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Sun-Sentinel

Sean lost his brother-and best friend- suddenly, and a hospice program for children is helping him smile again.

By Shana Gruskin

In January, Timothy Brown left home to play a pickup game of basketball with some friends. He never came back. “He had been gone about two hours when the phone call came that said he had passed out on the court,” said his mother Pearlie Brown, of West Palm Beach. “They took him to Columbia Hospital. That’s when the pronounced him dead.”

At 17, Tim Brown was brimming with possibilities. He had just finished his first season as a football player for Palm Beach Lakes High School, catching four interceptions and earning an all-area honorable mention. He was a runner and a charmer, know for his dazzling smile. He was on his way to South Carolina State on a football scholarship. But more than any of that, Tim was Sean Brown’s big brother.

He was the 11-year old’s water-balloon enemy, his candy sharing nemesis, his Pokemon-watching partner, and his best friend. Without him, Sean – the youngest of the three Brown brothers – was lost, afraid, silent. Less than a month after Tim died of what later was diagnosed as an undetected heart defect, Sean began complaining that his chest hurt. “I took him to the emergency room and they tested him,” Pearlie Brown said. “They couldn’t find anything. “We went to the pediatrician’s office: they couldn’t find anything.” Pearlie Brown even took Sean to a pediatric cardiologist. No sign of trouble. “They determined it was just anxiety,” she said.

Sean wouldn’t sleep in the room he used to share with Tim. A few times a week, he’d call his mother at work, saying he was sick and needed to come home from school. “He would think of any reason he wasn’t feeling any good,” Pearlie Brown said. “Eventually, it did stop once he started the counseling.”

In March, Sean began music therapy at Hospice of Palm Beach County. Cocooned in the electric music room, he began writing rap songs, and there, lyric-by-lyric, note-by-note, Sean began to release his grief. “They help you cope with it,” he said.

When most people think of hospice, they think, “it’s a place, they’re old and they have cancer.” Said Sue Deakin, director of community development. “That’s a very small percent of our program.” Instead hospice is a concept, providing direct care to the dying, as well as support and bereavement programs to loved ones. What Pearlie Brown didn’t know is that Palm Beach County’s 21-year-old hospice also offers free counseling to children. The program sends crisis teams to schools after a student or employee dies. It provides therapy to children who are losing a family member to a terminal illness. It also offers support groups for those who lose a loved one suddenly.

“For a while Sean didn’t want to talk about it.” Pearlie Brown said of Tim’s death.”…Now he can laugh. He makes jokes about him.” Every Tuesday, Sean meets with Tom Dalton, a music therapist. In a room cluttered with stuffed animals, mats and instruments, the two strum electric guitars, bang the drums and rattle out impromptu songs. All the words, all the music, center on Sean’s memories of Tim.

“Music is a wonderful way of addressing some of the grief issues,” said Dalton, who treated about 500 children last year. “Music is a way for children to express the intensity of their feelings.” Sometimes, he said, words aren’t enough. For example, just saying you’re sad or angry at someone’s death doesn’t capture the same level of emotion as pounding on a drum or stroking a piano’s keys. Music Therapy also opens doors to talking to children about loss, anger, spirituality and the other gritty remnants the death of a loved one leaves behind. It teaches them how to handle their grief so it doesn’t metastasize into resentment and guilt, Deakin said. It teaches them how to find closure without losing their connection to the person who died.

It was through music that Sean finally told Dalton about Tim’s broken promise to him. “Me and him liked to race,” Sean said. “He liked driving cars and I liked riding my bike.” The two brothers had planned to combine their passions and build a go-cart together after Tim graduated from high school. When Dalton heard about the plan, he was thrilled. “This might be an excellent way for him to get in touch with some of the feelings and do something positive in memory of his brother.”

So Dalton began researching go-carts. Eventually he found a non-motorized one in a catalogue from Canada. The boxy, $400 red-and-blue machine now is parked in Dalton’s music therapy classroom. Sean and two neighborhood friends are decorating it in Tim’s honor. Across it’s nose, the number 13 stands out – Tim’s jersey number. Photos, mementos and drawings pepper the rest of its body. An orange dragon, the most powerful of all Pokemon characters, sits ready to pounce on the front of the cart. The seat boasts a stoic 8 by 10 glossy of Tim in full football regalia. A slab of wood next to the seat eventually will hold a portable CD payer. The player will belt out Sean’s own rap songs about Tim.

Sean, who’s kind of shy, still doesn’t talk freely about Tim to strangers. But when he picks up the microphone in Dalton’s music therapy classroom or points out a photo on his glistening go-cart, he lets the recollections wash over him. And instead of clamming up, Sean revels in what Dalton refers to as his “moving canvas of memories.”

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