Family has struggled since son's 2009 drowning death

Water fun can turn tragic

Melanie Fishel came home from shopping May 30, 2009, unaware of how drastically her life had changed.

Her husband, Rich Fishel, and son, Austin, came out of the house, faces grim, and told her to get back in the car.

"What's going on? What's wrong? What happened?" she asked as they drove toward the Boathouse Community Center along the Savannah River.

Rich gave her the only information he had: "It's Stephen, it's not good."

Summer is the natural swimming season, with public pools and lakes crowded with folks trying to stay cool. Children between the ages of 1 and 4 are the most at risk of drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but among those 15 years and older, 65 percent of drownings occurred in natural water settings such as lakes, rivers and oceans.

Stephen Fishel, 16, was out on the Savannah River with friends swimming toward an area called "Goat Island." He turned to swim in the opposite direction and went under before reaching shore. Four hours later, the Richmond County Fire Department and Dive Team recovered the body.

The denial Melanie Fishel struggled with for months after her son's death started as soon as she saw the swarm of police on the riverbank. It continued as the coroner delivered the news of her son's death. Even seeing his body in the morgue that evening was hard to accept.

"I kissed him and you never forget that feeling, how hard he was, how cold he was," Melanie said.

For months afterward, Melanie continued to buy things for her son: DVDs, clothes, music, books, things she knew he would enjoy. She carried photos of him with her everywhere and visited his grave every day.

Grief, for her, was an intense longing to still be with him.

Her husband, Rich, handled things differently. He internalized the grief, kept his feelings to himself. For him it was more about looking toward the future.

"You never get over this, you get through it," he said. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about it. But you don't dwell on it."

He was a rock for Melanie, but not always a sympathetic shoulder. Her resentment, combined with alcohol abuse, strained their marriage.

But time heals all wounds. Rich learned to open up and Melanie found ways to accept her son's death without giving up his memory.

There are still plenty of reminders of their loss. Melanie still wants Stephen's name signed on Mother's Day cards, but she doesn't visit the cemetery every day.

Rich, a Georgia State Patrol trooper, has gained a new insight into the pain families feel after the death of a loved one.

The couple have found that tragedy can bring a family together or tear them apart.

"It's not going to be easy, but you have to love each other and cling to each other," he said.

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