- Soren Wysockey-Johnson
Soren William Wysockey-Johnson was born July 28, 2004, and died on April 4, 2020. His sudden and unexpected death was horribly devastating under any circumstances, but made more so in the midst of COVID-19, as we cannot gather in person to mourn his passing.
Our Soren’s ineffable spirit burned hot and bright in his short 15 and 3/4 years. He will be affectionately remembered as a Renaissance man and humble soul. His interests and skills spanned many disciplines, and his loving, easygoing nature was like no other. Because his life was tragically abbreviated, we are determined to tell his story thoroughly.
Soren was born in Old Town, Alexandria, Va., to Kathryn and Doug Wysockey-Johnson and big sister Isabel. They lived for two more years in D.C., soaking in the city and its wonderful people, and then moved back to their home in Richmond, Vt., to live closer to nature.
Along with his family, Soren knew and loved the natural world. His time at Saxon Hill School in Jericho, where he attended preschool through kindergarten, nurtured that interest, as well as inspired his out-of-the-box thinking. Their Reggio-Emilia-style philosophy deeply respects the inherent knowledge of each child. There Soren found inspiring teachers, all learning together outdoors — no matter the weather — on the playground, in the woods and brook. His sweet spirit was beautifully tended, and he later returned there as a teen to work at their summer camps. One friend whom he met there at age 3 became a trusted and loyal friend all of his life.
At home, Soren spent his younger days playing with stuffed animals — tigers being his favorites. He built boats, villages and forts outside, played backyard baseball, soccer and basketball, and built stuff with Legos. He and friends created elaborate obstacle courses for racing remote-control cars. He, sister Isabel and local friends enjoyed, for six summers, their mom’s backyard Fairy and Elf Camp, complete with magic, art and nature. Birthday parties were always a blast, from circus-themed fun at Shelburne Museum to sleepovers at home after beach parties and drive-in movies.
The major challenge in Soren’s life came in January 2013 as the result of a sledding accident. He suffered a seven-inch frontal skull fracture and traumatic brain injury (TBI) requiring several days in the PICU. He worked patiently to recover, finally returning to school full time in the final two weeks of third grade. In the process of mending, Soren had to substitute quieter activities that had less risk of concussion, but he still managed to live fully. He learned resilience, patience and self-care. Methods were developed at home and school by many caring educators over the years to translate Soren’s knowledge to the page. His favorite teachers made learning fun and acknowledged that grades wouldn’t tell his whole story. Soren lived with the awareness that he was very bright but also knew that his mastery of academics would be difficult to show. He had high expectations of himself and much determination, never wanting to be treated differently. Having had this head injury also put Soren at much increased risk for suicide, impulsivity and difficulty regulating emotion due to the frontal lobe damage.
Soren had a great sense of humor, loved to come up with his own jokes and was a quirky inventor of things, building all kinds of contraptions out of mundane materials. His curious mind was later fed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Spark and Splash programs, where he and friends participated in imaginative applied science workshops, such as Lightsaber Dueling and Music Theory/Throat Singing. When he was 10, he surprised his sister with birthday earrings he had crafted from wire, folded paper and beads. We were astonished at the craftsmanship and initiative, but not at how much he loved his sister. Soren’s gift giving could be described as generous and thoughtful. He spent time considering what the recipient might most like and found a way to make that happen. One of the best birthday gifts Kathryn ever received was given just last fall when Soren surprised her with a serenade of "Happy Birthday" on the electric guitar he had just gotten the day before. His gifts came from the soul and were priceless.
Soren was a competitive athlete, playing basketball, baseball, soccer and tennis, as well as kayaking, wakeboarding, paddleboarding, sailing and swimming. He was on the State Championship Varsity Hip Hop team at Mount Mansfield Union High School as a sophomore. He was an excellent alpine skier and knew Vermont’s mountains well. He and his friends had favorite trails at Bolton Valley, Sugarbush and Stowe. When he was 10 years old, Soren won a prize for most runs completed at the Rope-athon — a Cochran’s Ski Area fundraiser. He and his family loved Cochran’s "Friday Night Lights." Soren enjoyed Nordic skiing, as well, often in the woods with his dog Blue. True to his parents’ roots, Soren was a passionate Chicago sports fan, including the Bulls, da Bears, the Blackhawks and the White Sox (and occasionally the Cubs, but more the White Sox, though he named his cat “Rizzo”...). Soren bantered regularly with his Farfar (father’s father in Swedish) about the stats of his favorite athletes, as well as the dreams and disappointments of Chicago sports teams.
Soren had a passion for travel. Often, the most recently visited destination became his new favorite. Our annual vacations across the U.S. allowed us to visit distant family members, as well as to head out on great western adventures, hiking in many national parks and visiting over 30 states. Soren relished our two-week trip to Iceland and Sweden, where he made connections with many warm, wonderful cousins. Two cruises with our Johnson family were unforgettable — one through the Caribbean and another up the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Alaska, seeing humpback whales bubble-net fishing on Soren’s birthday and spending time at Glacier Bay and Denali National Parks. Camping on Burton Island in Lake Champlain and whale-watching in the Saguenay Fjord in Québec were favorite trips. Summers also included vacations in Maine, Cape Cod and Block Island with close friends. Soren looked forward to annual trips to Coronado, Calif., and Vero Beach, Fla., to see his beloved grandparents, who often treated the kids to Legoland, Universal Studios and Disneyworld. Last summer’s trip to San Francisco and Monterey Bay was spectacular and included kayaking with otters, hiking in Muir Woods and unforgettable time with his extended family at an older cousin’s wedding. More cousin fun was had in Vero Beach in late December around his uncle’s wedding. Soren loved skiing the Rockies in Colorado with close friends. His last exciting trip was over February break — a service/mission trip to build homes for Costa Rica's poor with his father and a group from Richmond Congregational Church. At the end of the week, he surfed the perfect break in Nosara for two days, then zip-lined and tubed an exciting river. He was a curious and flexible traveler.
Soren was a tremendous fan of "The Office" and of Star Wars, with strong opinions about plot lines, directors, actors and special effects. He owned all of the movies and offshoots. There are many stories of unsuspecting friends being cajoled into watching the trilogies with him. He found connection with others — adults and children alike — around this interest, including playing Star Wars games online. His love of adventure, athleticism and desire to help others would have made him an impressive Jedi knight.
Sometimes Soren’s courage and ponderings surprised us, such as at age 13, as part of his confirmation process at Richmond Congregational Church, when Soren volunteered to write and deliver the Easter Sunday sunrise sermon. He used part of the Star Wars story as an allegory for Jesus’ story. Soren was still working out his theology and beliefs, but he was pretty sure that heaven existed.
Our Soren was very musical and learned instruments quickly. He could play the acoustic guitar, ukulele and saxophone, and he was learning electric guitar. In middle school he sang in chorus, including at the Districts Music Festival. During his teenage years he listened to a lot of music, from classic rock to hip-hop.
He loved holidays and all the traditions. His own tradition was making a pumpkin or blueberry pie from scratch every Thanksgiving and a wacky, candy-clad gingerbread house with his sister at Christmastime. Often he made his teachers a “Sun Bread” on Solstice, to brighten their darkest day.
Soren had a generous heart and a deep love of family, including our local “family” with whom we celebrated many holidays. He loved all of his grandparents dearly, and in school projects he named his grandfathers — one, as a person he most trusted, and another, as a person he most admired. He loved all of his aunts and uncles and cousins fully. He looked forward to his Michigan uncle and cousin’s annual ski trip to Vermont, when he would get to rip down the mountain, even on school days. Summers always featured a trip to Chicago and southern Michigan, hanging out with grandparents in the suburbs and cousins on Lake Michigan. And for the last six years, it included wonderful weeklong Camp Henry, replete with cousins, fabulous friends, kind counselors, outdoor games, horseback riding and wakeboarding.
As a teen Soren was blessed with amazing friends, from the MMU dance team to his fellow dance teachers at the dance studio to school and camp friends. They talk about his love of blue candy, Flaming Hot Cheetos, spicy hot wings and pizza; his epic Halloween strategies for maximum candy hauls; and his ability to make anything fun. He was a caring friend when someone was having a tough time. He had a close-knit group of friends with whom he hiked and skied Vermont’s highest peaks, as well as explored Vermont’s lakes and rivers. He loved his friends’ annual Solar Bus trip to Hampton Beach in the early summer. This past January, Soren enjoyed Winter Ball with his girlfriend and other friends. Fun was never far away with Soren and company.
Soren hoarded funny socks and loved playing quirky versions of table football and indoor basketball with friends, as well as online gaming with the user name “Hunky Lobster.” Friends created a Minecraft Realm in his honor. He also figured out how to build his own computer. At school he played practical jokes on friends. His “mischievery” was legendary, and in good fun. He also managed to put together a last-minute vehicle entry for MMU’s Grand Prix, which he called “The Last Resort.” His friend network was full of interesting, kind kids — we are so very grateful for them.
Soren was entrepreneurial and had recently been looking for a job. Back when he was just 12, Soren and a good friend started a T-shirt business called “Soren ‘N Oren’s.” They learned to hand-screen T-shirts and sold them at the local farmers market, giving a portion of proceeds to charity. Soren was a summer camp intern at Saxon Hill School for the past few years and became a magnet for young children with his gentle, playful ways. He was a master frog catcher, origami and paper airplane teacher, elf-house architect, and builder of giant towers. He was also a Red Cross-certified babysitter and an accomplished mower of lawns, stacker of wood and odd-jobs doer.
Dance was a passion for Soren. Last year he was honored to be invited into the Teacher Apprentice Program at Arabesque, Etc. Dance Studio in Richmond, where he honed his skills as a hip-hop dancer, choreographer and teacher. The dance studio was a nurturing place for him, and he spent many hours there each week, mentored by many remarkable people, several of whom became close friends. Soren played the Wizard of Oz in last spring's dance studio performance. He co-choreographed and danced in several hip-hop pieces during their nontraditional production of The Nutcracker Tea at the Elley-Long Center last December. He was learning how to teach, and he loved his students and fellow teachers.
As for his family, Soren adored his older sister Isabel. She offered him tremendous companionship and much laughter, as well as tough love and rides to early-morning MMU Dance Team practices. Together they put up with their parents dragging them to museums, to church, up mountains and on multi-week-long camping trips. Isabel helped Soren through some tough experiences and mentored him in dance. His tribute to her, spoken at her Dance Team Senior Recognition Night, had us all in tears with its heartfelt beauty and eloquence. His admiration for her was beyond measure, and he told her so. She is the best sister ever.
Soren loved and was beloved by his parents. We could not have imagined a sweeter, smarter, more playful or determined son. He will remain a persistent presence with us forever, his sideways smile always distilled in our smiles.
We ask that you not remember Soren as “a suicide,” but rather as a bright light and spectacular human being who made a puzzling, unexpected and impulsive choice to take his life in what must have been a very difficult moment. Please remember the fullness of his 15 and 3/4 years — his sense of humor, goofy goodness, thoughtfulness and adventurous spirit. In his honor, please commit to reaching out to a trusted friend or adult if you are having feelings of desperation, rather than making an impulsive and irreversible choice to harm yourself. Taking your life wreaks devastation on your family, friends and community and robs them of the chance to have you in their lives for all time. We may never know why he made the choice he did. We will remember Soren as a healthy, happy, connected, purposeful and beloved kid with a bright future. We cannot imagine our lives without him.
In addition to his parents, Doug and Kathryn Wysockey-Johnson, Soren is survived by his sister Isabel Wysockey-Johnson; maternal grandmother, Simonne B. Wysockey; aunt Simonne Soudan and children Kat (Matt) Lighthouse, Colton, Makenna and Weston; uncle and aunt John and Rebecca Wysockey and children Zara, Margeaux, Tommy and Violet; uncle and aunt Michael and Tracy Wysockey and children Harry, Suzy, Beau and Livy; paternal grandparents, William and Marianne Johnson; aunt and uncle Mary and Tom VanDerMeid and children Jeremy (Molly) VanDerMeid and their children Shea, Hollis and Callie; Jonathan (Rachel) VanDerMeid and their children Cole and Dylan; Jami VanDerMeid and son Caden; uncle and aunt Dave and Elizabeth Johnson; and uncle and aunt Paul Johnson and Genevieve Zubrzycki and daughter Anais. Soren also leaves behind countless wonderful second cousins and close family friends from near and far.
Soren is predeceased by his maternal grandfather, Thomas J. Wysockey.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Soren Wysockey-Johnson Scholarship Fund at Arabesque, Etc. Dance in Richmond, Vt., or to the Young Investigator Program at the Concussion Legacy Foundation. A memorial to celebrate Soren’s life will be held in the near future when it is safe to gather. As a friend recently said, "May the Force be with you, Soren Skywalker."