Monday, May 18, 2009

What might have helped
Reflections of a murder victim's daughter

When 11-year-old Suzy Klassen came home from school in 1969 and opened the door to her home Suzy found her mother lying on the floor, dead. She had been the victim of a sexual attack, and had been brutally murdered.

In an article posted in the spring 2009 newsletter of MVRHRSuzy writes about the consequences the murder of her mother had in her life. She also decribes a bit about the reactions she got from the people around her.

"[...]There is a famous Norwegian painting by Edvard Munch entitled “The Scream.” It is considered a symbolic portrayal of anguish, isolation, and fear. The first time I saw it I was flabbergasted. It was unbelievable how accurately someone had captured
me at the moment of transformation from being an 11-year-old sixth grader to becoming the being in this painting. Finding Mom, I felt stunned into muteness by the magnitude and horrific detail of what I beheld, as if I’d been shot into another universe where “the scream” said it all. From that moment I would now live in a world where I would be constantly reminded that I had met evil face to face. A place where wishing to go home was an impossibility because that universe no longer existed. [...]

Mom was killed on Friday. On Sunday we returned to our house with bullet holes in the floor and fingerprint powder on the walls and counters. The funeral was on Monday, and we were sent back to school on Tuesday.[...]

I went back to school. My sixth grade teacher was clearly lost about what to say, what to do, or how to relate to me. So without a word, he simply laid the missed assignments on my desk and walked away. It was the first of what seemed like a lifetime of similar experiences. There was a huge distance between me and my classmates, who stopped talking to me out of the awkwardness of not knowing what to say or how to be around me. Sometimes adults were so uncomfortable being around me, they just didn’t attempt anything. Others might explain to me that mom’s death was the Lord’s will, or say something which made no sense, like, she’s in a better place now. Or I would come into somebody’s radar and be identified as one of Otto Klassen’s daughters, and inevitably the question came: Were you the one who found your mother? And then there were some who felt it their duty to tell me what to do with my life, adding that it’s what your mother would have wanted.

Now, I’m able to recognize that these statements are sometimes spoken to end an awkward silence, or as a way for people to set boundaries for themselves to
rationalize the horror. But as a child, those words and actions felt like an erasure of mom’s being, and I didn’t know how to respond.[...]"

Reading this reminded me on how often we just don't know how to respond to someone who just lived through a terrible situation, how often we just don't find any words to decribe our feelings. Thankfully only very few of us encounter murder in their lifes or the lifes of friends and acquantances. But even such "normal" things as someone telling us of a family member dying of cancer already leaves us speachless.

And so I wrote an e-mail to Suzy asking her what the people surrounding her should have done, what might have helped her back then. Here's her answer:

Perhaps this will be helpful for those wishing to respond to a child in a situation of loss. Loss happens in so many different ways, however, many of the components are the same (such as your experience in losing a parent to cancer). The following expresses some of the feelings I was unable to voice as a child about my own experience and the kind of support that might have helped me.

To conceptualize:

The contrast between Mom’s life and death was mind-boggling. My father expressed it accurately when he wrote how much the murder of Mom seemed to express profoundly the diametric opposite of who she was, the polar opposites of her character - which was solid, full of kindness and devotion, and protective and gentle of the needs of others. She defined beauty for me, and the love and trust I had in her provided the landscape that shaped my vision of the world.

As a child, I never questioned the fact of this granite-sized love, so when it was torn away, what had been a joyful and carefree life was now despairing and without a natural sense of freedom or beauty. What used to be the reliable everyday order of things now had the predictability of a tornado.

I wanted to hear people mention her name, talk about her, share a story - any remembrance of her no matter how small. Just to hear her name spoken. Speaking about her conveyed caring. Relating to a family member of a murder victim is not something we receive training in, it’s awkward and uncomfortable. It often appeared easier to skirt around the topic of my mother, perhaps believing that it would hurt me more to hear about her, or simply being unsure how to go about it. If I had been asked whether it was a good thing to hear her talked about, or whether it made things harder, I could have told people - but I wasn’t asked. The result was it made me feel they would rather forget her, as if she were erased.

An environment where I could say whatever I needed to without feeling judged. Someone who understood the power and gift of listening, giving me space to work through my anger and grief, support for the volume and intensity of my feelings. In addition to rage directed at her murderer, it included people asking me point blank if I was the daughter who found our mother. My anger included people (who worked in child psychology) asking, aren’t you angry with your mother for leaving you? I answered that Mom would never choose to be torn from her own, and our lives. Unbelievably, this was not acceptable, my answer wasn’t credible, and some would actually insist that I be mad at her. I think too often adults don’t understand the emotional leap of maturity that happens to children who suffer from deep losses, in my case, of a violent nature. It may have been the question they were trained to ask and possibly useful in a different situation, but not to me, not after being a witness to a graphically brutal murder.

Comments such as, she’s in a better place now, had the same effect – that her existence, her life hadn’t mattered. The implication that she’d prefer to be wherever she was, instead of with us. It’s the Lord’s will, another statement of erasure, implying again that it was somehow wrong for her to remain with us; I didn’t deserve her, and therefore I’m not worthy enough not to be abandoned.

Permission to hate God out loud. (Bear with me, this gets a bit convoluted.)

In my child’s way of thinking, those statements of she’s in a better place now (implying heaven), and it’s the Lord’s will, were statements I didn’t believe but confused me nevertheless. Before mom’s death I had already come to believe that God didn’t exist. After her murder, I demanded God to exist. Mom’s murderer was never caught, and there was no other target for my anger. I needed someone to scream at, to be furious with. However, the idea of “God the father” was very disturbing and upsetting. I reasoned: If God modeled man after himself, then it must be true that he considered women/girls as less worthy; a woman’s anatomy must be deficient. She was not made in God’s image, making her more incidental, and, a vessel for shame. If this was true, I was inferior and one could reason, that like other women I was destined to forge a heavy chain – such as Jacob Marley’s (in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol), which he describes as an unending and ponderous thing - the debt of women.

If I accepted “God the father” as truth, then wouldn’t it also be true that her murderer had the face and anatomy of God? And isn’t this the same anatomy that sexually brutalized and murderer my mother?

If God is Love, then Love, is also the image of God - who has the face and anatomy of her murderer.

If God is Love, then in my new universe, Love is Suffering, is God.

If God is Suffering, he will not supply answers. God is Silence.

If God is Suffering and Silent, than no good will come from any “good” you’d want to live for.

If God is Good, than why did he raise Jesus from the dead and not my mother? She was a million trillion gazillion times better than Jesus - or any of his cohort.

So, it stood to reason that God looks like her murderer, God sanctioned her murder, God is equivalent to the worst Murderer, Rapist, and Predator, with the instruments of Cruelty, Suffering, and Silence.
This conception of God’s identity, coupled with the murderer who still had his freedom, left me vulnerable and without protection. I was an available target and could be undercut at any moment (thus the escape routes).

Given all of this, how could I possibly look forward to womanhood? The idea was reprehensible. I tried to hide my changing body. All of it was a cumbersome, shameful secret.

I can only imagine how valuable a mentor may have been - to guide me through this labyrinth and walk me through these difficult issues of body image. Encouragement to discover the things that had potential to become personal successes, no matter how small.

My sister Bess reminded me about an annual dinner at our church, the Mother/Daughter banquet. It was a festive affair, held at a local restaurant, an event I looked forward to while Mom was living. After Mom’s death we were paired up with someone to be our “mother” for this event. For me it felt unnatural, uncomfortable and made me feel like an object of pity. Bess remembers it differently. Her memory is of people “lined up”, wanting to volunteer to act as our mother for the evening, and it brings tears to her eyes. No doubt there were many caring people, and perhaps if I’d had a person who consciously cultivated a friendship with me, I may have felt better about participating. In the end it just made a sad event more acute.

I’m not sure what to say about my teacher’s non-responsiveness to me when I returned to school. Clearly, he was out of his league and I felt sorry for him. Bess, who teaches at a public school tells me that today a school counselor would never abandon a child. In a situation like ours, a counselor would be able to meet with the class, helping them understand how difficult it would be for (someone like us) to return to school, explaining how we would feel different and need understanding and love, even if we couldn't be the same person we were before.

In Eugene, Oregon, where I live in now, there is a support group for kids who are grieving the loss of a parent. It’s called “Courageous Kids”. A resource like this would have been wonderful. I would have been among other kids who were in trauma, experiencing some of the same emotions and asking some of the same questions. The knowledge that I wasn’t alone, in itself would have meant a great deal to me. An environment of trust, able to facilitate the speech needed to describe what we couldn’t before, and provide skills which are necessary in relationship to others. I like to think that a child in my situation could be helped to find appropriate words to respond to inappropriate remarks and questions from others.

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