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'Zach Attacks': A mother's search for good amid the pain, 1 year after son's death

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Rachele Chrismer lost her 12-year-old son Zach in May last year after a rare and terrible disease ravaged his body.

For a parent, it doesn't get worse than losing a child. But in one more cruel twist of fate, Chrismer realized the agonizing one-year anniversary of Zach's death would fall on Mother's Day.

"I've had to let that go," the Jordan, Minnesota, mother said of the painful calendar quirk. "I had to look for a way to help me deal with it."

Since her son's death, Chrismer has launched a campaign to encourage random acts of kindness in the world in her son's name. She dubs them "Zach Attacks."

Chrismer says the attacks can be the smallest of favors, like a lawn mowed or sidewalk shoveled for neighbor in need. She has encouraged people to start leaving guest notes about how they were Zach Attacked on her blog, and in one entry, a woman says she was Zack Attacked when someone paid for her order at a Starbucks in Virginia. (There's more about Zach's story on the blog here.)

Last Christmas, Chrismer helped put together Zach Attack packages for families of sick kids at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. She recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she was Zach Attacking at homeless shelters, hospitals and recovery centers.

And now, for Mother's Day this year, Chrismer said she arranged to have gift baskets delivered Sunday to mothers at Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul. Another 20 mothers at Fairview in Burnsville, and 20 moms at a pediatric intensive care unit in New Mexico, will be Zach Attacked, too.

"I thought, this is how I can get through this," Chrismer told BringMeTheNews, "by spreading the love around a little bit."

Zach suffered from Infantile Neuroaxonal Dystrophy, an extremely rare neurological disorder that causes the progressive loss of motor function and mental skills. Chrismer says it was painful to watch her son go from healthy infant to a boy who had "physically lost everything."

But what Chrismer remembers most vividly about her son is his radiant grin.

"I think about him every minute of every day – he just had the most amazing smile," Chrismer said. "He was just a really good-looking kid."

Chrismer said she did not think she could get through a year without him. For a long time, she was completely numb. "I freaked out a little bit – it's been a year already? It seems like forever ago, but it seems like it was just yesterday, too."

Chrismer, who has a 5-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old stepson, said she doesn't have specific plans for Mother's Day this year. She said she can't crawl in a hole, nor can she minimize the loss.

"Zach was too big a part of my life to ever do that," Chrismer writes on the Zach Attack Facebook page. "I can’t and won’t just push it away. He was way too special for that. I am going to feel it, grieve it and miss him like crazy."

She said that this Mother's Day, she will take comfort in knowing that Zach Attacks will be delivered to other moms who are hurting.

"You can get through anything. My way is to turn the bad into something good," Chrismer said. "Put a smile on someone's face. Spread his smile around."

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