Children's deaths start life of awareness-raising for Ashland woman

Thursday, July 3, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:07 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 12, 2015
Angela Anderson lost two of her children when they died in the Lake of the Ozarks on July 4, 2012. Brayden, 8, and Alexandra, 13, swam into an undetected electric current while swimming near the shore. The Fourth of July marks the second anniversary of their deaths.

ASHLAND — Angela Anderson walks into her son's room and sniffs the air.

"Some days, it smells like him," she says.

Brayden Anderson’s dirty laundry is still inside the hamper, whites separated from darks in small canvas bags. She can’t bear to wash them.

Across the hall in his sister Alexandra's room, a packing list is still written in black marker in a bold, confident hand on the white board: jeans, boots, nail polish, bikini.

"The girl was always doin', doin', doin,'" Anderson says. Staying organized and keeping lists. She wore her mother out, sometimes.

Two years ago, Angela Anderson lost her children, and she still hasn't packed up their rooms. Brayden, 8, and Alexandra, 13, were electrocuted in the Lake of the Ozarks on July 4, 2012.

The bags the kids packed for that weekend at the lake lie as if just recently dropped there, awaiting unpacking.

Anderson goes there to be with her children, in memory. So does her surviving child, 12-year-old Garrett.

The past two years have been like the darkest of nightmares for her.

She sleeps with trepidation. She wakes with a racing heart and a sweat-soaked pillow. Her mind flies back to the lake, and her children are in the water. She can still hear the screaming.

She has an ache in her chest that is physically painful, she says. "I realized it was a broken heart."

She's been fighting to put some kind of life together since the accident. She took the first year off work, but returned this year part time at Columbia Public Schools.

Garrett is an only child now. He's alive because he’d lost his swimming privileges and was in the house when the accident happened. Anderson is, naturally, protective of him.

Garrett Anderson, 12, sits at his brother and sister's graves at the New Liberty Primitive Baptist Cemetery in Ashland on Friday. Photo by Kylee Gregg/Missourian

Alexandra and Brayden Memorial Walk/Run

The first annual memorial 5K run/walk for Alexandra and Brayden Anderson will be Saturday. 

When: 10 a.m. Saturday

Where: Osage Beach City Park, 950 Hatchery Road, Osage Beach

Cost: $25 adults, $10 children (17 and younger)

Age-group medals will be awarded.

Register online at

Registration pick-up: Check website for location

Proceeds go to the Alexandra and Brayden Fund for Scholarships and to create awareness about electric shock drowning.

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But talking about Alexandra and Brayden has been therapeutic. So she surrounds herself with people who will allow her to do that.

The first time she told a story about Alexandra after her death, she watched her friends’ faces closely, hoping it would be OK. There was a lot of crying, at first, but that doesn't happen as often, now.

Unpublicized issue claims lives

Anderson and her husband, Brian, are holding a memorial 5K run/walk on Saturday to increase awareness about electric shock drowning, which is the term used to describe the way their children died. The Andersons want to honor Alexandra and Brayden, and they also want teach people about the potential danger of swimming around docks and marinas.

Electric shock drowning occurs when a person is electrocuted while swimming — the current comes from the wiring around docks and marinas and from boats, according to the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association.

Although the cause of death could have been electrocution, the word drowning is also used because the person died while in a body of water, Anderson says.

Advocates, such as the Andersons, believe electric shock drowning occurs more often than people realize because coroners attribute alcohol or an inability to swim as the cause of death, rather than the actual killer: an invisible electric current traveling through the water. Electric currents are difficult to trace. They have no exit point when a victim is immersed in water, Anderson says.

But, electric currents paralyze muscles and prevent a person from moving, eventually causing them to drown. Sometimes, the electric shock is so strong that it stops the heart.

Anderson, who grew up on lakes around Missouri, including Lake St. Louis, says she'd never heard of such a thing.

"If you don't know, you can’t do something about it," she says.

And she will never swim in the Lake of the Ozarks again. Ever.

Raising awareness about electric shock drowning has been healing for the Andersons. They realized that "if we don’t do something, then we're no different than any of the people that we’ve been so angry at for not doing anything," Anderson says.

So, they are sharing their story. They are asking people to educate themselves about the dangers of swimming near docks and marinas.

"We just ask ourselves, what would Alexandra and Brayden do if they were here," she says.

Every day she tries to answer that question, both for the memory of her children and for her own recovery.

Death is not something we are comfortable talking about before it happens, when it happens, and for many, after it happens, she says. But, death has become a part of her, so she has learned how to talk about it.

The hardest step was saying the word electrocution, she says. She didn’t associate that word with her children. She associated it with murderers and today no state uses electrocution as its primary method of execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Too inhumane. Anderson couldn't accept what had happened to her children until she understood how they died, she says.

Electric shock drowning is difficult to understand because it's technical, she says.

When Anderson's neighbors jumped into the lake to pull the children out, they felt the electricity. Just a few minutes before, two of the neighbor children had been in the water with Alexandra and Brayden. They were swimming when they asked their mother for a snack. The neighbor was drying off her daughter when the Anderson children started screaming.

Around noon, an electric current from an unknown source struck the Anderson children. Both were wearing life vests at the time.

Anderson remembers freezing when she heard the horrific screams.

At that moment, she was thinking "something's wrong, something's wrong," and then she heard the neighbor yell "turn off the electricity."

A retired nurse and a registered nurse assisted the Andersons with CPR until the EMTs arrived. But the children had stopped breathing on their own. 

At the hospital, the Andersons waited. Then came the news.

"Both of your children have passed," a doctor said.

Anderson remembers repeating: "Both of them, did you say both?"

The following weeks are fuzzy. Anderson doesn’t remember some of what happened after her children died. She chose the verses for their funeral, but she doesn’t remember which ones. She was in survival mode, just getting through the days.

She won't talk about who she thinks was at fault in her children’s deaths because her family has sued Ameren, which has owned the Lake of the Ozarks since the 1980s under a license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But she hopes to reach a legal resolution with the company soon. She's optimistic because the lawsuit recently took a turn in her favor, when the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the finding of the trial court, which had found that Ameren was immune from liability under Missouri's Recreational Use Act.

She expends most of her energy on finding some way to live with what happened.

"I don't really buy, 'Things happen for a reason,'" she says. She finds it's just better to acknowledge her anger with God.

"We have an on-again, off-again relationship," she says. "My faith has helped me get through, but it wasn’t the only thing."

New connections

Unexpected friendships have helped. Like her relationship with Jessica Winstead, a woman who lost her son in an electric shock drowning the same day Alexandra and Brayden died.

Winstead's son, Noah Dean, was 10 when he was electrocuted in Cherokee Lake in Bean Station, Tenn.

Anderson and Winstead often text each other at 4 a.m. because they know it’s likely the other will be awake.

On difficult mornings, they text, “one, two, three, get out of bed,” Anderson says.

Anderson met Winstead on a trip to Knoxville about a year and a half ago when she traveled there to watch the Missouri Tigers play Tennessee. Despite the reasons Anderson gave not to go, a friend finally persuaded her to take the trip. She’s never been an intuitive person, she says, but on that particular trip, she felt anxious and couldn’t sleep that Saturday night after the game.

She logged onto the Internet and started Googling "electric shock drowning" — thinking maybe a family affected by a similar tragedy lived nearby. Her search turned up Winstead. She called Winstead's house several times that Sunday, and left messages, but didn't hear anything back.

Not wanting to give up, she drove the 50 miles from Knoxville to Morristown, Tenn., on Sunday evening and knocked on Winstead's front door.

Winstead was watching "The Notebook" and her daughter, Haleigh Raye, was in the bathtub when she heard a knock at the door.

When Winstead opened the door, Anderson started telling Winstead how she'd lost her children in a lake, too, Winstead recalls.

Many people had stood on Winstead's doorstep in the months following Noah Dean's death.

"People would try to talk to me, and I would shut them out," Winstead says. Then Anderson showed up at her house, and she began to heal, she says. "I asked her questions that I couldn't ask anyone else."

Winstead wasn't there when her son died, so she was able to ask Anderson about what his last moments were like. She had often wondered if it was painful.

The two talked for three hours that night, and these days, they talk and text daily. They're engaged in the same battle: coming to terms with the loss of a child.

"Together we deal with the scary part of death that nobody wants to talk about," Winstead says. They work through the taboos and get each other through the highs and lows.

They've also learned how to parent a sibling who is left behind.

One of the most difficult parts is seeing other children in the community grow up, Winstead says. Anderson echoed her feelings.

"That has been the hardest thing for me, dealing with the past and what will never be," Anderson says.

Facing death

Unlike many women her age, Anderson, 44, knows exactly where she’ll be buried: right next to her daughter. She knows that ground well. Anderson visits her children's graves at the New Liberty Primitive Baptist Cemetery in Ashland often. She decorates them for each season: flowers in the summer and a warm blanket to protect them from snow in the winter.

"I've seen all the seasons there," she says. Sometimes, she sits in the rain and the snow, writing.

Writing has been cathartic.

She’s been writing a book about grieving. She wants it to be less about her individual story and more about how to overcome insurmountable grief.

There’s a chapter about things to never say to a grieving person: "How have you not committed suicide?"

That one tops the list, she says.

And then there's the inappropriate comparison, the woman who wrote to share that her daughter had been sexually assaulted. Terrible, but not the same.

But most of the letters and messages she’s been sent over the years have been kind and supportive.

All of them lead her to believe there's an audience out there for her book. People struggle with grief and often don’t know how to face the isolation and pain that follow trauma.

Coping with grief together

Telling stories has helped Anderson keep the memory of her children alive.

Friends and classmates have done the same. Brayden’s classmates created memory tiles over the course of what would have been his third-grade year. They carved pictures of things that reminded them of Brayden onto the tiles. The tiles were then placed on top of benches at the Southern Boone Learning Garden.

Anderson thinks it helped them process their feelings because understanding death is difficult at that age.

Ellie Helms, left, and Jersee Wren, right, two of Brayden's classmates, visit Brayden's grave because they missed him. They wrote notes on rocks to remember Brayden and left them at his grave stone.

Alexandra was a teenager when she died, and her circle of friends was tighter. Some of them still stop by to catch up and sit in Alexandra's room. These past two years, her classmates at Southern Boone High School, the high school she would have attended, included a heart with her name, "Alex," on the Homecoming banner.

Anderson goes for pedicures with Alexandra's girlfriends when she needs girl time.

It's just one way the people of Ashland have shown support for Anderson and her husband, Brian, since July 4, 2012.

"There was just a complete outpouring of support, people brought meals for six months, teachers came out," Anderson says.

And the support has continued through the two years. The Andersons still celebrate the children's birthdays with friends and family: Alexandra's on Oct. 6 and Brayden's on June 15.

Last Fourth of July, the family released three sets of doves with friends and relatives  at 12:05 p.m., exactly one year after the children's deaths.

Garrett remembers his siblings in quiet ways, Anderson says. He wore an orange shirt, Brayden's favorite color, and black tennis shoes with turquoise laces, like Alexandra used to wear, on the first day of sixth grade.

When he's at the store, he'll buy a juice box because it was Brayden’s favorite flavor, or he’ll pick out SpongeBob SquarePants crackers to take to Brayden's grave to share with him.

He has learned how to play by himself. And, to his mother's surprise, he has never complained. 

Last summer, when he attended a grief camp for children who have lost a parent or a sibling, he was the first to stand up and share his story. 

Garrett tells his mother stories about his siblings that she's never heard. Like the time Alexandra put berries on one of his scrapes to heal it. She loves that. It's helping her heal.

She has her own way, as does her husband. The two have dealt with their grief differently. "We respect what the other person needs to get through it, so we have helped each other by respecting the other person's process," she says.

At the same time, they are determined to get through it together.

This year, Brian and Angela will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary.

Different kinds of milestones

Before Oct. 6 — what would have been Alexandra’s 16th birthday — the Andersons are planning to finish engraving their children’s headstones.

Instead of getting behind the wheel to drive on her own for the first time, Alexandra will receive for her 16th birthday a headstone engraved with a picture of her riding one of her horses.

She'll be looking out over a grassy field, Anderson says. Next to her, Brayden will be swinging on a swing set near his bike and a John Deere tractor.

Anderson says she'd hoped to complete the headstones sooner, but it's been painful to select the pictures for the engraving. It means going through hundreds of photos and reliving hundreds of memories of a happier time.

In the process, she's realized something about the cemetery. "That's where their bodies are," she says. "But they are within me."

She points to her heart.

Angela Anderson works through her grief by creating art projects with her deceased children's belongings. She created a horse using ribbons from her daughter's horse competitions. Photo by Kylee Gregg/Missourian

Alexandra was kind, social and extroverted, always watching out for the new kids at school. Brayden was quiet, but when he spoke, he was profound. And, boy, could he be ornery, Anderson says. She used to have to turn her face away from him when she disciplined him so he wouldn't see that he'd made her smile, she says.

"To me, the story is them and their lives," Anderson says. "Not their death."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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