Sister’s loss inspires bear-therapy

Kanesha Barnes-Adams (left) poses with her niece Kelahni White and sister Kadazha Barnes. Barnes died Feb. 7, 2021, in a fatal car accident. (Special to the Commercial)

The loss of a loved one can be a very difficult time. While many families were looking forward to celebrating Super Bowl Sunday, the family of Pine Bluff's Kadazha Barnes was still coping with her sudden death a year before on Feb. 7, 2021, in a fatal car accident.

Barnes, 22, and 21-year-old John L. White III were traveling north on Interstate 530 when their vehicle left the roadway near Exit 44 striking a concrete pillar.

"I lost my sister on her 22nd birthday," said Kanesha Barnes-Adams, a blogger, BookNook E-Learning educator, author and the only sibling of Barnes. "The night before on Feb 6, 2021, we had an amazing night with her celebrating her birthday."

Barnes-Adams remembers the night she found out her sister had passed away, saying everything about that night was strange. Adams said she called her sister earlier that day to see if she wanted to go out to eat on her birthday but she was sleeping.

A few hours later her sister called and said she was going to a Super Bowl party. Barnes-Adams and her husband kept her sister's daughter, Kelahni White, while her sister went out with friends.

"About 9:17 that night my sister called and I missed her call. She called my husband's phone 10 minutes later and he missed it too," said Adams.

Barnes-Adams said they tried to call her back but she didn't answer. She said shortly after her mom, dad, and uncle -- who is also their pastor -- called asking where Kelahni was.

"I felt something was off. Dad told me to come to the house," said Barnes-Adams.

Barnes-Adams said her parents knew her sister had an accident and by the time she got to her parents' house, she heard her mom scream.

"That's when I found out my sister had been killed in a car accident," said Barnes-Adams. "I remember grabbing Kelahni and holding her really close to my chest and rocking back and forth in tears."

Barnes-Adams, who was currently working on a doctoral degree, was in therapy for over a year to deal with anxiety brought on by the pandemic. She said she immediately started feeling as if the news of her sister's death was not real.

"I felt that urge of wanting to see my sister. I wanted to see what she looked like. I wanted to touch her. I wanted to go with my dad to the coroner's office, but my dad said no," said Barnes-Adams.

Barnes-Adams said she remembers being so upset and a year later she still has feelings of anger, a grieving process that she says she struggles with to date.

Since her sister's passing, Barnes-Adams said she has battled resentment, depression, and even a sense of selfishness, asking and telling herself, "Why did I have to lose my sister? It should have been someone else. My family didn't deserve it."

As an educator, Barnes-Adams would design safe spaces in her classroom for students to vent and release. She was also adamant about finding culturally-relevant stories, that would help students express themselves and craft their own narratives.

Now it was her time to craft her own narrative, and it came in a way she least expected.

In 2018, Barnes-Adams lost a close family member, her grandmother Cartelia Barnes, who, she said, had a love for thrifting. Shortly after her passing away, Barnes-Adams said she found herself reconnecting with her grandma as she went thrifting as a form to cope with the death.

Barnes-Adams said she found a non-working teddy bear-making machine, but her dad and husband talked her out of buying it because it did not work. Adams said she worked at Build-A-Bear during college for less than two weeks but felt connected to the machine when she saw it that day.

"Fast forward to 2021, losing my sister, I wanted to have a Build-A-Bear party for my niece," said Barnes-Adams, who hosted a party the following April. After the overwhelming reaction from the kids at the party, Adams said she went back to that same vintage store to see if they still had the Build-A-Bear machine.

"They still did. It was in the same spot. It did not work but it was meant for me to get it," said Barnes-Adams, who purchased the machine and had it fixed.

Barnes-Adams said her sister was in her senior year at the University of Central Arkansas before her untimely death and was studying to be a counselor. They had plans to open a center together that would support the emotional and mental well-being of kids.

Barnes-Adams said she had learned to create a solution to support students in and out of school who were dealing with academic and emotional trauma. Now with her sister gone, she needed it, too.

In April 2021, Barnes-Adams birthed "Bearapy" by using books and bears to promote positive self-care.

"I stopped my Ph.D. work. It was put on the back burner because I believe my purpose had really shifted and transitioned," said Barnes-Adams. "I don't have any children. Bearapy became my baby."

Barnes-Adams began traveling across the state holding teddy bear-making parties, a form of therapy and counseling she knew her sister would support.

"It was a sense of healing for me -- the smiles from the kids' faces were really making me feel good," she said. "It was an escape but it was also a coping mechanism."

Barnes-Adams said her 3-year-old niece, who now lives with Barnes-Adams' parents, would accompany her and teach kids how to stuff the bears.

So many people would share their story with Barnes-Adams and why they wanted the teddy bears. Barnes-Adams knew eventually part of her healing would be to share hers.

"I began to write again," said Barnes-Adams, who was seven years older than her sister. "I started writing a book about my sister called 'Sisters Forever.' I wrote it in a way where we can talk to kids about grief."

The book is about the relationship between the two sisters.

"My sister and I shared an incredible relationship. It was just me and her. Our parents raised us to do everything together, so that is what I was used to," she said.

In the book, Barnes-Adams talks about how she shared everything with her sister from clothes to shoes, toys and their parents. She also writes that since they were in different schools, her sister had a new friend.

"In the book, I had to share my sister with a new friend named Angel, and that's symbolic because I believe that I am sharing my sister with the heavenly angels now," said Barnes-Adams. "Regardless of who meets her and who I have to share her with, she is my sister forever."

Other symbolic mentions include the illustrated cover, which depicts Barnes and Barnes-Adams as children identical to the last photo they took with each other at her sister's birthday celebration the day before she died.

"The book is commemorating the relationship between my sister and me," said Barnes-Adams, who added that she wished she would have written the book while her sister was alive so she could see how she viewed their relationship. "Every time I look at the book I smile. Sometimes I shed tears of happiness and joy."

The book was released on the one-year anniversary of Barnes' death. Barnes-Adams said the book has really helped her grieve properly.

"It touches my heart and it is really warm to know I was able to produce something so beautiful out of a painful place," said Barnes-Adams. "I know as a grown woman I didn't know how to navigate grief and I still don't but I am learning."

Because of Barnes-Adams' interactions with kids, her Bearapy, she says, is teaching kids early on how to feel and articulate their feelings.

"Bearapy is to heal the hearts and minds through books and bears one child at a time because I know that hurt children become hurt adults and if there is a way to begin to have conversations about the things that hurt people we need to do it as early as possible," she said.

Sisters Forever can be ordered at

Barnes-Adams has also finished her second book, dedicated to her niece, called "Birthday Wish" with a third book currently in production called "Grandma's Gift," attributed to her grandmother.

"I think storytelling is so important and we have to learn how to craft our stories and release our stories because if we don't we will keep them bottled up and we won't know how to release it," Barnes-Adams said. "I will be OK. I was not OK last year, I was not OK earlier this year, but I will be OK. It is time for us to help our students so they too can share their stories so that they will be OK."

  photo  Kanesha Barnes-Adams recently published a children's book called 'Sisters Forever' based on the relationship between her and her late sister, Kadazha Barnes. (Special to the Commercial)
  photo  Kanesha Barnes-Adams created Bearapy after her sister's death, an initiative to heal hearts and minds through books and teddy bears. (Special to the Commercial)