Lutherville student mourned here and in Australia

Monica Gillespie, head of school at St. Paul's School for Girls in Brooklandville, wouldn't say her recent trip to Australia provided closure for her, or the school for that matter.

How could it?

Both St. Paul's School for Girls and St. Hilda's School, an all-girls school on the Gold Coast of Australia, will mourn the one-year anniversary of the death of a 10th-grade student this week.

Cameron O'Neill-Mullin, of Lutherville, and Paris Wilson, her Australian host sister, both 16, developed a wonderful friendship through the schools' exchange program before a freak boating accident at water park near Brisbane took both of their lives on April 5, 2011.

Those wounds, for both communities, never truly close.

But to Gillespie, who last month spent time at both St. Hilda's School and in Goondiwindi — the small town where the Wilsons lived and hosted Cameron while the students were on holiday from school — the trip reinforced the bond between two schools that are connected by a tragedy.

"In thinking about grief and transition, there's a thought that somehow there is closure," Gillespie said.

"I don't actually think that there is closure. We needed, as a school, to be present at St. Hilda's to share our grief with them and to share our appreciation for how they cared for us and cared for Cameron.

"I think it's just part of building a strong relationship, so it was really important for our community to be there to acknowledge their loss," she said.

Gillespie's trip is the most recent that members of the two communities have taken since the accident. Maria McIvor, deputy principal at St. Hilda's, visited St. Paul's shortly after the deaths of Cameron and Paris.

Paris' family — including younger sister, Dodie, who was seriously injured in the accident — came to America for Cameron's celebration of life last summer, and Cameron's family has also visited Australia.

Gillespie's sojourn was the final piece.

She spent several days at St. Hilda's, partially as an ambassador but also on something of a fact-finding mission. She addressed the school at a special chapel and presented Dodie and another student with a journal of messages from St. Paul's students.

She also visited with the two St. Paul students who are currently studying at St. Hilda's and will be returning with their own exchange students shortly.

And she tried to learn about Paris.

"They knew Cameron because she was there," Gillespie said of those at St. Hilda's. "Just hearing the stories and talking with (Paris') friends at school, talking with her teachers, talking with her family and hearing the stories about Paris and then, hearing the stories about the two girls together — (it) was just really helpful to get a sense of the girls."

'They enhanced each other'

Learning about Paris also painted a fulfilling picture of Cameron's time in Australia.

Through the selection process, Gillespie had the impression that Paris was an extroverted girl. Despite Cameron's considerable talents — she was gifted musically, intellectually and athletically — "one would not describe Cameron as extroverted," Gillespie said.

But through the stories she heard in Australia, Gillespie could tell Paris had rubbed off a bit onto Cameron.

"It was like complementary characteristics that don't just complement and stay the same; they actually blended, so Paris had more reflection and Cameron became a little more extroverted, more comfortable in how she wanted to be," Gillespie said.

"(Cameron) was like that here — I wouldn't want to suggest she wasn't — but Paris brought that out in her," Gillespie said.

"Just hearing about Cameron singing in the kitchen and being in the truck on the farm, I just have such an image of her at her absolute happiest times, and I got the sense that was true with Paris, too.

"It was so clear that they enhanced each other."

This became evident in Goondiwindi, which Gillespie called a "very small, close-knit farming community where every single person in the whole town knows everyone else. So the magnitude and the impact of this tragic accident can be truly felt when you're there."

She met neighbors who were part of the Paris' family's support system, and visited both Paris' grave site — marked by a butterfly sculpture her father, Angus, crafted — and the water park where the accident occurred.

She brought it all home to St. Paul's, where grief still exists in many forms.

Exchanging grief and growth

In the days and weeks after Cameron's death, Gillespie and others had insisted that St. Paul's School for Girls would continue its ambitious exchange relationships with other school despite the tragedy.

It has, and, in fact, the accident has created ripples that are felt among other exchange students.

Quinn Burch, a Ruxton resident and senior at St. Paul's School for Girls, also went to St. Hilda's as a sophomore and stayed with her host sister Paige, also in Goodiwindi.

Paige's family was close with the family of Paris Wilson, and the two friends have been invaluable to one another.

"Talking to Paige, just keeping in touch with her and supporting each other through it has helped a lot," Burch said.

"I knew Paris and knew Cameron, and she knew Paris really well and had met Cameron," Burch said, "so having the similar experience and knowing both of the students has helped both of us to be able to help each other."

How each student handles the grief — and how to provide for the varying levels of sadness they are experiencing — was a topic Gillespie and Peter Crawley, head of school at St. Hilda's, discussed plenty.

Gillespie credited SPSG counselor Beth Nichols and chaplain Kristen Looney, as well as the countless other schools and organizations that reached out, for guiding them through the early days and being available as time passed.

Gillespie and Crawley discussed the importance of being inclusive of everyone's grief, from students who were close to the girls to those who may not have been, and from staff members right to the Cameron's family — who was Gillespie visited upon her return.

"I visited them this weekend and shared stories about the trip, and it was an absolutely wonderful conversation, because we have a shared experience," she said. "I had sent them pictures that I'd taken while I was there.

"They're an amazing family, and I admire them so much."

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