Grief lingers for woman whose baby and mom died in the mudslide

OSO — Natasha Huestis dreamed of the day she could hike with her daughter into the mountains.

Their exploration would be her gift, her lesson, her celebration of their bond.

It is why she called her baby Sanoah, a name she was told means “Mist in the Mountains” in Hawaiian.

The mountains would be their special place.

“That is something I wanted to give Sanoah for her whole life, to show that you could have beautiful things without having anything,” she said.

In early August, Huestis reached Disappointment Cleaver, 12,300 feet up Mount Rainier. She scattered some of Sanoah’s ashes.

Huestis lost her daughter and her mother, Christina Jefferds, in the Oso mudslide a year ago Sunday. They were among the 43 people killed.

After the slide, Huestis helped search the rubble and plan for the memorial. She gave a beautiful eulogy for her mom and daughter in front of 850 people.

The mother of the slide’s youngest victim — Sanoah was 4 months old — became a face for the largest catastrophe in Snohomish County history.

Grief, she has learned since, cannot be fast-tracked or ignored. There have been days she couldn’t get out of bed.

Counseling helps. So does keeping a distance from many people. She’s not returning to Oso for Sunday’s remembrance.

Even when she smiles, there is sadness in her eyes.

“At this point in my life, I am in over my head and I’m swimming in a pool of emotions every day, and it makes it hard to just get by,” she said. “There is a lot of sadness.”

There also is hope, she said.

So much change

On a campus of nearly 45,000 students, Huestis can blend in without much notice.

In her purple and gold top, she looks like any University of Washington student.

By design, she hasn’t made any friends among her peers.

She lives alone in a Seattle apartment and that suits her fine. If she is awake at 3 a.m., as sometimes happens, she can sort through her thoughts — her sadness, her anger, her fear of abandonment — without distraction.

Last year at this time, she wouldn’t have imagined herself where she is now: a 27-year-old freshman intent on studying neuroscience.

Then, she was a new mom. She and Sanoah lived along Steelhead Drive near Oso with her mom and stepfather, Seth Jefferds. Huestis savored her daughter’s innocence and her warmth and the outstretched hands of Sanoah’s grandparents, eager to hold the child.

After the slide, Gov. Jay Inslee asked Huestis how he could help her.

She told him she wanted to go back to school.

Sanoah’s death made her think of the marvelous machine that is the human brain. If she could plow through the rigorous neuroscience coursework, perhaps she could help other children someday.

She already had some community college credits.

The governor put in a good word.

Huestis cried for a solid five minutes when she was accepted at the UW.

She wore new shoes and a new backpack on her first day of classes last fall.

“I wanted to be one of the cool kids,” she said. “Really, I feel like the old kid.”

Grief crashes in

For a time, it was as though she could float through the pain.

It is always there, but it doesn’t always feel real.

She stayed busy and accessible.

Grief waited patiently for her.

“I think the big part of it is giving yourself the time and emotions to feel what you need to feel,” she said. “I totally lost my identity in all of this.”

She has maintained a few relationships, but has withdrawn from others. She turned off her Facebook account. Well-meaning chatter — Have a great new year! or You’re awesome! — just seemed to ring hollow.

Holidays and milestones have passed. Sanoah’s first birthday was in December. She’d be walking by now.

In January, Huestis felt her world crashing down. She hadn’t realized her despair could reach so deep.

Counselors guide her. They reassure that it is OK to experience the emotions she feels. She works hard to avoid negative thoughts.

College has helped. It gives her purpose and hope for a future.

She finished her second quarter classes this week. Biology, chemistry and genetics await her after the break.

She’ll do her best.

“If I have to start over, I may as well start over in a positive manner,” she said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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