Family has struggled since son's 2009 drowning death

Water fun can turn tragic

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

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Melanie Fishel lies next to the grave of her son, Stephen, who was 16 when he drowned in the Savannah River on May 30, 2009. Fishel says she used to come every day for a year but now comes once a month.   Corey Perrine/Staff
Corey Perrine/Staff
Melanie Fishel lies next to the grave of her son, Stephen, who was 16 when he drowned in the Savannah River on May 30, 2009. Fishel says she used to come every day for a year but now comes once a month.

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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stillamazed 06/16/11 - 07:40 am
I can only imagine the pain

I can only imagine the pain of losing a child and it is something that every parent dreads. This is one of the most touching stories I have read in the Chronicle in a long time and I pray that this family can continue to move forward. The statement is correct that a tragedy like this can bring you closer or tear you apart and I am glad that they were able to pull together.

TheArmyWife 06/16/11 - 08:31 am
Melanie is a lovely woman, I

Melanie is a lovely woman, I have met her and am inspired by her strength and grace. I have seen a lot of sadness that comes from the loss of a loved one, but the pain of losing your child is extraordinary. The Fishel's will always be in my heart.

Crime Reports and Rewards TV
Crime Reports and Rewards TV 06/16/11 - 07:56 pm
Tragic. Thank God Steven was

Tragic. Thank God Steven was saved.

AutumnLeaves 06/16/11 - 06:29 pm
I can not imagine what she

I can not imagine what she must be going through, or OTHER parents that have lost someone they love tragically. I hope none of them read Crime Reports insensitive remark at the end of his post of 3:31pm. There is a time and a place for everything; this is NOT the time to make a judgmental remark like that!

mom of two boys
mom of two boys 06/17/11 - 10:33 am
@Autumn. I think Crime

@Autumn. I think Crime Reports is referring to the fact that Stephen was saved. Saved by the blood of Jesus Christ and from spending his eternity in hell. Stephen had a real relationship with the Lord and would tell anyone who asked about God. That fact is something that has been a huge part of Melanie's testimony about her sweet son. His remark shows that he understands what the real tragedy is for people who die and are not saved. Mel and Rich .... we love you. ~~Lorri and Bryan.

Stephanie Sammons
Stephanie Sammons 06/19/11 - 02:40 am
Thank you so much for

Thank you so much for remembering my nephew Stephen he was truly amazing and WE all l Love and Miss him more than words can express! My Beautiful baby sister is amazing,one of the strongest women I've ever known and for this to have happend to her with everything else that's happened in her life is just something else!I'm just so Glad, GOD decided to BLESS my sister and all of us with Stephen Even if it were only 15 1/2 years ,the Love and Memories,plus thank God videos will have to do until were All United Again!!Stephen wasn't swimming yet,but wading out to the island in 5 feet of water when he turned around to go back, I think he felt the Undercurrant that took him not realizing it was only worse the area he stepped in.The Savannah River is well known by kayakers for its undercurrants,sadly for US ,but NOT Stephen ,it was his time to go and WE All thank GOD that Stephen was Saved and even to this day 2+years later He's still able through his love and testimony to bring people to the Lord!And now my sister Melanie is able to do the same through her life and through Stephens.I just Love and Miss my cookie monster sooooooooooooooooo very,very much.Thank you so much again.

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