Marlys Ann Wohlenhaus was murdered in her home in Afton, Minnesota. on May 8, 1979, by person or persons then unknown. Her mother Fran, and I worked for over 19 years to keep Marlys’ memory alive in Minnesota so that she would not be forgotten by law enforcement officials and justice would be done.
Marlys is with us always in spirit and her memories have helped us in the healing process as we have struggled to find answers to who brutally attacked and murdered such a sweet, innocent young woman and why he chose her to be his victim.
For many years, we didn’t know who to suspect, but when the Washington County Grand Jury issued an indictment for first- and second-degree homicide in December 1996, we learned the name of the person who murdered Marlys. We could not comprehend him being out of prison, able to kill again. And so we pushed and prodded, acted like a squeaky wheel, as Washington County Sheriff Jim Frank called Fran, after the verdict. We found members of the media who helped with publicity. There is a list of people we have, without whom the case would not have been solved, and it is a long and commendable roster. We believe we have been fortunate to have a conviction in our case under circumstances where the one who took Marlys from us will never be free to prey on others, ever. And we know that not everyone has such a result. For that reason, we continue to work with other bereaved people, particularly those whose loved ones were victims of violence.
In the time between 1979, when Fran and I were not yet married, and 1998, when I gave a victim impact statement as a surviving parent, a step-father, I have learned two basic principles which I suggest are important if we who are not bereaved parents are to understand those who are bereaved, at any point in their grief. These are: first, that every bereaved parent is an irrational, unreasonable, emotionally frozen, inconsiderate, inwardly directed, grieving person in great pain; and, second, that they have every right to be! As a step-parent of a child who has been murdered, I needed to understand these things, and still need to remind myself over and over and over. We will never remember often enough.
We had a bad day about a week before a Christmas some years ago. Fran had been planning on taking decorations to Marlys’ grave and needed some help clearing snow. I wanted to help buy the decorations and had suggested stopping several times when it was not really practical. Instead, Fran bought them when I was at my office. After dinner that day, the bad day got worse. Both of us had hurt feelings and old pains came back for a little while.
We came to our senses, fortunately, because this had happened before, and we were able to go to the grave and place the wreath in just the right place. It looked nice, and at Christmas we came back and lit the candle we took from the candlelight church service we attended on Christmas Eve. We got through the bad day because we understand that there are sensitive feelings, especially at holidays and anniversaries. After all, we have been having good and bad days for the last twenty-three years.
What that little “bad day” story tells me is that when a child dies, there is a new relationship between parent and step-parent and this new relationship remains as long as the marriage lasts. Marlys and I were planning a Mother’s Day surprise party but she was buried the day before that holiday. She and I had a very good relationship. I love her, if for no other reason than she is part of Fran, and I miss her and I have all the pain of a close relative. But at first, it is not the same as when you are the parent.
I know there is bonding with adopted children and true parental feelings. There comes a time, almost instantly sometimes, when the adoptive parent loves the child the same as biological parents do–sometimes more. But what about step-parents who come along like I did, after the child is basically raised, even after the child has died?
As a step-parent, we need to see our partner in marriage as forever changed. It is like her or his arm has really been amputated, or she has had a mastectomy, or his testicles were taken from him by cancer. It is that serious and we need to recognize that our partner will always be forever changed. An arm doesn’t grow back.
As a step-parent, if you love your partner, the greatest joy in the world is making that partner happy. Look at the opportunity you have to help your partner recover. You can’t replace the dead child and shouldn’t try. You can’t bring that child back and no one expects you to. You can help in the healing and that will bring both you and your partner joy. More important, it will bring you healing.
Up to now, I have focused on the responsibility of the step-parent to take a back seat to the pain and grief of the natural parent. I have ignored our pain and our grief and our loss. I have ignored our need to get back to normal and to be on with life and doing things that our creative urges would have us do. I have ignored some other things too, like those times when the step-parent should come first, during a job crisis or a death of a parent or sibling or the like. I have ignored those things because we are much more healthy and when we need that help, we will find a way. The critical element is that our partner, our grieving, bereaved partner, is not going to be any help at all if he or she is not healing and has not had the support that was and is needed during the worst of the grief. Bereaved parents do heal and do fix romantic meals and do function to help their partners, but healing has to come first. Again, this is a matter of setting priorities.
* * *
We recently looked at the picture that was taken of us on the first Christmas, posed by the decorated tree. The best thing that can be said about the picture is that we can see just how far we have come. There is comfort in physical proof that healing takes place, outwardly, so that others can see it. This is the experience bereaved parents have when they reach out to newly bereaved. There is comfort in helping the newly bereaved, just by being there and saying that they understand. As a mother reaches out to others, she sees herself as she was at first. Nobody wants to look that bad.
If we could describe ourselves then in that Christmas photo, we would say that Fran looked like she was in great pain, which she was, of course. Today, photos of Fran don’t show that pain. The best pictures of Fran now are taken when she is helping others or is talking about her efforts to help those in pain.
I didn’t look any better back at that holiday. I look confused and concerned and lost. Why wasn’t Fran happy to go to a dinner dance connected with my work, when it had been several months since Marlys died?
What do step-parents expect from bereaved parents and what is reasonable for them to expect? Early on, the answer is that we should expect nothing. It is the same story. I have a broken arm and she has had an arm amputated. But we can get together with other bereaved step-parents and with others in the family for our time to grieve and gripe. And we can try our best to be there for our spouse, because neither of us really know the path yet. And we can be patient because there will come a time when healing is progressing and more of a normal life can be lead.
We know a couple who get along quite well. She has had a leg amputated and will always be missing a leg. A prosthesis helps but she is forever handicapped. He has to always and forever keep that in mind as they live their life together. He is very hard of hearing and it is not really correctable. She has had to accommodate him in that handicap and has had to help him cope with a permanent disability. I don’t know if you will believe this but that couple called us to invite us to go ballroom dancing. They are taking lessons. She has an artificial leg and he can’t hear. They are coping.
This is a role model for all of us. We are married, partners in life, and take each other for better or for worse. With the death of a child, things are worse. As a result, we struggle on with a permanent handicap for the rest of our lives, trying and in most cases, succeeding in living a useful and relatively happy life in the face of that handicap.
* * *
As a final thing, I would say that the one thing that a bereaved parent can and should do for a bereaved step-parent, in time and to the extent possible, is to trust the relationship enough to share the grief. Fran will tell you that she has not always let me know her pain or tell me know how she feels. She says that she used to think that I was not a bereaved parent and so how could I understand? Well, we agree now that the effort in trying, by each of us, to discuss and exchange feelings is not only important, it is part of the healing process.
I have often said that I wish that Marlys was here to brighten my day. She did when I knew her. I have memories, too. But I will never again have that experience with Marlys, anymore than Fran will. My loss leads to a small understanding of what Fran feels every day. Fran and I try to live the best life we can, knowing that Marlys isn’t physically here but her memory is with us. I was recently paid the highest compliment possible when someone asked Fran how long I had known Marlys. When Marlys’ mom told her that Marlys was about 16, and that we didn’t get married until after the murder, when Marlys was 18, the friend said, “But the way he talks about her makes me think he knew her from birth.” I am so grateful for that observation about my memories of Marlys.
On bad days, the step-parent will feel left out, perhaps mistakenly, and will want to be part of something that he or she doesn’t qualify to be part of. On our bad day, just before that Christmas, we learned once again to share our feelings. After 23 years now, it is legitimate to talk about participation in memories. It is a good day when we go to the cemetery together and light a candle. We have gone beyond cursing the darkness.
John S. Munday, lives in Isanti County, MN. He is the author of Surviving The Death Of A Child, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org