Grieving Alone, Therese Hamburge Bartlett

I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I had just turned 10 the day before, and I was busy playing with my new Jane West doll and wearing the new clothes I’d received from my parents. It was nearly lunch time and I thought it odd that my mother and father had suddenly arrived home. They called our caregiver to the front porch and immediately, all that could be heard were whispers, then gasps of, “Oh no, oh no, poor kid!”

I was convinced that my sister, just two years older than I, must have received bad news at the doctor’s office, where she’d recently gone for testing. But then my mother brought me into our family room and told me my brother had gone for a walk the night before and he never came home. Then, my mother could no longer continue and she left the room.

That was the very last information about my 19-year-old brother’s murder I would ever hear from my parents. I remember overhearing a few basic facts when the news reporters were in our home and watching the very brief TV reports in the coming days, but my parents never said another word about it.

It wasn’t until the 30th anniversary of Bob’s death last year that any of us realized just how much we’d each been grieving alone all these years. And it wasn’t until then, that I realized how much being shielded from the truth turned out to be more harmful than helpful. Now that I am a parent, not only can I better comprehend the unbearable sorrow my parents must have suffered at such a violent and tragic loss, but I can also understand their heartfelt desire to shield their young children from painful and difficult information. Yet I urge victims’ families with young children to be honest and open with these children about the facts surrounding the death of their loved ones.

Returning to school that fall after Bob’s death, I remember thinking that I must look different from other children. After all, our family had been on the news, in the newspapers, and our church and schools knew of our tragedy. Surely, all the kids knew what had happened? But 5th graders are oblivious to such events of the world. Most of my classmates had been away at summer camp or busy with Little League and like my parents, their parents avoided discussing such hard news with them. Very few of my peers even knew of the murder, let alone knew how to talk with me about it. Even our Catholic school could offer no counseling for us children, as would be routinely provided today.

And so, I tried to revert to playing the “normal” fifth grader, not really knowing all that had happened, just knowing that my brother was gone and I felt way older than the mere 10 years I’d attained. But as my parents and family tried to heal, it became almost an unwritten rule that we were not to discuss “the event.” We talked in generalities about our brother and his childhood, but certainly not his murder. By the time I’d reached high school, I knew instinctively that I was not the same as my peers. I didn’t have the carefree approach to life and daily activities that other 14-year- olds had. I was fearful of being outside after dark. I was afraid to ride my bike home alone. I no longer had the “it can’t happen to me” mentality of the typical teenager, since I’d learned the hard way that it CAN happen to our family. I tried to put aside my fears and my sadness, since there was really no one to talk with, but it would only resurface a few years later.

In my sophomore year at college, John Lennon was killed. I recall that I became overly angry about the situation and my roommates couldn’t understand the feelings that were propelling me into fits of rage and inconsolability. I wasn’t angry that a legendary musician had been lost. Rather, I was angry that his celebrity seemed to make finding his killer a bigger priority than finding the killers of the average citizen. Fans AND police vowed to pull out all the stops to find the perpetrators, yet, I recalled no such statement being made when my brother was killed. The apparent injustice was tearing me up inside.

Suddenly, I realized that I knew very few of the details of my brother’s death and I began to wonder whether the police ever had any suspects or if they even considered the case still open. I found myself almost driven to find out everything I could about the events surrounding Bob’s death. Still, having lived for more than a decade shielded from little more than generalities, I knew that asking my parents for more information would be difficult. They were healing, as we all thought we were, and I knew it would be hard to return to the pain. So I squelched my need to know once more, choosing to keep my inner conflict locked deep inside.

But experience has taught me that feelings, which are buried away, will always resurface. More than ten years later, the desire to know the truth was still festering inside me so strongly that it ultimately led me to Survivor Resources. Nearly 30 years after my brother was killed, I was finally presented with the opportunity to ask all those questions that I’d wrestled with all these years. There, I learned that my brother’s murder always was and is, still, an unsolved case. My parents had been given very little information that they could have shared, except for the very basics. And here I found myself grieving once more, because now I could comprehend the great tragedy that had occurred.

Or was I really grieving for the first time? You see, what my family and I learned was that keeping our sadness locked away inside had changed us almost more than the actual loss of our brother. Little did my parents know, their desire to spare me from the harsh realities of murder would actually cause me to live for years with unsettled feelings and the intense need for facts, or that I would possess a burning desire to deal openly with the loss. Never did my parents intend me to walk away with the message that my loss was any less important because I was so young. Yet that’s exactly the message that was gleaned. I believed for years that my loss must not be important because no one sat down with me to really discuss what had happened, nor to show me how to honor my brother and move past my grief.

Thankfully, we have so many wonderful resources available today to help families and children understand such tragic events and to help them deal with the situation in a healthy way. Yet many parents, even now, still feel it’s wiser to keep the truth from young children. As a parent — and as a child affected by murder — I urge you to tap into these resources and be honest with your young children. Help them to understand the facts. More importantly, help them to learn constructive ways to deal with their own pain. Of course, it is imperative that we speak with them and present difficult information in an age-appropriate manner. But children have a natural thirst for knowledge and they will want to know what happened. If not now, then as they grow older.

Children are stronger than we sometimes credit them for. The parental instinct to protect is stronger still. Murder and suicide are horrific and no one should have to experience the great sadness that occurs in its wake. But an even greater sadness—a second tragedy—would be to allow our children to believe that their grief is less important.