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Grieving young

Children can have a hard time coping with a friend's death. Some find comfort in thoughts of angels or created scenarios.

Elsa Rosario, the grandmother of Gina Marie Rosario, 7, who died Wednesday night, receives a hug from a family member during a memorial service for the four victims who died in the Feltonville section fo Philadelphia. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )
Elsa Rosario, the grandmother of Gina Marie Rosario, 7, who died Wednesday night, receives a hug from a family member during a memorial service for the four victims who died in the Feltonville section fo Philadelphia. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )Read more

Sadeek Price is 10 - old enough, he said, to understand why three of his relatives and another child died last week in a horrific accident in front of a Feltonville rowhouse.

But Sadeek had a secret, he said Friday.

"We're going to get in the pool today," said Sadeek, who stood in front of a memorial to his relatives. "Me, Pooka, Remedy, and Toya. We're going after they come down from heaven."

As even adults struggle to come to grips with the devastation, processing the tragedy is especially difficult for the young relatives and playmates of the four victims: Latoya Smith, 22; her baby girl, Remedy, who was almost 1; Smith's niece Aaliyah "Pooka" Griffin, 6; and neighbor Gina Marie Rosario, 7.

Some, like Sadeek, make up stories. Others comfort themselves with visions of angels watching over them. And some, said Gina's second-grade teacher, Tiki Davis, pretend the dead just went away for a little while.

"One of the kids said, 'I think Gina's in a wheelchair, and she's hurt real bad, but she's going to get better someday,' " said Davis, a third-year teacher at Willard Elementary.

Willard principal Ron Reilly has a hard time walking into Room 6, where 24 second graders are now 23 and Gina's back-row desk is a memorial with letters and stuffed animals from students spilling over the sides.

At Willard, the joy that usually accompanies the end of a school year seemed to die with Gina. With seven school days left, things felt slow and subdued at the Kensington school Friday afternoon.

"The kids cannot get over that yesterday she was sitting next to them, that her desk is still there, but that she's not coming back," Reilly said.

Davis told Gina's classmates the news as simply as she could Thursday morning: Gina was in an accident. She had been hit by a car. She died. Everyone was sad, but it was important to remember happy things, like what a good reader Gina was, or how she liked to make up dances with her friends on the playground.

"She wrote a note to me a few months back," Davis said, her eyes moist. "She wrote, 'My teacher is a princess.' "

At first, one of Gina's closest friends refused to believe the bad news when her teacher told her.

"I thought she was telling a big story," the second grader said. "Gina was my best best best best best friend."

She went home and talked to her mother about it, the girl said. Both cried.

"My mom said, 'That's why you don't play on the steps or the corner,' " the girl said.

Another girl, who had known Gina since they were toddlers, played with Gina at recess Tuesday.

"She tried to do a cartwheel, and she couldn't do it, and she fell on her bottom, and I laughed," the girl, another second grader, said. "When I heard she died, I was bawling my eyes out."

It helps to think of Gina as an angel, flying around, listening to what she's saying and smiling, the girl said. She's glued to television news, looking for pictures of Gina, she said.

"I just had to keep on watching, because I had to make sure Gina wasn't bleeding."

None of the children at Willard seemed concerned with the men accused of causing the deaths: Donta Cradock, 18, whom authorities said was partially paralyzed by the crash and would not be arraigned until his condition improved, and his stepbrother Ivan Rodriguez, 20, who has been charged with murder.

In front of the Third Street rowhouse where Smith, Aaliyah, and Remedy lived and died, about 100 people milled around Friday afternoon. Half were children - drinking from juice boxes, eating sunflower seeds, laying flowers at two growing memorials, and chasing one another.

Sitting next to one memorial was Theo Canada, father of Aaliyah and brother of Latoya. He clutched photos of his oldest child and sister to his heart.

Canada's face crumpled when he talked about how he would someday tell his younger children, 2 and 6 months, about their sister.

"I just don't know," he said. "I've got books, but I . . . don't know. I guess I'll give them a picture and say, 'This was your sister. You can talk to her every night. Just pray to her.' "

The 2-year-old, a happy girl with brightly colored barrettes and a big smile, particularly adored her big sister.

"She keeps looking for Pooka," said Vanessa Boyer, Aaliyah's grandmother.

Near where Canada kept vigil, six girls crowded onto four folding chairs, swinging their legs and watching the people come and go. All were cousins of three of the victims.

They were sad, they said, because Pooka, Remedy, Latoya, and another girl were gone.

"But we have our memories," said Myesha Jones, 8.

"And pictures," said Tyra Brown, 7. "I'm just a little scared, though. It was scary."

Myesha nodded, her eyes wide.

"I almost never stopped crying," she said.

Omar Pittman, another cousin, said he hadn't been able to bring himself to tell his children - ages 8, 3, and 2 - about the deaths. The younger two don't need to know yet, he said, but his oldest, a daughter, will soon ask for answers.

"I'm keeping her away because I don't know how she's going to take it," Pittman said.

Tami Benton, the director of education and clinical services at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said that when explaining tragedy to children, it's important for adults to be honest about their feelings.

Parents "don't necessarily need to be strong for their kids," Benton said. "They need to be appropriate, but they need to let them know that shock, disbelief, grief, and sadness are OK."

Benton advised that parents use their best judgment of what children need to hear: Answer questions, but don't share every detail of the accident; don't use words that imply the situation is temporary; understand that children may feel vulnerable about their own mortality.

"It's not helpful to use a lot of euphemisms, like 'They went to sleep,' " Benton said. "You have to tell them, 'When somebody dies, their body stops working.' "

Affirmation - encouraging happy remembrances - is also key, Benton said.

Sadeek, the 10-year-old cousin of Aaliyah and Remedy and nephew of Latoya, said that when he feels sad about their deaths, he tries to remember what it was like when they were alive.

"I started crying, and I was thinking about Pooka - the good times, when we were playing," Sadeek said. "There were a lot of good times. We played tag. We had water fights."

Tateesha Jones, Latoya's godsister, brought her daughter Breijah Moore to the crash site to mourn with family.

Breijah, 5, showed lots of interest in a huge sheet cake another relative was carrying into the house for a posthumous birthday celebration for Remedy, who had just learned to walk.

Breijah didn't understand much about the situation, Jones said.

But Breijah scraped her foot on the ground, looked down, and said she knew why she was there.

"They killed the baby," Breijah said. "I think they killed the baby."