Surviving a Child’s Homicide

Parents of Murdered Children, Inc.
When working with families and friends of people who have been murdered I find that the operative verb is never died but was killed . . . Being killed is seen as different from dying; it's unnatural, a form of theft, an act of taking something from you and your loved ones. What is taken is a person's life and all of its promise for future joy and happiness, companionship, and accomplishment. It is the most precious commodity one can steal and the greatest loss one can suffer.  ~ Helen Fitzgerald

A reader writes: I’m writing this letter in hopes of finding some peace. It will be three years next month that my son was murdered. He was only 18.
His mother and I were divorced when he was very young. At that time it was heart- breaking, knowing I would only see my son every other weekend. The years went by ever so quickly. Then he reached the tender teenage years and it seemed I lost control. My son was changing for the worst and there was nothing I could do to stop it. His mother and I had lost communication years prior. Those were years of lies and holding back vital information of my son’s dealings. Making a long story short, my son was dealing marijuana. When his life was taken, my life as I once knew it ceased to exist.
          There is such an emptiness I can’t express. I loved him so much. I am miserable and making the people I love the same. Believe me I never condoned his actions. He was spiraling downward fast and there was nothing I could do. The thought of helplessness was consuming. The family around me tried to tell me he was dealing but I was in denial and could not come to terms with the idea. Not my son. Was I wrong! He would lie to me when confronted. 
          Where did I go wrong? I feel I let him down as a father. A child needs guidance and direction in his life to become a good product of society. This should be taught from early on. God only knows how I tried. As for me my life has no meaning or substance for existing. 
          Please let all your readers know the importance of parenting, to watch every step and to know the friends their kids accompany. You can’t let your guard down for the slightest moment or they too could be suffering the loss of a child. I do not want any parent to experience the pain and sorrow I have dealt with. ~ Signed, Lost Forever
          P.S. I had to deal with the district attorney who prosecuted my son’s murderer. The embarrassment alone was killing me, knowing that they knew my son was dealing drugs at the time of his death. It was very difficult fighting on my son’s behalf to see the young man that took his life come to justice. I thought he would change his ways.

My response: I am terribly saddened to learn of your son’s murder three years ago. As the third anniversary of his death approaches, the fresh pangs of grief may be crashing in upon you once again. I can only imagine how horrible this must be for you, and even though there is nothing I can do to take away your pain, I hope that I can offer you a few words of encouragement.

I hope you realize that no matter what activities your son was engaged in at the time he was killed, even though he was just 18 years old, his decisions were his own. Others may pass judgment upon your son’s actions, but no one else has the right to judge you, the pain and grief you continue to experience now, and the love you still have for your boy. I hope you won’t let anyone try to diminish the value and the importance of your son’s life based solely on what he was doing at the time of his death.

Please know that guilt and anger are the two most common reactions in grief, and most especially so when the death is sudden, violent and complicated by the circumstances you describe. Anger at God is very normal, too. Losing a child is so very difficult to accept and to understand, because it is so unfair and goes against the natural order of things – we are not supposed to outlive our children, after all – and learning to live with it is a process that takes place not just over time, but over an entire lifetime. This is just too big to take in all at once and way too big for you to digest. You must let it in a little bit at a time over a very long period as eventually your mind comes to accept what your heart cannot. You will spend the rest of your life struggling to come to terms with the “why” of this tragedy, and there will never be an answer that makes sense to you.

You don’t say what sort of support you have in your life, or what kind of help if any you have obtained. I hope that you have found an organization such as The Compassionate Friends so that you will be surrounded by others who are familiar with the profound grief of losing a child to death. It’s unrealistic to think that you can manage this overwhelming grief all by yourself – especially when you are coping not only with the loss of your son but also with a death by homicide.

I strongly encourage you as a survivor of homicide to educate yourself about the subject. Read what others have written about it. See, for example, What to Do When the Police Leave by Bill Jenkins; see also Bill’s Web site, WBJ Press and Will’s World. Another helpful and informative book is No Time For Goodbyes: Coping with Sorrow, Anger, and Injustice After a Tragic Death, by Janice Harris Lord. (Click on the books’ titles to read Amazon’s descriptions and reviews of each; if either one interests you, ask for it at your local library.)

I’m also reminded of a program I heard some time ago on National Public Radio (NPR). In a fascinating and moving “Fresh Air” interview with Terry Gross, author and poet Kathleen Sheeder Bonnano vividly describes how she expressed her grief through poetry following the brutal murder of her daughter at the hands of a boyfriend in 2003. Many topics are covered, including the effects of traumatic loss on one’s view of the world; what to say (and what not to say) to the bereaved; frustrations she endured in dealing with the media, the police and the criminal justice system; coping with and working through her own need for revenge and retribution; and ultimately finding her way through the most devastating of losses, toward transformation, transcendence, and hope. Sprinkled throughout the interview are opportunities to hear Kathleen reading some of her amazing poems. If you’d like to listen to the program, you can do so here: On The Page, Poet Mourns Daughter’s Murder.

Try visiting other Web sites devoted to this subject, such as Parents of Murdered Children and the Violent Death Bereavement Society. Such sites will assure you that you are not alone in this tragedy, will offer you some ways to manage your grief, and will help you to recognize that if others can survive this most devastating of losses, then you can do it, too.

Remember that your son’s entire life was much more than whatever he was doing at the moment he was killed. I promise that the day will come when the good memories you have of your son will outweigh the bad. The way you come to peace about all of this is one day at a time, and if that’s too much, you work at it one hour or even one minute at a time. But if you find that now, three years after your son’s murder, you’re still unable to get to that point of peace all by yourself, I urge you to find someone to talk to about it — someone who knows something about traumatic loss as well as about the grief that comes with having to bury your own child. That can be the best gift you could ever give yourself and your beloved son. Pick up the phone and ask your primary care physician to refer you to someone who specializes in traumatic loss and grief; call your local library, mortuary or hospice organization and ask what bereavement support services are available in your community. See if there is a local chapter of The Compassionate Friends where you live.

You say that now, three years after your son’s death, you still feel as if your life has no meaning or substance. It has been said that in every death there is a gift for us, if we are willing to search for it. It doesn’t appear one day right out of the blue or simply drop from the sky into our lives, but the gift is real and we can find it if we choose. I want to suggest to you gently that there is a gift for you in your son’s tragic and untimely death. You may not believe it at this point in your grief journey, but it is authentic and it can be yours if you are willing to search for it.

Your letter indicates to me that, based on your experiences with your son, you have a powerful message to deliver to other parents. Have you thought about some ways that you can refine that message and deliver it to those who need it most – by offering to speak to kids at high school assemblies and parents at PTO meetings in your community, for example?

I know that you will make it through the difficult times of sadness and longing still ahead, and my prayer is that one day you will discover that through this horrible tragedy, your own life can be more meaningful than ever before. For now, please know that I am thinking of you and holding you in my heart.

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