During the last week of October, I was in Montana, with the Montana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. I’m just now beginning to feel normal again. A trip like that requires recuperation.
I’ve thought a lot about the toll speaking about my mother’s murder, the subsequent trials, and re-forming my opposition to the death penalty has taken. The trials and soul-searching are pretty much complete, but now I choose to speak about my mother and about my experience in the Connecticut Judicial system. This still causes me much angst. I thought and thought about why that should still be, and I believe I’ve finally begun to understand. Here’s what I think –
At some point during the grieving process I decided that I would not let myself or my young children become victims of the man who murdered my mother. It seemed to me if I remained mired in anger, hatred and guilt I would bring my children to that terrible place, and we would all become additional victims of my mother’s murder. I’m a stubborn and independent person who, at that time, had previously escaped from an abusive marriage and I renewed my vow to never be a victim again. But how could I do this?
Every once in a while, during that time, some good, happy memory of my mother would sneak into my mind. All kinds of things triggered these memories, and they came more and more often, as time went on. Sometimes, I would enjoy the memory, revel in it, and feel my mother near me. I was able to do that without letting the negative thoughts in, for longer and longer moments. I didn’t let anything–not that she was really not here with me, or the circumstances of her death, or that her murderer was walking around free, intrude on my memories of her.
At first, I did this by force of will, because it was so wonderful to have those pain-free moments, and force-of-will was the only way I knew. Then I realized that no matter how many good moments popped into my mind, there were only a few things that could spoil them—that she was gone, that she was brutally murdered, and that the man who murdered her served only a few years of his 27-years-to-life sentence. Thinking about these few things were mostly all that interfered with my healing and my resolve to not be a victim.
It slowly dawned on me that: 1.) I could do nothing about these things. They were all facts over which I had absolutely no control or influence. 2.) I could never have my mother back. 3 ) I had 32 years of memories, good and bad, happy and sad, but always loving, of my mother, and those three things about her death were all that stood in the way of my enriching my life, taking control of my life , and making a better life for my children. I resolved then that what I wanted to focus on was all the time of my mother’s life —her 53 years of living, not the last few horrible moments of her life.
Once I understood this, I stopped being a victim of my mother’s murderer, and was better able to focus on her life and all that she meant to me. Her life, not her death, became the important fact of her existence here. I made the conscious choice that I would focus my attention on her life, not her death. I never stopped realizing that she was dead, but I came to realize it was her life that was important, not the circumstances of her death. Once I did this I was able to grieve and to move forward.
Now, back to why it is so difficult to do abolition work as a victim family member. When I speak as a victim family member, I mostly talk about my mother’s death and the period after her death that had to do with her having been murdered. My purpose in speaking out is to say that the death penalty is of no use or help to victim family members and that it in fact, often hurts and victimizes them further. So, in effect, I’m focusing on my mother’s death, not her life.
This is completely opposite to the way I’ve chosen to live my life. I must abandon the mindset and way of thinking that gives me comfort, hope, and peace and go to the place that causes me upset, despair, pain and anger. It’s a difficult place to get back from. There is a way back, but it takes time and work. It’s a process of recovery. I’m glad to say that it is a little easier to come back each time, but I think that , like grief, the need for recovery will always be there.
Traveling around southern Montana with the Coalition folks, talking to groups and people was a wonderful, but emotionally costly experience. Being with like-minded, committed, caring and passionate folks is a great comfort. It makes it possible to do the work, push aside the pain for later, and stay focused on the goal. The members and supporters of the Montana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty are terrific people who treated me royally, and their concern and consideration was like a warm fuzzy blanket. Thank you, all.
I don’t know, except in the most general way, how difficult speaking out about the murder of a loved-one is for other victim family members. I suspect that some have reactions similar to mine, and that it causes a different pain for others. I don’t know how any of them actually cope with dealing with the cost of speaking out, but I am certain that it is not easy for any of us. I do it to honor my mother, and her life. I suspect some others also see it as a way to honor their murdered loved-one.
Won’t it be wonderful when victim family members all over the country can focus on their lives and the lives of their murdered loved ones, grieve properly, and move forward without the burden of a long, drawn-out legal process that re-victimizes them, sometimes for decades? Won’t it be wonderful when the country spends the money they formerly spent on the death penalty on preventing crime and helping victims? And won’t it be wonderful when there is no need for victim family members to speak out about the problems of the death penalty? I can hardly wait.