Losing a child: Counselor at Kennedy hospital knows the grief firsthand

Kim Brody-Muckenfuss holds a photo of her son, Austin, at her desk at Kennedy University Hospital in Cherry Hill on May 4, 2017. Austin, 14, was hit by a car in Glassboro in 2015. Now she is using her experience as a grieving parent, and her skills as a nurse, to help others.

In her office at Kennedy University Hospital in Cherry Hill, Kimberly Brody-Muckenfuss, RN, keeps a half-dozen photos of the son she lost.

“I just want to see him all the time, because I can’t be with him anymore,” she explains.

“The things I do in his memory, like the scholarship fund and, soon, my group for other grieving parents, I like to think of as jobs Austin has given me. They give me a reason to go on.”

Austin Edward Muckenfuss, a good-hearted Washington Township High School freshman who loved family and football, was hit by a car while crossing Delsea Drive in Glassboro on Nov. 5, 2015. He suffered severe brain damage and died at Cooper University Hospital in Camden the next day. The driver of the vehicle stopped at the scene and was not charged.

On May 9, Austin’s mother, a patient navigator at Kennedy in Cherry Hill,  will launch monthly parental bereavement meetings at the three Kennedy campuses in South Jersey. She’ll be the facilitator.

“In these groups no one ever wants to be in,” she says, “we’ll help each other.”

I catch up with Brody-Muckenfuss at Kennedy in Cherry Hill, where she worked as an emergency room nurse for many years before becoming a patient navigator in 2015.

She’s 45, with a contagious grin and a laugh to match. She switches between past and present tense when talking about her youngest boy.

“Austin is the kind of kid who was everybody’s friend,” Brody-Muckenfuss says. “He always made everybody feel they were special to him.”

Her marriage to businessman Richard Muckenfuss, 49, was the second for both. Each already had two sons when Austin (“our honeymoon baby”) was born on  Dec. 21, 2000; he became the “glue” that bonded the blended family, his mother says.

Although he excelled at sports and was “such a happy kid,” Austin struggled with a learning disability that called for special classes in middle school. “He was teased big-time,” Brody-Muckenfuss recalls.

Perhaps as a result, “Austin is very anti-bullying,” she says. “At the funeral, a boy I didn’t know came up to me and said he didn’t know who he was going to walk down the hall with anymore, because Austin was the only one who would walk with him.”

The outpouring of love from the Washington Township community -- 2,000 people paid their respects at the funeral home, 300 attended his burial in Medford --  inspired Brody-Muckenfuss and her family to establish the scholarship in Austin’s memory. Six members of the Washington Township High School Class of 2016 were recipients; plans call for also providing tutoring services for special-needs students.

“Doing things in Austin’s name has really helped,” says Brody-Muckenfuss.

In the first months after her son’s death, she attended a bereavement group for parents. “It really truly helps to get your story out,” she says. “And you don’t have to talk. You can just listen.”

In fact, a Facebook conversation with another mother mourning the loss of a  son -- her 14-year-old also was hit by a car -- got Brody-Muckenfuss thinking about starting her own grief group.

“She said, ‘I can’t get out of bed,’ and I suggested she take baby steps,” says Brody-Muckenfuss, who still has occasional days like that herself.

“Now I know I don’t have to feel guilty about it,” she adds. “People think, ‘stages of grief’ means you go through one stage and move on to the next. But it’s like a  roller coaster.”

Patricia Madden, director of nursing at Kennedy University Hospital in Washington Township,  runs an adult bereavement group she founded in 2010 to “meet a community need.” Between 15 and 20 men and women meet monthly; Madden says the experience can help grieving people realize they’re “not alone in the world” and can connect with others who understand.

“Kim is a very outgoing, loving, dynamic personality” whose new groups “will be a great opportunity” for parents mourning the loss of a child, Madden says. She notes that “a benefit of having nurses running groups like these is we can identify someone who is in a depressed state” and may need additional assistance.

Says Brody-Muckenfuss: “At first, I was mad at God and mad at everybody. I asked, ‘Why did you take him?’

“I just feel I can be a mentor,” she adds. “I can take my anger and my grief and put them into helping other people in Austin’s name.”

For more information about the bereavement group for parents, call or email Kim Brody-Muckenfuss: 609-519-3113 or k.brody-muckenfuss@kennedyhealth.org