For families who lose a child, ‘a part of you dies’HACKENSACK, N.J. – For Garrett, death came when he accidentally suffocated in his crib. For Lee and Steven, it came when lightning struck them on a soccer field. For Rebeka, it came on graduation night in the passenger seat of a car that hit a tractor-trailer.
By: Lindy Washburn and Barbara Williams, The Record (Hackensack N.J.) , INFORUM
HACKENSACK, N.J. – For Garrett, death came when he accidentally suffocated in his crib. For Lee and Steven, it came when lightning struck them on a soccer field. For Rebeka, it came on graduation night in the passenger seat of a car that hit a tractor-trailer. For Joan, it came while delivering Girl Scout cookies, when a neighbor raped and strangled her.
Last week, death came again with terrible suddenness – to a child in New Jersey.
A 6-year-old, Laz Ayon, died after a heavy 10-foot pole fell on him while he was cleaning up the back yard of his Lodi, N.J., home.
Random and terrifying, a child’s sudden death overturns the order of the universe. The profound pain of family members and friends, their haunting questions, the ceaseless doubts about what might have been can destroy marriages and friendships. They motivate the quest for safety and feed the mind’s darkest fears.
As in the case of Etan Patz, who disappeared 33 years ago on the first day his parents permitted him to walk to the school-bus stop by himself, each decision is examined and reconsidered in light of its horrendous outcome.
“The pain is in our soul,” said Lourdes Verea, whose daughter Rebeka died hours after her high school graduation. “You go completely out of your mind trying to understand it.”
“You come back a different person,” said Joyce Davis, whose son Garrett suffocated between a mattress and his crib 12 years ago, when he was 4½ months old. “I think a part of you dies.”
That is the journey upon which Laz’s family must now embark.
“Whatever you’ve expected – the complete predictability of life – is shattered,” said Linda Centeno, a Ridgewood, N.J., psychologist. When a person is old or sick, loved ones have the chance to brace for loss. But “this completely shatters lives.”
“Children are hope embodied,” said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Princeton psychologist. The loss of a child is the loss of hope.
The pain ripples beyond parents and brothers and sisters to grandparents and friends, classmates and neighbors. A child’s death upends the instinctive logic of each generation outliving its elders, destroys the cherished fantasy of the innocent protected from evil and suffering.
Family members and friends, looking back in interviews over recent days, said there was no predicting the course that grief would take.
Davis and some others found solace – eventually – in work to pass a law, to correct a problem, to spare others the same agony. New crib-safety laws, sex-offender registries, mandatory sentencing rules, Project Graduation parties and lightning detection systems have been born out of such grief.
Still, survivors say they are ambushed at unexpected moments by memories and sadness. They fortify themselves for the first anniversary – and it is the second that undoes them. A stranger asks how many children a father or mother has. A clap of thunder, a song on the radio, a rubber-band ball in a drawer sweeps them into a vortex.
For the most part, they want to talk about those who have died – to do otherwise would deny their memory. They are hurt when others shun the topic.
The need to talk
Rosemarie D’Alessandro wanted to talk about her daughter, Joan, who’d been raped and murdered in 1973 while delivering cookies to a Hillsdale, N.J., neighbor. But she remembers “one couple in particular (who) would get up from the table every time I talked about Joan or the law we were working on.”
They continue to mark the milestones of their children’s lives: Garrett would be starting middle school now, his mother said; a pair of lightning victims would be college graduates; Joan probably would be a mother herself.
“I often find myself wondering where Lee would be,” Jessica Humphrey wrote on the fifth anniversary of the death of her best friend, Lee Weisbrod. He was a college student when he died with Steven Fagan in a lightning strike in 2006. “How his personality may have changed, where he’d be living … where he’d be working, if he’d be happy.”
If only she could talk to him again. “You just wish you could pick up the phone and say, ‘Guess what happened?’ ” She’d want to tell him, “Big things are happening.” She and her classmates have graduated from college and started on careers. She’s become engaged – and she misses him.
In the first days, “you can’t look past the fog,” said Joyce Davis, now 44 and a resident of Warren, N.J., with three living daughters. Her father, George Leipsner, practices family medicine in Maywood, N.J.
“Those two years until my subsequent daughter was born are pretty blank to me,” Davis said. “I don’t remember a lot of days what happened.”
A friend who’d lost a baby herself years earlier tried to console her. “She was smiley and happy and going out to eat,” Davis said. “I really thought I would never be that person. … You don’t ever believe you’ll get out from under this.”
Her husband, Rich, on the other hand, was angry. A lawyer, he turned his skills to investigating how such a crib mattress could be sold to consumers and its dangers not made public.
But Davis kept her distance. “I said no.” She did not want to be “that mother,” testifying and talking to the press as the face of a movement.
Lourdes Verea of Cliffside Park lost her 18-year-old daughter Rebeka in June 2005, the night of Rebeka’s graduation. The girl’s friend was driving his uncle’s Mercedes-Benz when he hit a tractor-trailer in North Bergen, N.J., the impact ripping off the sedan’s roof and killing Rebeka instantly.
“For days you ask God why,” she said. “What mistake did I make in my life to give me this? But you don’t get answers to those questions.”
Each person’s grief is different
Grief is profoundly personal, the experts say.
“People can be utterly destroyed when things like this first happen,” said Centeno, the Ridgewood therapist and assistant director of the Koch Center in Waldwick, N.J. “Some may be in a state of disbelief or shock or denial for a long time. We’ve learned as psychologists it’s important to respect those defenses. … They need to get through it however they can get through it.”
For two years, Sheila Massoni of Hackensack, N.J., said, she got out of bed only to change her underwear and eat meals after her only child, at age 36, was murdered eight years ago in Cliffside Park. She lay down so much she developed vertigo. But slowly, she began taking walks with her husband when he came home from work. Over time, she progressed, with help from a psychologist and psychiatrist.
Massoni still doesn’t drive, but said, “I’ve gone an entire year now without getting hysterical.”
Many have heard of the five stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her seminal 1969 book, “On Death and Dying” – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But Kennedy-Moore, the Princeton therapist and author, said each must find his or her own path through grief.
“You don’t have to find meaning in loss, especially something as horrific as losing a child,” she said. “You don’t have to go through stages in a certain order. You can do the stages backwards, skip stages, invent your own stages. There is no right way to grieve.”
Joyce Davis stayed home and cried every day for a few months, but tried to confine her weeping to the hours her oldest daughter was at school. “One day, I opened the door for her to go to kindergarten,” she said, “and she looked at me and said, ‘I’m not going.’ ”
Davis asked her why.
“Because you stay home and cry all day,” her 5-year-old answered, “and I’m not leaving you.”
It was a slap in the face, Davis said. “I thought, ‘I have two kids. I cannot ruin their lives.’ ”
That daughter, now 17, has long known what she wants to be when she grows up: a mental health professional specializing in grief counseling.
Rosemarie D’Alessandro was the mother of an 8-year-old and a 9-year-old when Joan was killed. After months of grieving, she started to push for new legislation aimed at people who murder children.
Joan’s Law, enacted in 1997, requires anyone convicted of killing a child younger than 14 while committing a sex crime to serve a life sentence without parole. An amendment to change the age to 18 was introduced earlier this month in the New Jersey Assembly.
But parenting sometimes proved harder than creating new legislation. Joan’s sister, Marie, 8, wanted to remain in Girl Scouts after Joan died.
“That was very painful for me, but I had to put her needs first,” D’Alessandro said. “You have to make sure your children’s worlds are OK and they feel safe and then they can just be kids again.” She and her husband went on to have two more children.
Two years after Garrett’s death, the Davises had another child. A daughter – “the best, best, best thing we ever did.”
“One day you wake up,” Davis said, “and think, ‘I’m going to get through this. I’m going to be OK. I’m accepting of life again.’ ”