Ill. trooper's widow channels grief into helping others
Sarah Deatherage Steele's brother gave her a handmade wooden keepsake box with her late husband's badge mounted on it, and now she makes them for others
By Brenden Moore
The State Journal-Register
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Six years ago Monday, Sarah Deatherage Steele's life was irreparably changed.
That morning, her husband, Illinois State Police trooper Kyle Deatherage, was tragically killed when he was struck by a tractor-trailer while conducting a traffic stop on Interstate 55 near Raymond. He was only 32 years old.
In the blink of an eye, Steele lost her high school sweetheart, husband of six years and the father of her two children, who were just 4 and 10 months old at the time.
"It's been something where it's a blank slate," Steele said. "You don't know what you're doing, you don't know where to go for comfort; there's no guidance. When you go through losing your husband tragically, it's just in one second, your life is totally upside down."
Grief would consume Steele in the months that followed. And though there was no shortage of family and friends offering to help her through, they did not know what she needed. She didn't even know what she needed.
"Flowers are so common and they're great," Steele said. "It's just, they don't last."
But Steele would eventually find this lasting comfort and a way to channel her grief through an item gifted to her months after the tragedy by her brother, Keith.
He built Steele a wooden box, stained it, and had Deatherage's name and badge number carved on top, telling her, "I thought maybe you'd like somewhere to keep the important things of Kyle's."
Soon enough, Steele started packing the box with items she knew she wanted to keep. This included everything from Deatherage's wallet, keys and badge to his cologne, toothbrush and a favorite shirt.
It gave Steele a central location to keep the items that most remind her of Deatherage, opening it when needed, but allowing her to "close it and keep moving forward" with life.
"It almost just represented that I needed to put Kyle where he needs to be because I have to raise my children and I have to keep living life," Steele said. "It's so hard, but it's just nice to have somewhere to put those things other than a cardboard box or a tote."
Steele, who has since remarried and now has a 9-month-old daughter, said grief will remain a permanent presence in her life. But she is comforted by the permanent presence of her box, which will not wilt like flowers or be a simple one-off donation to a charity.
And now, Steele is hoping to use her tragedy to help others by continuing to run Comforting Keepsakes, a business she started in 2017 that makes custom wood memory boxes and sympathy gifts.
Steele is not a woodworker. And she had never been in business before, working previously as a dental hygienist.
With her current husband, A.J., covering things on the woodworking side, Steele makes up for her lack of a business background with her personal experience dealing with grief.
In addition to the memory boxes, Steele offers a sympathy gift collection with items including a bath bomb, tea, a journal and a prayer shawl.
Everything in the collection, Steele said, helped her get through the loss of Deatherage. She also maintains a blog on her website, giving visitors advice through her personal lens on how to deal with loss.
In a way, Steele said she is trying to provide a road map for navigating loss, something not available to her as she worked through her tragedy.
"There's really no guide to become a widow or losing someone really close to you, so I tried to create something that can be used as a guide to help give comfort and guidance to those who are grieving," Steele said.
About 50 boxes have been sold so far, while 11 have been gifted to families of fallen officers, first responders and military personnel.
Steele said serving the law enforcement community is central to her business' mission, with portion of each sale will going toward a fund that will allow the company to gift more memory boxes and sympathy packages to families of the fallen. Those interested in donating can also do so through The Trooper Kyle Deatherage Memorial fund.
"When the person receives this gift, it's unlike any other because it's going to be used, it's to last for a long time, it's not disposable," Steele said. "Once you give a box, you get that feeling that (you've) done something that's going to help."
A 'central place'
Dana Askew-Harris met Steele through "the widow's bond that nobody wants."
After losing her husband David in 2003 to septic shock, Askew-Harris dealt with many of the same issues as Steele, especially the lack of guidance for widows and deciding what to do with all your deceased loved one's belongings.
So, when Steele pitched the idea for Comforting Keepsakes, Askew-Harris said, "go for it."
She would soon be gifted a box herself, which provided her much-needed closure.
"It means so much because you go into your closet and you'll find this and you'll find that," Askew-Harris said. "And it kind of becomes how your life without them is, it's just scattered. There's no central place where I can go and sit and reflect on them."
She said her box has become her central place. Case in point, once Askew-Harris received her box, she took her husband's old toothbrush out of the shower for the first time knowing it would be safe in the box.
"For the price that you pay for flowers, this is an amazing tribute to the family and the one that you lost," Askew-Harris said.
This type of lasting impact is what convinced Taylorville resident Cassie Withrow and a group of friends to a give a memory box and sympathy package to a friend who lost her father unexpectedly. But, like so many who try to help grieving friends and family, it was not immediately clear at the outset.
"We went over each day and kind of talked things over and just made sure that she knew that we were there for her," Withrow said. "And my 6-year-old was actually the one who said, why don't you get Jamie a box?"
Withrow's son had seen videos of the boxes online. Her husband is a police officer, so Deatherage's story was well-known.
Once the idea was in her head, Withrow said it instantly became the perfect gift, especially since her friend's dad was a woodworker.
"This box was the best thing that we could have given," Withrow said. "And I think it brought us even closer than any of us could have realized. And we're pretty close."
And though Withrow has never met Steele, she said it felt "like she was talking to each of us" through the added inserts included with the box.
"Sarah understands," Withrow said. "She knows exactly what you need before you even know what you need."
'The special things'
When it comes to the future of her company, Steele said she's in no rush to have a box in every house in the world. But, she does hope that it becomes a more common sympathy gift.
"I want this to be a common gift instead of just donations to societies, flowers and food," Steele said. "... Because you leave the funeral home with a bag of their things and you come home and you're like 'my husband's stuff needs to be somewhere that's more treasured than a paper bag.'"
"When you lose your spouse, you lose your future," she said. "And this is a gift where you can hang onto it, you can go to it when you need comfort, you put it away because you know you need to keep moving forward."
Steele said she does not check her box as often as she did in the immediacy of the accident. But she is comforted that it is there whenever she needs it. And, she is glad that it keeps memories of Deatherage alive for her two oldest, now 10 and 6 years old.
Though protective of her box, Steele said she left it out on her bed. Then, around the corner came her son, who had his father's sunglasses, ring, watch, phone and was holding his badge.
"(He) just walked out and said, 'look, do I look like daddy?' And it absolutely killed me, but I loved that he was proud of that and he knew these were all daddy's things," Steele said. "And they know that it's there if they do want to (be close to him)."
Of course, Steele has more of her late husband's items stashed in other places, but what's in the box whittles it down to what's truly important.
"It just narrows down the really special things," Steele said. "Because you have a lot of stuff whenever someone passes away. I do have lots of totes with things in them. But I've got my box that has the special things in it."