write a book. She agreed, and began to mine the treasure trove of Facebook posts that she, and others, had left in Sam’s honor. She provided narrative context for the posts, and signed a deal with Morgan James Publishing.

For some people, “Of Grief” will serve as a template for recovery from emotional devastation. For others, it will be a valuable guide. For example, some well meaning people have a tendency to choose their words of sympathy poorly. Francoeur recalled some people trying to make her feel better by telling her, “I lost a dog,” or, “at least he’s in a better place,” or, “he’ll be forever young.”

Francoeur didn’t want to see Sam remain forever young; she wanted to see him grow old and realize his dreams.

And in a bitter twist of irony, Francoeur would later find a slip of paper in a pocket of one of Sam’s jackets. That paper bore the theme of that year’s OVUHS prom: “Forever young.”

“I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry, so I ended up sitting on the floor, surrounded by piles of stuff, and laughed while tears streamed down my cheeks,” Francoeur wrote.

Indeed, the pain never goes away. Sometimes it will lie dormant, only to be triggered by an anniversary, a song on the radio, a memory.

“We had an issue last week where I had what I refer to as a ‘tidal wave of grief’ hit very unexpectedly,” Francoeur said. “It hurts now, when those hit, as much as it did on the first day. But I now can usually sense when it’s coming and I know how to ride it out and what I need to do. So it’s different.”

Not all of the reminders bring pain; some give Francoeur and her family moments of sublime joy. Since Sam wasn’t what one might call a neat-freak, the house is still sprinkled with tiny scraps-turned-keepsakes. For example, Francoeur came upon a waste wrapper, buried within a mitten, that she recalled having asked her son to throw away. Sam had instead secreted it within the mitten.

“I went to find a pair of winter boots that I hadn’t worn for a while… ” Francoeur recalled. “I put my hand in, and there was one of Sam’s dirty socks in there, because he would occasionally be too lazy to get his own shoes and would go on tip-toe in mine.

“I sat there and laughed, and said, ‘Five years later and you’re still giving me dirty laundry,” she added with a big smile.

Five years and exceptional composure helped Francoeur put on a brave face for this interview, but there’s no mistaking it’s still difficult for her to talk about the loss of her beloved son. Her voice never wavers, but the pain is etched in her face.

They say time heals all wounds, but you never get over the loss of a child.

A parent is supposed to pick out a doctor, dentist and clothes for a child — not a coffin.

Francoeur received her first dose of “tough love” on the healing process at the celebration of Sam’s life, from a woman who had lost her own son to a drug overdose several years prior.

“As I hugged her, I begged, ‘Tell me it gets better,’” Francoeur writes in her book.

But the woman was going to give it to her straight.

Her response: “No, it doesn’t get better. It gets different.”

It wasn’t the answer that Francoeur wanted to hear at the time.

“I was so mad that she had said that, and I for weeks just kept wondering, ‘How could she say that?’” Francoeur recalled. “I so needed someone to tell me it would get better.”

Over time, Francoeur learned the woman’s advice was honest and sound.

“A year later, I told her it was the kindest thing anybody could have ever said, because if she had told me it was going to get better, it would have been a lie,” Francoeur said. “She told me the truth.”

The Francoeurs, who have a younger son, Ben, continue to pay homage to Sam through deeds and some lasting legacies. Kris Francoeur got a tattoo of a tree of life, a permanent ink design that Sam had wanted to get on his 21st birthday. The family planted a garden, in which they grow a ton of veggies and one of Sam’s favorites: Garlic. They pass out seeds to others who might want to think of Sam as they consume a product of Mother Nature, a treasure he enjoyed so much.

But perhaps the most impressive gift is the parade of Sam’s friends who continue to search for a piece of him at his parents’ Leicester home.

“In the end, that’s why I wanted to share this story,” Francoeur said. “This was a child who died in a way that so many people are vilified for. And yet he’s been gone for more than five years and we still have people show up at our house or show up regularly at his gravesite to leave notes about things he did that made them feel loved. That’s an incredible legacy to leave.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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