Saturday, Jul 19, 2014 06:00 am
I was 15 years old when St. Albert was shaken by the deaths of an entire family. A young man my age systematically shot his mother (Susan, 41), step-father (Maurice, 46) and two sisters (Islay, 12 and Janelle, 10) at their family home in Valleyview. I did not know the murderer, nor will I name him. He did go to a school in St. Albert just down the street from mine.
It was the summer between junior high and high school. In September I went to school with people who knew the boy. Even that seemed inconceivable to me. I was one degree of separation from a murderer. Somehow that made me feel responsible.
It was the first time in my life that murder seemed so real. It was the first time in my sheltered life that something like this happened in my community. In many ways I feel like I lost something of my childhood in those moments when those people, people I never met, died. Years later I worked with Maurice’s sister. I felt privileged to be able to share what her brother’s death meant to me. Their deaths were not meaningless.
There were other events growing up that also had a similar impact on me. In junior high, the father of one of the girls I went to school with died. I recall the girls crying in the bathroom and I remember being perplexed because most of them didn’t know him. I understand better now.
In high school one of the girls in a younger grade died in a car accident while heading back to school from McDonald’s. I still think of her whenever I make a left hand turn on the corner of St. Albert Trail and Sturgeon Road.
Closest to home was when a good friend of mine lost his father. His dad killed himself in the family home after struggling with depression. I can still hear the sobbing of his sister’s grief from the very first funeral I ever witnessed. I recall vividly the feeling of tension as the minister talked of his death while trying to avoid talking about how he died. It was this funeral that solidified what would become the basis of my career.
Even after years of study and multiple degrees I still have so much to learn. Not even a year ago I felt compelled to write a blog about children and grief after Thomas Wedman died while crossing a street on his way to school. It was the only thing I could think to do. It still doesn’t feel like nearly enough. I still find myself hugging my children tighter before they head off to school.
While many other tragedies happen all the time around the world, it is the ones that are closest to home that remind us of our own mortality and the fragility of the lives of the people around us. We often judge our own and other people’s reactions: “I didn’t even know the person”, “Why am I so sad?” or “How come she can’t get over it?” Feelings are not always easily understood. Sometimes they are just there.
My daughter was very upset the other night while reading a book with her dad. The main character, a cat, died at the end of the story. My daughter was inconsolable. She said to me, “The cat isn’t even real, why am I so sensitive?”
We spoke of how the book brought up for her the worry she has about how she will feel when our precious cats die. They are 14 years old and aging quickly. The concern is understandable; still I am proud of her empathy.
Like many of us, I have spent the last few weeks following the story of the O’Brien-Liknes. The tragedy and grief will impact that community for generations just as I think of the tragedies in my childhood. These events change people, in good and bad ways. My heart goes out to the families involved and the community that supports them. It is these moments that connect us in the most visceral ways. It is proof of our fragile yet undeniable humanity. It is about our grief for them but also about our grief for ourselves.