GRIEF and the FAMILIES of PERPETRATORS

Image result for suzanne hodgkinson“I get up every morning feeling guilty because I didn’t stop it,” said Ms. Susanne Hodgkinson, the wife of the man who wounded Congressman Steve Scalise and three others during baseball practice for a charity game between Republicans and Democrats.  She continued, “I wake up with hot sweats, thinking: ‘You should have known. You should have known,’” writes JULIE TURKEWITZ for the New York Times.

The families of people who perpetrate mass or serial shootings, murders, rapes, or child abusing/molesting crimes have a very different experience than anyone else who loses a loved one.

While supply-pastor at a church in Jackson, Mississippi, I walked with a family through a similar experience. It was heart wrenching to see the complicated grief of this family whose son had killed another person. He was not dead, but it felt very much like it. This dear Christian family, who I will refer to as the Johnson’s, traveled through some very different, dark, and troubled waters.

There were the legal issues – acquiring a lawyer who was willing to defend someone whose guilt was without question. Guardianship over him was established in order to conduct necessary business on his behalf. Bank accounts were accessed and a new one established. Outstanding loans needed paid or arrangements made for the property to be repossessed. Anything remaining was invested. There was also the question regarding the custody and rearing of a child left fatherless, but whose father was still alive. Social Services came in to protect the interest of the child. The court appointed an advocate on his/her behalf and a trust was established to protect the child’s assets. The Social Security Administration and insurance companies got involved.

For the families of perpetrators who died while committing their crimes, Ms. Turkewitz writes, “There is the question of how to mourn. How to dispose of a body that everyone else wants to forget.” She reports that the funeral home that accepted the body of one of the Boston Marathon bombers had protesters outside their place of business carrying signs that said, “Bury the garbage in the landfill.” The pastor that conducted the small private funeral of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, was forced from his church because of it. The relatives of the San Bernardino killers were refused burial in California cemeteries and had to be interned in another state.

The Johnsons knew and were close to the victim and grappled with what to do or say to the victim’s family. At first the conversation between the two families was civil and forgiving, but it soon turned to hostility. Accusations and condemnations were thrown about. The Johnsons absorbed the vitriol without offering a defense because of their own feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. The family debated the propriety of attending the funeral, and at last a few decided to go. They still wonder, after over 25 years, if it was the right thing to do.

Ms. Turkewitz tells the tales of “hate mail, death threats,” and other dangers that the families of perpetrators endure. Ms. Hodgkinson was slapped in the face by a stranger while in a grocery store parking lot. Her neighbors now get her groceries, mow her lawn, and take “out her trash, dispersing it around town to evade snoops.” She is worried about the treatment her granddaughters will get when they return to school this fall.

The Johnson family had their share of troubles, too. Mr. Johnson was shot at from an unknown shooter that shattered the driver’s side mirror while he was getting out of his car. The social worker recommended against placing the child with the Johnsons solely based on them being the parents of the perpetrator. The court-appointed advocate was especially cruel with cutting remarks, a constant air of suspension, and an attitude of guilt by association. Fortunately, the judge saw a different image of the Johnsons than had been painted and awarded them custody. Today the child is an adult with multiple emotions of his/her own. S/he had a difficult introduction to adulthood, but has since overcome and is doing well.

The Johnsons grieved for the son, father, and brother who was capable of doing such a heinous thing. Mr. Johnson mowed his yard several times a week; it was when he could cry alone. Mrs. Johnson was filled with shame, remorse, and guilt that she never quite got over and took to her grave. His three children carry the stigma of being the offspring of a perpetrator and have a very complicated relationship with him. His brothers grieved hard, but had to mask their grief with strength in order to take care of all the multitude of things that resulted. They shared their grief with each other and with their wives, but few others.

As a pastor no thought of my reputation entered my mind. There was a family that was hurting and I rushed to be at their side. I took every opportunity available to be with them through it all. It was unchartered waters for me and all the other ministers who visited; they do not teach this kind of thing in seminary.

Through this experience I learned a few things. . .

  • The families of perpetrators grieve for both their loved one AND his/her victims. It is a pain that shakes them to the core. Their moral and ethical belief system is challenged. The “Why” question haunts them through the night and all of the day. They carry a tremendous load of stress and question over and over again every move they make. The victims and their families weigh heavily upon their collective conscience.
  • The families of perpetrators are filled with regret, guilt, and shame. Regret is sadness and disappointment coupled with repentance. Repeatedly they will ask for forgiveness for what their loved one has done as if they are somehow culpable. Guilt is the feeling one gets when s/he does something wrong. “How did I miss the signs?” “What could I have done more?” are questions they ask themselves repeatedly as if on a recorded loop. Shame goes beyond regret and guilt and attacks a person’s beliefs, values, and who they are as a human being. “Where did I go wrong?” “What is wrong with me?” Beliefs and values are challenged and they feel responsible for their loved one’s actions.
  • The families of perpetrators come to believe that they deserve the severe treatment and hatred of others. After all it was their son, father, and brother that did this awful thing; they may have felt the same way were the roles reversed.
  • The families of perpetrators grieve long after it leaves the consciousness of the public. Long after the haters and despisers become silent. Long after their ministers and the other members of their network cease their extra visits and support. Alone, in the middle of the night, perhaps years after the event, they still cry.

Ms. Turkewitz quotes Sue Klebold, “When you lose a loved one who has hurt other people, one of the struggles you have is the ability to focus on your sorrow, because your grief is so complicated by all these other things.”

Since my experience with the Johnson family, when I hear of these terrible incidents, I pray not only for victims and their families, but also for the perpetrator’s family. Of all the victims, they may be the most pathetic.

May the peace of God be with you.

*Italics separate my contribution and that of Ms. Turkewitz.

*Photo by Kaly Johnson

When Dreams Die

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I was helping my step-son load some things into his truck when I noticed this fence and structure. Out of the frame and to the right was a large wooden structure with a metal roof that appeared to be some kind of shop. In the middle of the photo you can see the remains of another smaller structure, now collapsed and in ruins. Surrounding it is this five foot heavy gauge fence with its galvanized coating long gone. Weeds, trees, and cacti have taken over and with time will blot out any recognition of what this may have been.

This was someone’s dream. It appears they poured a lot of money and sweat equity into making it a reality. The shop and fence were well built and appeared professionally constructed.  I wonder how it died. Did the owner with the dream become injured or pass away? Perhaps the cost of running the business left him/her with too little cash to meet expenses. Maybe the community in which it existed went through a prolonged depression and s/he could no longer keep the business running. Possibly federal, state, local, and/or insurance requirements became too overwhelming. Conceivably the owner had the right dream for the wrong place or at a disadvantageous time? Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “If you’ve never failed, you’ve never tried anything new.”

Some dreams live and die without much notice. I wanted to play the electric guitar and piano. I took lessons, but I did not have the aptitude or discipline required to be a musician. For me it was not traumatic to fail at playing an instrument. It was more a hobby than a hope, besides I can still find a C chord on a guitar and play scales on the piano.

But, there are those dreams that define us. I had a roommate in college who wanted so desperately to be a Marine, but he was discharged out of basic training. For several years he struggled to find where he belonged. Many of you reading this can identify with shattered dreams. An almost college degree. That had-to-have-it job that turned out to be disappointing. A marriage that ended in divorce. Deserved recognition overlooked. Promotion denied. Ideas rejected. Career destroyed. A once-in-a-lifetime vacation spoiled. A special-sought-for car that turned out to be a lemon.

If you have read my blog you know I have had several dreams die. From the age of fourteen, I dreamed of being a pastor/teacher and then one day I got sick and I was finished at 41. My next career choice was to be a counselor. Depression ended it at 53. After more than 34 years of marriage a signature and a court record said I was single again. At one time I was recognized as being among the top 50 graduates of my alma mater, a college with a 116 year history, but today my reputation is in such ruins I am not sure I would make the bottom fifty.

How does one carry on when his/her dream dies?

Grieve Your Loss

The five stages of grief are well known – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Your loss is real and it is painful. You conceived your dream, felt it grow, gave birth to it, and did everything possible to make it live; but, alas, . . . it died. When my depression went clinical and became severe, I was pastoring the best church. Our attendance had nearly doubled, the church was once again healthy financially, the education wing had been remodeled, the church had settled on a purpose statement that was to give it clear direction for years to come, and property had been purchased for a new church campus. Everything I had dreamed I could be as a pastor and a leader was coming true, but it ended. Four years later when I was asked to choose a place where I dreamed of being; I said I wanted to be the pastor of that church again. For nearly fifteen years I carried a dollar bill in my pocket that the church had given me as a gag gift at Christmas. I hurt. It took a long time for me to get to acceptance.

Grief is messy and does not work itself out in five sequential steps. You often find yourself in déjà vu all over again. And, yes, you have been there before and it is not likely the last time you will visit. But, grief is essential and in the end the journey to acceptance is worth the heartache.

Assess Your Strengths

Remember the good times you had while your dream was alive. Think of all the things you have learned. Assess how you have grown. Consider the secondary skills you have gained. All of these add to your current strengths.

If you have lost a career, ask yourself what is it you like to do and can do well? Look into your past for what you have done before and enjoyed doing? Do you have something you always wanted to try and are willing to learn the necessary skills and make the sacrifices required to master it? I would have never learned counseling had I remained a pastor. Without losing both of those careers, this blog and my writing may never have existed.

Did your dream relationship go sour? What do you want in a relationship? What do you have to give? After my divorce I spent many hours taking relationship assessments, determining what kind of husband I wanted to be, and what kind of wife I wanted. I married again, but not before my wife and I vetted each other for three years. We are very compatible and happy together.

Dare to Dream Again

When all your dreams die there is nothing left to do but be buried. It can be devastating when a dream dies, but dare to dream again. New dreams are costly and risky, dream anyway. Learn from your failures and keep dreaming. My college roommate eventually reinvented himself as an expert in theology and his latest incarnation is as an advocate for those on the autism spectrum. After my many failures I can truly say I am especially satisfied with the man I am and am becoming, and with what I am presently doing.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, ” plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

Remembering Our Never Born Child

Image result for toddler ascending to heavenAlthough it has been nearly twenty-five years since our baby died in uterio I still dream about her. She often comes during uncertain dreams where I am alone against everyone else in the scene. She represents unconditional love and acceptance when others are rejecting me. A few nights ago she was there with her brunet curls bouncing on her shoulders and wearing a Martha Miniature style dress crawling up on my knee giving me a hug. She gave me a sense of well-being in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In July of 1991 I loaded a moving van and waved good bye to my wife and two children. They were on their way to the mountains of eastern Kentucky to settle into our new home because we did not want our girl and boy to have to change schools in the middle of the school year. I would leave Mississippi later in December to join them after finishing my final semester in seminary.

During that time of separation we tried to find ways to be together. I flew into the Lexington airport to be with my wife and children for a few days. About two months later my father purchased a plane ticket for my wife to visit me in Jackson. It was a few weeks after that last visit that my wife called to say we were expecting our third child. We had not planned on a third child, but she was loved and welcomed from the beginning.

About four months passed when my wife began to experience mild bleeding. Sensing something was not right with our baby we called the doctor. He scheduled an ultra-sound. During the procedure there was not the expected banter that goes on between the technician and the parents. No turning of the screen for us to see our baby in the womb, none of the normal hints as to the sex of the child, nothing. She was quiet and left without saying anything. There we were alone in a sterilized room with only the hum of machines to interrupt our thoughts. Then the doctor came in and told us our baby was dead.

The seventy mile trip home was silent as we tried to comprehend our loss. When we stopped to pick up our children from the sitter, my wife received a hug of sympathy and consolation and then we were off to grieve alone. When a child dies in uterio there is no gathering of family and friends to support the parents and siblings. No one brings in meals or has a dinner. There is no funeral to plan or attend. No remembrance of the significance of this child to the lives of those who loved her.  No baby afghans to caress. No pictures to see. No crib to stare into blankly. No gravesite to visit. No tombstone inscribed and set. No balloons released or memorial tree planted.  There is only aloneness. Nothing tangible is left behind to say she ever was. How do you grieve over someone who has no name and no gender? Over someone you will never know?

Between the days that passed and the time we went back to the doctor for the D&C (also known as a dilation and curettage to expel the baby, stop bleeding, and prevent infection) many people asked me how my wife was coping. I updated them on her condition, but not one person asked me how I was doing. “It was my baby, too!” I wanted to scream. It was as though this conservative Christian enclave in which we lived had completely adopted the pro-choice propaganda that it was all about the woman and the man was irrelevant. The message I heard in those days was that the man had to be strong, undisturbed, a carved statue without personal expression. I cried silently for what could have been and would never be.

After the D&C the doctor came out and told me my wife was doing well and the procedure was completed without complication. I asked him, “What was the sex of our baby?” “You don’t want to know,” he replied as he turned to walk away to his next waiting patient. “If I did not want to know I would not have asked,” I silently protested, but I let him go without pressing the issue.

I was having a hard time dealing with our loss, but I did not know who to talk to. My wife appeared to be coping so well. I tried to talk to her, but she did not seem to be grieving as deeply as I was. Through the intervening years I have asked her if she ever thinks about our never born child, but she rarely expressed much emotion or had much to say. I am left without much evidence about how she really felt or feels. I called my father, who was going through his own severe grief, to tell him our sad news, he said, “Son, I used to tell people that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God,’ but I’m not sure I know what that means anymore.” I understood his pain. I tried to read the book, I’ll Hold You in Heaven, by Pastor Jack Hayford, but my emotions were too raw to get past the introduction. Five years would pass before I could pick it up again.

As time went on our baby presented herself in my dreams. She always presented herself as a girl, which is why I refer to her in the female gender. I named her Acacia Joy, the name we had chosen for her if she had lived. Through the years she has appeared to me as a toddler, perhaps three or four years old, who always loves her daddy and thinks of him as her hero. I suppose it is the assurance I need sometimes to weather the storms of life.

Someone wrote, “Losing a baby before it even has a chance to draw breath seems completely unfair.” Plans are left unfulfilled, dreams suddenly stop, hopes are dashed, and expectations are violated.  An unknown author said, “I don’t think most people truly understand how much is lost when a baby dies. You don’t just lose a baby, you also lose the one and two and ten and sixteen year old she would have become. You lose Christmas mornings, loose teeth, and first days of school. You just lose it all.”

A few months passed when I shared with my wife that I did not want to end our child bearing years with a miscarriage. She agreed. Our son, Austin Joel, was born the next February. He is married and works at a Christian college as a recruiter. I thank God for this very talented musician and gifted speaker. We are very proud of him.

Last spring I put a memorial rock next to the walk going to our house with the inscription, “Acacia: An Ideal Daughter.” And thus she will always be cherished in my heart.