Walking Through the Valley of Grief: A Mother’s Journey


The following story, Jan’s, is a compilation of blog entries written over the course of four long years (2007-2011). All excerpts are reprinted with the author’s permission.
In remembrance of Neal, Devon and Ian…
August 8, 2007 was the worst day of my life, a day that fulfills every parent’s nightmare.  One of my daughter-in-law’s friends came to my office to tell me that my 27 year old son Neal and his two little boys Devon, age 7, and Ian, age 3 had been found murdered in their condo.  My daughter-in-law  [who was to be found guilty of all three killings] was at the sheriff’s station and no one could find out anything more.  How do you process something like that?  How do you find the presence of mind to even make a choice of what to do next – sit and cry, start calling family, go down to the sheriff’s station – what do you do?
It was the end of my life that was, and the beginning of the life that now is.  Everything seems to be clearly divided between “before” and “after.”  Grief is a long, terrible journey, and the fact that someone you loved was deliberately killed makes it so much worse.  Legal proceedings are added into the mix.  There are long delays waiting for coroner’s reports, for forensics, for the murder site to be released so that you can finally start going through their things. 
By the way, I should warn you that I often end my writings with the word Monkey.  Monkey was my grandson Devon’s favorite word.  He used it whenever he felt awkward, or was the center of the attention, or just didn’t know what to say.  It’s a good word.  So, Monkey!
September 25 [is] the National Day of Remembrance for Homicide Victims.  Those of us who have lost a loved one don’t really need a special day in which to remember them.  They are with us every moment of every day.  They were torn away from us so quickly and so violently, it’s sometimes hard to believe that it really happened.   It seems ludicrous and unreal one moment, and hopelessly, devastatingly real in the next moment.  Memories makes us cry and laugh – sometimes at the same time.  The emotional upheaval is almost debilitating at times.  But, you can’t explain that to people.  No one believes it.  We are all taught that all you have to do is have a positive attitude and every stumbling block will be swept from your path.  That is deeply ingrained in our culture.  It can be extremely damaging to the bereaved. 
[When] the trial was rushing at me like a starship at warp speed. I [couldn’t] sleep.  I [couldn’t] eat.  Worse than that, I pick up a book and can’t seem to read.  The only thing that seems to help is to crochet for some reason.  I’ve been turning out shawls and baby sweaters and scarves and hats like a mad person.  I’ve ripped apart unfinished projects that others don’t want and turned them into something else.  I have friends picking up scraps of yarn at yard and estate sales, and it’s all grist for my yarn mill.  It’s crazy.  But it’s the only thing that helps to keep my anxiety from spinning out of control and keeps my blood from pounding in my head.  Perhaps it’s the repeating patterns – counting out the same stitches over and over as the yarn builds steadily into a finished whole.  It keeps my hands busy.  It keeps me from screaming.
[Later in the proceedings] I read the comments that an attorney wrote on a blog about our case on his firm’s website. He thought it was a pity that I was so consumed by the case, and as evidence quoted me as writing that my life was clearly divided into before and after. Obviously as a criminal defense attorney he doesn’t deal with victims at all.
This is the way it always is for victims of violent crimes. The whole universe is turned inside out and your perspective is forever altered. The crucible of pain, grief and fear burns away the old you and someone new emerges. That doesn’t make you an object of pity. You just can’t fit back into your old skin. You have felt things and seen and heard things that make it impossible to be the person you once were. An innocence is gone that cannot be recovered. You can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle – once he’s out, he’s out. You may be weaker in some ways and stronger in others. The things that you care about and the things that bother you are different. You may have more tolerance or less. It varies with the individual. But, whatever form it takes, change is universal among crime victims. That was the start of my journey, and I’ve come a long way down the road since then. A difficult road. A rocky road. I’ve travelled far enough along it in 4 years to know that there’s no going back to the crossroads to join the path you were on before. The gate is closed.
When the 3rd anniversary of the murder of my boys came around, I very much wanted to write a tribute.  I wanted to really paint a portrait of who they were, and what they accomplished and meant to people.  I just couldn’t do it.  Three years of the ups and downs of wading through hearing after hearing, preparing for the stress of trial only to have to try to let the tension go when it was postponed again – that took a toll.  I couldn’t think of anything to say that was new and fresh.  I was depressed – nothing new.  I missed them – said it many times before.  I felt like I was slowly sinking into a tar pit, and that it was boring people to death.
The boys have been on my mind almost constantly lately…  My daughter and I were out running some errands for my mother, who was feeling the heat a bit.  We had picked up the requested items, and I was sitting at an outside table waiting while she ordered herself something to eat.  I have always enjoyed people watching, so I just sat in the shade outside a bakery and watched the families running all their own errands. Suddenly I became teary eyed.  Everything was so ordinary.  It was just like any other day, with people trying to get everything done, and keep track of their children at the same time.  I think that’s why it was so hard.  It could have been any ordinary Saturday with Neal and the boys. Neal or Auntie would have to try to keep Ian from falling into the fountain  or running into passersby.  So ordinary, and yet so precious.  It made me think of the final scene in the play “Our Town” when Emily, who had died, tries to go back and relive just one ordinary day.  It ends up being too painful and she can’t stand it.  She says that live people just don’t understand.  Every second is so precious, and we let them all slip through our fingers without a second thought.  What I wouldn’t give for one of those plain ordinary days.  If I close my eyes, I can almost feel sticky little fingers clasping my hand, and hear merry inconsequentlial chatter as I walk through a hot parking lot to the car. If only.  If only.
Murder isn’t over, you know, not ever – not for those of us left behind. In crime dramas everything is wrapped up with a nice red bow right before the end, which usually comes just as soon as the cuffs are put on the suspect and their Miranda rights are read. The end. Cut to commercial. Show the previews for the next episode. It isn’t like that in real life. There are no quick, neat solutions. Forensics take months, investigations can be long and painstaking, and it seems to take forever for the trial to even start. And there is the pain of loss. That pain doesn’t go away, you don’t breathe a sigh of relief when the solution is presented or the trial ended. There isn’t even any real closure. You will never, ever, understand why someone felt they had a good reason to take your loved one’s life. No reason is good enough. And the pain is still there. The pain of loss is your life companion now. You may hide it. You many impress others with your strength, courageously build a new life for yourself, even find other happiness. But the loss is still there, the pain is still there, and grief just waits around the corner for a chance to trip you up again.
It’s awkward. It’s hard even to articulate your own feelings to yourself sometimes.  So, I write to keep my sanity.  And I started emailing my writings to friends.  The interesting thing is that those friends started sending my notes to other friends.  My email list got bigger and bigger.  And sometimes reading about my journey through grief somehow allowed others to express the feelings of grief that they were struggling with. I hope that if I share a little of me and my journey with you, it will give us both the strength to continue up that rocky slope for at least one more day.  Please, read and share. Monkey.


♣   Jan and what remains of her family still live in Southern California. Though the case made headlines four years ago, the attention over it seems to have waned but four years of legal proceedings and counting are constant reminders of her losses. She has been invited to speak on behalf of mothers who have lost a child and chronicles her life after tragedy on the often poignant Grief’s Journey Blog.   ♣

Copyright © 2011 Grief’s Journey. All Rights Reserved.

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