deborahjross: (Default)
Given everything I’ve been dealing with – fear about the unfolding political scene on one hand and the recurring nightmare of an upcoming parole hearing for the man who raped and murdered my mother on the other – I have at times felt powerless. Not just powerless but unable to summon the energy to continue what seems like an endless, life-draining battle. I become prey to fear at these times, fear that I will slip back into unending waking nightmare that was my experience of PTSD. I have worked hard to claw my way back to health, and when I am overwhelmed, I forget all the lessons I have learned and the ways I have changed.

It’s said that fear is False Evidence Appearing Real (or Fuck Everything And Run). It takes courage and a dedication to clear-sighted integrity, seeing what is real both in myself and in the world, to overcome those fears.

But I’ve also heard courage is fear that has said its prayers. I don’t have to be fearless. I’m not sure that’s possible without massive self-delusion. To do what I am called to do even though I am afraid is the essence of courage.

Where do I find such courage? It’s commonplace to suppose that “doing something for someone else” or because no one else can do it is the best way to overcome fear. I’ve done my share of acting according to this belief. I find that although it is sometimes effective, it’s harsh instead of nourishing. It’s a position of desperation. I soon find myself “running on empty.” I’m the last person I take care of or even give consideration to. In fact, the very notion that taking action when afraid can be nourishing came as a startling revelation to me.

There are so many things I cannot change, the past being at the top of that list. But I do have some say in my own attitude. Instead of seeing myself as desperate and without any choices but to plunge ahead, gritting my teeth the whole way, I can see myself as resourceful. I learned to do this for others when my kids were having a hard time in their teenaged years and my therapist pointed out that they didn’t need me to inflict my own worries on them, communicating that I thought they were incapable of handling their problems; what they needed was my faith in their ability to find their own creative solutions.

So if I’m going to be creative and resourceful in facing the parole hearing and the distress rampant in my community, I need to think “outside the box.” Not attending the hearing is an option that never occurred to me in the early years. Once I let go of “I have to do this,” I see other possibilities. Some I can anticipate on a reasonable basis (another family member might attend, a representative of the D.A.’s office might – actually, does – attend; I could send a video of my statement; I could hire an attorney to attend in my place), but I must also keep in mind that my imagination doesn’t dictate what happens. Many times I thought I knew all the possible outcomes, only to discover that what actually happened was something I had no way of anticipating.

There’s also the aspect I hinted at above, that instead of forcing myself to do something terrifying, I try to discern where I am led. That implies a leader, a caller, or one who summons, and these are reassuring concepts for people of many faiths. I don’t mean it as a religious tenet. “Being led” is shorthand for finding the actions that are right for us. That sense of rightness is akin to true vocation. What lies before us may be perilous, filled with reversals and setbacks, but following that path brings us deep satisfaction and sometimes even joy.

I’ve found that it’s equally important to remember I am not alone. The rugged individual, dragon slayer mode doesn’t have any room for asking for help or delegating or letting someone else take point. All of these things allow me to catch my breath, so to speak. Once I’ve stepped back, I can evaluate where my abilities are best applied and how much energy I have at any given time. Knowing what I’m good at, what I may not be skillful at but am willing to tackle, and what I really, really don’t want to do allows me to make mindful choices. When I ask for help, I often discover that those toxic areas aren’t the same for everyone. For example, making phone calls is easy for some people and grueling for others.

Instead of “I have to do this. Alone. No matter what it costs me,” I move toward “I’ve created a support network, and together we can handle this.” Sorrows shared are thus divided; we carry each another when one of us stumbles. My resourcefulness includes the strength of others. By tackling daunting tasks in community, I become not only stronger but more resilient. I learn again and again that I am resourceful in my friends as well as my individual abilities, and that makes me powerful.
deborahjross: (Default)
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well that I’m a dragon-slayer. I place myself squarely between my loved ones and anything that threatens them. It’s a longstanding family joke that the only time I used the physical aspect of 30+ years of Chinese martial arts was when I jumped between my preschool-aged daughter and a rampaging swan (and kicked the swan in the head). Now I’m in the position of the taken-care-of, the protected, not the protector.

This sea change came about as a result of a series of family conferences about the upcoming parole hearing. I mentioned earlier that I’ve learned to pay careful attention when people who love me express concern for my mental health. They have good reason to. At every parole hearing I’ve attended in person, I have been the family spokesperson. That meant staying focused and present, no matter what was happening. It meant putting my own needs and reactions on hold so that I could act. The first hearing took place in San Quentin State Penitentiary. I cannot begin to tell you what a not-nice place that is, even if you know you can walk out. Yet I was so focused on my responsibility to prevent the perpetrator from hurting anyone else, I never thought twice about attending or speaking, and it took a terrible toll on my health and sanity. My family and my close friends know what a dark time I went through and how hard I worked to recover. I have learned the hard way that just because I am capable of doing something scary and hard does not mean that I have to.

The last hearing took place in 2008, and neither my sister nor I attended it. We arrived at our decisions independently but in conversation; we each supported the other’s decision, recognizing that we don’t have to do make the same choice in order to support one another. A month before the hearing, the inmate – Sean DeRutte -- sent a letter to us via Victim Witness Services. When mine arrived, I asked my husband to look at it first. When he read it, he turned sheet white and said, “Don’t read this.” On the first page was a description of the sexual assault, containing details never before divulged.

In all the years since his incarceration, De Rutte never admitted to the sexual assault. Doubtless his attorney counseled him to not mention any crime for which he was not convicted (and this was a plea bargain, so he was not convicted of rape). However, the Parole Board Commissioners had previously made it clear that until he was able to express understanding and remorse, he was never going to be released. That he chose to inflict the details of a violent sexual assault on the daughters of his victim demonstrates he has no empathy for other people’s pain.

Once I stopped shaking and made some outreach calls, I tried to telephone my sister. I was too late in reaching her, for she had already opened and read her letter, and while in a public place, the post office. She was terribly distressed by it, as any person with a shred of sensitivity can imagine. I had my husband fax the letter to the District Attorney to use during the hearing. Apparently, even more shocking details came out then, so much so that the D.A. cautioned us to not read the transcript.

Fast forward 5 years to the current hearing, I contemplated whether or not to attend, resolved not to, and decided furthermore that since I have so far been spared these additional, appalling details of the assault, it would be in my best interest to continue to shield myself and to allow people who love me to help me.

Not knowing things doesn’t come easily to me. Most of my life I’ve used knowledge as a way of gaining control over my life. I found much truth in the saying, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” So to deliberately not open a file or a letter, to not search out facts that have great emotional importance in my life, feels cowardly and counterproductive. And yet that is also what seems healthiest for me to do now. I truly do not want to know any more about what my mother suffered in the last minutes of her life. It’s easier to remember that and respect the boundaries I’ve set for myself if I have help.Read more... )

This means, among other things, that not only am I not going to attend this hearing – at which time the letter and other aspects of the crime will undoubtedly be discussed – but I must guard myself carefully in the weeks to come. At the same time, I must remember that I am not alone. How does this translate into action? It means two things. First, it’s up to me to ask for help. This is both difficult and easy. Easy because it feels active, and I’ve found that taking empowering action lowers my anxiety. I’m doing something. At the same time, it’s hard to step away from the solo paladin, front-line role. I have a long-time habit of mistrusting any action that I haven’t done myself or personally observed when it comes to this area of my life. Now I must shift to relying on the judgment of others, to take their word on what is safe for me. I know they’ll make errors, but I hope these will be in the direction of protection I may not actually need and not in the other direction. If one of them misjudges the emotional pain something might cause me and as a result I don’t learn certain details of the assault or subsequent events, that is not a problem. It doesn’t endanger my safety.

For someone as information-centered as I have been, it’s a big deal to relinquish specific accuracy for the bigger picture. I am not a prosecuting attorney arguing the case, requiring that high degree of precision. I already know far more than is emotionally healthy for me. At one time, I believed that no information could be worse than what I imagined, but as I have learned more with each successive hearing, I see that is not true. Rather, the reverse. I have learned more than I ever wanted or needed to, and now it is time to close the door and say No more.

My gratitude to those loved ones who are willing to act as buffers for me is immense. I understand that the same details that might give me nightmares for years are horrific but not nearly as traumatizing for them. Nevertheless, it is sometimes a struggle to allow them to place themselves between me and the fire. I wrestle with stepping back and accepting their help. That part feels passive in the sense of not doing anything but is actually receptive. I think of how a gift enriches both the recipient and the giver, and how good it feels when I am able to help someone else. When I see that I am offering that same opportunity to my loved ones, I feel empowered rather than indebted. This isn’t charity, it’s compassion in action. And for that to happen, I have to hold open the space for others to act on my behalf.
deborahjross: (Default)
When I received a letter from the Department of Corrections, informing me of the late March parole hearing for the man who raped and murdered my mother, I felt overwhelmed. It had been as much as I could do to maintain emotional equilibrium in the face of the election and then the illness and death of our wonderful German Shepherd Dog, Tajji. I knew the next hearing was schedule for 2017, but I did not expect to begin the year in dread of that ordeal. I know what these hearings have done to me in the past and how hard I have had to work on survival and recovery. Each hearing has not only opened old wounds but created new ones as more was revealed.

Almost immediately, I started noticing worrisome changes in my mental health. In the 30 years since my mother was killed, I’ve come to know the “warning signs” quite well. I no longer ignore them as I once did. I dare not “soldier on” or bury myself in work: that way lies madness. Thank goodness, I have never been tempted to use substances, legal or not, to escape. Instead, I run to anxiety as my drug of choice. This time I decided to take action on my own behalf before I got into serious trouble.

First I enlisted allies. At the top of that list is my family, both my daughters (one at home, one across the country) and husband, and my sister, with whom I’m very close but who lives in a different part of the state. I let them know I was having a hard time and that if I was distracted or irritable (or flaming irrational), to not take it personally because that meant I needed help. No matter what’s going on, extra hugs are always helpful! So it goes without saying that I am asking for – and receiving – more physical affection. I find my whole body relaxing into a hug and I often fall asleep while cuddling with my husband, I feel so safe and loved.

I decided to tackle my broken sleep first. My daughter and I had gotten into the habit of watching videos until it was bed time. We made a pact (and shook on it) to turn off the television early, to not begin a new episode of whatever program we were streaming after 9 pm. I was delighted at her enthusiasm for meditating with me. We got out our cushions and sat on the living room floor, facing one another. The first evening, we lasted only 5 minutes, but that was enough to produce a sound night’s sleep. Since then we’ve missed a night here and there, but have been continuing the practice for progressively longer times. I don’t need an hour; 10 or 15 minutes seem enough right now. Soon we realized that one of the cats was joining us, sitting in between us or on my lap, and purring. I found the purring added to my relaxation and mental calm.

Secondly, I began keeping a journal again with the specific purpose of using this method to sort through the various logistical decisions surrounding the parole hearing. Taking out the old spiral bound notebook was like meeting an old friend again. This practice had the effect of “corralling” stressful thoughts into a specific setting. Knowing I had a time and place to figure things out – and that I was not allowed to do so at other times and places! – is very helpful. I reminded myself that once I decided what order I wanted to do things in, it was necessary to only worry about the one at the top of the list. One thing at a time, breaking what seemed like an insurmountable load into small, manageable steps. Soon I had prioritized the decisions and tackled the first, most time-critical action. At this point, I had to take myself in hand and not go on to the next one but to allow myself a breather in which to regain my emotional balance.

Third, I have been reaching out to other people I trust, most of whom know the whole wretched story. This way, I have people to talk to with whom I don’t have to rehash history. I miss my best friend, who was an incredible source of support through very painful times, but since her passing I have gotten closer to other friends. As has happened before, I have been sometimes surprised and deeply touched by the kindness and wisdom of the people in my life.

Next up is to ask the Quaker meeting (of which my husband is a member, and I an attender) for a Clearness Committee. This is a small group of weighty Friends who sit with you not to offer advice but to support you in your discernment of a path. I’ve done this for the last two parole hearings and the experience of being “held in the Light” with such tenderness has sustained me.

I find myself missing the comfort of a dog, especially one as responsive and emotionally literate as Tajji. The cats have been extra cuddly since Tajji died, and Shakir, the one who meditates with my daughter and me, curls up beside me at night on the other side from my husband. But it’s too soon to get another dog, so I imagine Tajji wagging her tail at me and giving me a big doggie grin.
deborahjross: (Default)
Life has treated me to a bumpy ride recently. I’ve written about challenging times following the election, with all the fear, confusion, and so on. It seemed the bad news would never end when Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. We lost our old German Shepherd Dog after a short but difficult illness that turned all our lives inside out. Through this, I tried to practice good self care, cultivate insight and perspective, and share my journey. Mostly I was able to regain my emotional and spiritual balance, and the periods of feeling at a loss grew shorter. The grief for our dog felt natural and healthy; she had gone peacefully in the end, surrounded by love, and we all had so many happy memories of her.

And then I received a letter from the Department of Corrections with the date of the next parole hearing of the man who’d raped and murdered my mother. It’s such a horrendous thing to be reminded of at the best of times, but now, when my stability is already fragile, it’s particularly awful. I’ve written about the murder many times over the years, from my introduction letter upon joining SFWA to a recent post as part of #HoldOnToTheLight (a blog campaign encompassing posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues). I tell my story when I campaign against the death penalty. As much as I do not want to give a single thought to the murder and its aftermath right now, I’m going to have to deal with it. Whether or not I attend in person, send a letter, record a video statement, ask friends to write letters opposing his release, it’s in my mind. Like some particularly vile parasitic worm, it’s wending its way from my thoughts into my guts.

Sometimes treading water is the best you can do, and that’s enough. Running as fast as you can to just stay in place at least keeps you in place. Life flattens us and we have a good cry and then pick ourselves up. Our friends (and sometimes strangers) give us a hand up. We do the same for them. But sometimes what life piles on us is Just. Too. Much.

I didn’t get to vote on this. I didn’t ask for it. My mother was an amazing, compassionate, intelligent, radiant soul. Even if I walk away, the way her life ended will still be with me. I can’t take it out of my mind and body, let alone my spirit.

It sucks bigtime.

That’s where I am today. Despite all the self care, I’m sleeping badly. I’m irritable, at times bordering on irrational, although my family nudges me back to sanity. My muscles reflect the inner escalation of tension. Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun to be me, but not now. I’m not sure why the people who love me put up with me.

Sleep is my miner’s canary, my early-warning signal that I’m no longer treading water, I’m sinking. I don’t ever, ever want to go back to what happened to me after the first parole hearing, so I take these signals very seriously. I take it even more seriously when a dear friend and, separately, a family member express concern for me. I’ve learned to not brush off such concerns with, “I’m fine.” I’m so clearly not fine. If someone who cares about me sees something in my behavior, or hears something behind my words or in my unguarded expression, for them to say something to me is an act of pure love.

When we’re drowning, we need all the love we are offered.

I am loved, and that’s how I’m going to get through this as a sane, loving person.

In the next installment of “In Troubled Times,” I’ll share some of the ways I’m giving myself extra help. I don’t expect it to be an easy passage, but I’ve learned a lot over the years about surviving even what seems to be unsurvivable. Please come on that journey with me: it’s not one anybody should ever take alone.
deborahjross: (hands)
In 1986, my 70-year-old mother was asleep in her own bed when a teenaged neighbor broke into her home, raped her, and then beat her to near death and left her face down in a partially filled bathtub. It was a spectacularly brutal, banner headline crime, called by the District Attorney one of the most heinous in the history of the county. On hearing this story, many people ask me, “How did you survive?”

I don't think survival is the question. Although numb with shock and drenched in grief, we get up in the morning. We brush our teeth. In my case, I had two daughters, one almost seven and the other 3 months old, to care for. We cry. We scream. We comfort one another. We go back to work. We take on the trappings of an ordinary life, carrying on in the blind faith that our insides will someday match the artificial normality of our outsides. Or we find our days transformed by what we have lost, not only our loved ones but our belief in the decency of our fellow humans and our sense of safety in the world. Some families dedicate themselves to finding the killer or to participating in punishment. Others become radicalized in other ways.

In other words, we do what seems best to us in order to survive. We do everything except tend to the grievously wounded parts of ourselves.

We know today that post-traumatic illness is not limited to soldiers in battle or the surviving loved ones of murder victims. We know that for most of us, it does not go away simply because we ignore it. Some people live reasonably functional lives by walling off their pain like an abscess, refusing to talk about it and “acting as if” everything is fine. I make no judgment about them; I am the last person to advise anyone else about how to live with something only they can understand. I know only that I was not among them.

I tried my hardest to be strong. Instead, I broke.

The man who killed my mother had pled guilty to a lesser charge, thus sparing my family the ordeal of a trial but leaving many questions unanswered. In 1995, he became eligible for his first parole hearing. There was no question in my mind about attending and speaking against his release. I poured myself into writing a speech, I marched into San Quentin Prison, I stood up in the presence of the perpetrator, I addressed the Parole Commissioners in the strongest possible language, and then I went home.

I thought it was over when parole was denied. I was wrong.

A year later, I went into a psychological and spiritual crisis. A series of increasingly troubling symptoms should have alerted me to my own emotional deterioration, but I clung too tightly to the appearance of normality to pay attention. When the break came, I folded like a house of cards: I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't stop crying. I would look in the mirror and not recognize the person who looked back at me. It seemed to me that nobody was home behind those glassy, deer-in-the-headlight eyes. I've heard almost those same words from other murder victim family members. I call us “murder survivors.” This time, there was no question of “carrying on.” Slowly and painful, with many missteps and amazing, often unexpected, kindness from those around me, I began to heal from the inside out.

Because I am a writer, much of what I experienced — not the external circumstances but the emotions and insights — made its way into my stories. Why fiction? Stories keep our intellects busy while the deeper parts of our psyches grapple with things that are not easily put into words.

I am not a psychotherapist or an expert on recovery from trauma. Nor am I a military veteran or law enforcement officer, or war refugee, or family member of someone who has been executed, so I cannot speak from my own experience about the horrendous stresses those people face. However, I have found that I have much in common with folks who suffer from post-traumatic illness from other causes. I have exchanged support and become an ally of family members of offenders, as well. Their grief and pain is no less overwhelming than my own.

We are all survivors, and all of us are wounded in ways we sometimes cannot name. And there is hope for all of us. One of the most powerful ways we can help one another is by telling stories and listening to each other with open hearts.

You are not what happened to you, and you are not alone.



About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/276745236033627/
deborahjross: (hands)
At this time of year, I often feel out of step with the rest of the country, at least as portrayed by the media and demonstrated by election results. Like just about everyone else I know who's old enough to remember the events of 9/11, I have a vivid memory of how I learned about them. I was driving my younger daughter to high school and we were listening to the news on the car radio. We heard the announcer cry, "The second Tower is down!" and the rest of the story tumbled out. The way the events unfolded reminded me poignantly of John F. Kennedy's assassination. I was in high school in 1963, just about the same age my daughter was on September 11. Listening to the news broadcast with her, I experienced a parallel of my own youthful experience. Once again, the world became to be a dangerous and unpredictable place, but for me it was not the first time. I too responded with a feeling that the world has changed forever, but I also had the memory of having walked through this before -- and not just the Presidential assassination.

For me, Septembers will never be solely about 9/11. Twenty-nine years ago this month, my mother was raped and beaten to death by a neighbor kid on drugs. Read more... )It was a spectacularly brutal, headline-banner crime, but only part of a larger tragedy, for his own family had suffered the murder of his older brother by a serial killer some years before. My body knows when the anniversary is approaching, even when my thoughts are distracted. The shift in the quality of the light at summer's end reaches deep into my nervous system. The scar tissue on my heart aches. The ghosts of things that once held the power to drive me crazy stir in the darkness. My sleep becomes fragile, even though I no longer have nightmares. It's a hard time, an intensely personal time.

One thing I have learned over the years is that grief isn't fungible; you can't compare or exchange one person's experience with another's or say, This one's pain is two-thirds the intensity of that one's. Grief is grief; loss is loss. There's no benefit to anyone in comparisons. And no one else can do the hard emotional work of healing for us.
Around me and in the media, I see public displays of remembrance and more often than not, I feel reluctant to share mine. For one thing, I've lived with my story for almost three decades and I've had extensive trauma therapy, but the person I tell it to is hearing it for the first time. "My god," they say, "how did you live through that?" At most times of the year, it's a gift to be able to sit with them, give them time to catch up, and to share a little of what I've learned about healing. But not this season. I need to have a time just for my own grief, a time that is just for my mother.

If someone says they lost a loved one in 9/11, or they had to pass the rubble every day on the way to work, or they were involved in some other way, they have no need to recite the circumstances. Because those events are known to the greater community, there is a sense of shared experience or at least an appreciation of the horror and grief of those directly affected. Individual losses occur in much smaller communities. I have come to believe that none of us can truly understand what another's loss is like. We are all individuals with our own histories, our own resources, our own lurking insanity. But we can say, "Even though I don't know what you're going through, my heart goes out to you." In my own life, I have found this deeply supportive.

I don't want to minimize or take away from the feelings of anyone affected by 9/11. We should be allies, for surely there is enough compassion, enough tears, enough fury, enough mending of hearts, to go around. Sorrows shared are divided, or so it is said. Until now, I have not found a way to both acknowledge the collective grief around me and to maintain the separate integrity of my own. What we share, in many variations, is the darkness and the long slow journey to the light. We share the craving for justice, the moments of irrational fury, the struggle against a world that seems capricious in its viciousness. We share the desperation to hold someone accountable, to inflict blame, to punish that person to the utmost in the hope that somehow it will make us stop hurting. That desire to lash out and make the perpetrator suffer is a universal human impulse, but I believe it is only one part of the initial reaction to a horrific tragedy. It is something we pass through on our way back to wholeness. Anger and adrenalin, with their energizing power, help us to get through the early stages. However, both are anesthetizing, numbing to both emotion and spirit. If we remain there, frozen, we cannot wrestle with the deeper issues of healing from trauma.
deborahjross: (blue hills)
I've been thinking about my best friend, who died last year from ovarian cancer, and about my mother, who was raped and murdered by a neighbor teenager on drugs. Over the last couple of decades since the latter, I've exchanged stories (and tears, and laughter, and anguish) with other family members of murder victims. Sometimes when I read a story in which killing someone is presented as praiseworthy, I want to scream at the author, "Do you have any idea what you're doing? Do you understand how much pain your characters are causing?" I want to sit down with the writers and make them listen to what it's like to lose someone you love and all the years you might have had together for no good reason. I'm feeling really angry about it. Hence the rant below.

I admit that I cannot comprehend why anyone would think that deliberately ending someone's life is laudable. Yes, things happen by accident. People drive around in lethal weapons all the time. People get angry or frightened and lash out. But writing a story is not something that's over in a flash and can never be taken back. It's an act of deliberate creation and as such, calls on us to be mindful. Listen, folks. Life is all too brief, and incredibly precious. It's totally not okay with me to deliberately cut short a human life. For greed, for bigotry, for revenge, for patriotism. In fiction we often do kill off characters. If you do it, do it with full awareness of the cost.Read more... )
deborahjross: (croning)
Yesterday I spoke at Stanford Law School, part of an organizing event for SAFE California Campaign, that would put an initiative on the November ballot to replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole, plus some provisions for work to pay restitution to families and earmarking funds from savings in the first few years for investigating unsolved murders and rapes.

The talk went great -- well attended by law students and the public. This stillness settles over me -- plus I've done so much public speaking at science fiction conventions over the years, I love talking to an audience. My own story and perspective changes the conversation from academic arguments and statistics to a human dimension. What I hear back is how valuable this is -- and the power of the moral authority to say, "I'm the family member of a murder victim and I oppose the death penalty."

I always get lost driving to these things, and last night was no exception. But my Prius has a GPS and I eventually get there. So there's a sigh of relief once I walk in the door -- the hard part is over!
deborahjross: (hands)
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending a seminar put on by Murder Victim Families For Human Rights, and I got to meet other family members of victims and also families of those who have been convicted or executed. The most poignant, excruciating stories came from those who are both -- those who have lost loved ones to violence and to the death penalty. As horrific as my own story is, I cannot begin to imagine how painful that is. I stand in awe of the courage of those who have been able to walk through that agony to a place of compassion.

One of these people was Charity Lee. Her father was a 1980 murder victim; in 2007, her son murdered her daughter. She's set up a foundation in her daughter's name, ELLA, to prevent violence and to advocate for human rights through education, criminal justice reform, and victim advocacy. Recently, she added a blog.

She writes, I miss my kids. I miss them both. I do not care that one was murdered and that one is a murderer. All I know is they are not here and I miss them. I want them here, with me, and I want them now. I want to see them, touch them, hear them, smell them, and wrap them in my arms. I would move heaven and earth to decorate a Christmas tree with my children tonight. I would eat dirt for the rest of my days to bake cookies for Santa with them on Christmas Eve. I would crawl on my knees until I died if I could see their faces on Christmas morning one more time. But I cannot. Ella is dead. Paris is in jail. Neither of the ones I love are with me this holiday season.
...
So if you miss a loved one because they have been murdered, if you miss a loved one because they are a murderer, if you miss a loved one the government has murdered, if you miss a loved one unjustly imprisoned and you hate the damn holidays, hate them with good cause. Then use that pain to create something good. On the days it is impossible to create good feel free to crawl into bed, pull the covers over your head, and try again another day because where there is huge pain there is also huge hope. Sometimes you just have to bury your head in the covers to find it again.

Either way…hang in there. It gets better. I make that promise to us both.


Stop what you're doing. Read the whole post. Open your heart.

If you "Like" it on FB, it opens a window and you can leave a comment. Let her know she's not alone. If you've got a few extra bucks, help her out in her work. If not, light a candle in the dark for us all.
deborahjross: (crone with wreath)
Normally, I don't do a lot of mirrored posting, but I feel so strongly about this issue that I want to share my perspective with all my friends. So here's my personal essay on healing from a private grief in the midst of national remembrance.

At this time of year, I often feel out of step with the rest of the country, at least as portrayed by the media and demonstrated by election results. This year is different.

Like just about everyone else I know who's old enough to remember the events of 9/11, I have a vivid memory of how I learned about them. I was driving my younger daughter to high school and we were listening to the news on the car radio. We heard the announcer cry, "The second Tower is down!" and the rest of the story tumbled out. The way the events unfolded reminded me poignantly of John F. Kennedy's assassination. I was in high school in 1963, just about the same age my daughter was on September 11. Listening to the news broadcast with her, I experienced a parallel of my own youthful experience. Once again, the world became to be a dangerous and unpredictable place, but for me it was not the first time. I too responded with a feeling that the world has changed forever, but I also had the memory of having walked through this before -- and not just the Presidential assassination.

For me, Septembers will never be solely about 9/11. Twenty-five years ago this month, my mother was raped and beaten to death by a neighbor kid on drugs. It was a spectacularly brutal, headline-banner crime, but only part of a larger tragedy, for his own family had suffered the murder of his older brother by a serial killer some years before. My body knows when the anniversary is approaching, even when my thoughts are distracted. The shift in the quality of the light at summer's end reaches deep into my nervous system. The scar tissue on my heart aches. The ghosts of things that once held the power to drive me crazy stir in the darkness. My sleep becomes fragile, even though I no longer have nightmares. It's a hard time, an intensely personal time.

One thing I have learned over the years is that grief isn't fungible; you can't compare or exchange one person's experience with another's or say, This one's pain is two-thirds the intensity of that one's. Grief is grief; loss is loss. There's no benefit to anyone in comparisons. And no one else can do the hard emotional work of healing for us.

Around me and in the media, I see public displays of remembrance and more often than not, I feel reluctant to share mine. For one thing, I've lived with my story for over two decades and I've had extensive trauma therapy, but the person I tell it to is hearing it for the first time. "My god," they say, "how did you live through that?" At most times of the year, it's a gift to be able to sit with them, give them time to catch up, and to share a little of what I've learned about healing. But not this season. I need to have a time just for my own grief, a time that is just for my mother.

If someone says they lost a loved one in 9/11, or they had to pass the rubble every day on the way to work, or they were involved in some other way, they have no need to recite the circumstances. Because those events are known to the greater community, there is a sense of shared experience or at least an appreciation of the horror and grief of those directly affected. Individual losses occur in much smaller communities. I have come to believe that none of us can truly understand what another's loss is like. We are all individuals with our own histories, our own resources, our own lurking insanity. But we can say, "Even though I don't know what you're going through, my heart goes out to you." In my own life, I have found this deeply supportive.

I don't want to minimize or take away from the feelings of anyone affected by 9/11. We should be allies, for surely there is enough compassion, enough tears, enough fury, enough mending of hearts, to go around. Sorrows shared are divided, or so it is said. Until now, I have not found a way to both acknowledge the collective grief around me and to maintain the separate integrity of my own. What we share, in many variations, is the darkness and the long slow journey to the light. We share the craving for justice, the moments of irrational fury, the struggle against a world that seems capricious in its viciousness. We share the desperation to hold someone accountable, to inflict blame, to punish that person to the utmost in the hope that somehow it will make us stop hurting. That desire to lash out and make the perpetrator suffer is a universal human impulse, but I believe it is only one part of the initial reaction to a horrific tragedy. It is something we pass through on our way back to wholeness. Anger and adrenalin, with their energizing power, help us to get through the early stages. However, both are anesthetizing, numbing to both emotion and spirit. If we remain there, frozen, we cannot wrestle with the deeper issues of healing from trauma.

What has changed for me this year is that I have begun to work for the abolition of the death penalty. Speaking only for myself, I see strong parallels between a murder victim family seeking this form of revenge and the vilification of the Muslim community concurrent with the invasion of Iraq. Of course, justice is desirable. Criminal acts call for appropriate consequences. I would never say that it's okay for my mother's killer to walk the streets or that those responsible for the 9/11 attacks should not be prosecuted according to law. Setting aside the politics of that invasion and the problems with the application of capital punishment, however, my concern is with whether retaliative actions help or hinder the recovery of the survivors.

My own experience is that revenge does not. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences. For me, focusing on wishing harm to the one who had harmed my mother might well have kept me locked -- incarcerated -- in a state of bitterness and hatred. While I was in no way to blame for what happened, I still bear the responsibility for what I do with it. It's like the adult child of an alcoholic getting herself into therapy instead of whining helplessly, attributing all her problems to her upbringing.

I have to ask myself, What do I need? What do I want? One of my inspirations was a woman of astonishing kindness and grace, whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered and whose bodies she discovered. She told me that she faced a choice of whether or not to let herself be driven crazy by what she experienced. I think we all have that choice -- to succumb to the darkness of our anguish and righteous fury, or to walk through it, to move beyond it.

I remember the scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya finally tracks down Count Rugen, who begs for his life and offers anything. Inigo says, "I want my father back!" (and then kills him). I want my mother back, too. All those who lost loved ones and colleagues want them back. We know that's impossible, but what is possible is to get our own lives back. Our own selves. Our best selves.

My experience of healing is that I get myself back when I focus on re-engaging with life, on fully experiencing my feelings, on understanding what I have lost and what can never be replaced, but what can be restored. The more I stop looking to an external event (the execution of the murderer) to somehow make me feel better or "achieve closure," and instead focus on taking care of my insides -- my heart, my spirit, my body -- the better I fare.

So I've been talking about my own healing process and what I've learned. I've been meeting with other family members and with people who've been sentenced to death and then exonerated. I've been looking for ways to build bridges, to nourish tolerance and reconciliation, to create understanding. I make an ongoing conscious decision to not harbor hatred in my heart, but to fill it instead with what I want in my life.

Love. Compassion. Gratitude. Joy. Wonder. Peace.

I can think of no more fitting memorial for my mother . . . or for those who died on 9/11.

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Deborah J. Ross

May 2017

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