Monday, November 26, 2012

Gifts to a Grieving Mother

I’m the first to admit that I avoided anything to do with death and the people it affected. Who wants to think about death? Who wants to imagine that it can happen to them or someone they love? And who knows what to say to those surviving family members and friends, anyway? Better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing, right? (No!...well, sometimes).

Below are my thoughts on things certain people or groups have done that I consider special “gifts to a grieving mother.” This is not to say that other people and other actions have not helped me tremendously during these last 15 months, but these are some that have really stood out.

My co-workers signed some cards for me after Dustin’s death. Almost all the sentiments were the kind you expect, the kind you’d write yourself, maybe: “I’m sorry for your loss.” “Your family is in our thoughts and prayers.” “Thinking of you.” One male co-worker, however, wrote something that floored me: “I’m so sorry you are living my worst nightmare.” It was the bravest, truest sentiment that anyone has ever made to me. I cried. Hard. His words made me feel so bad, in a good way. I felt as though he actually put himself into my shoes… and understood. I felt less alone for a while. I felt validated in my devastation because it really was my “worst nightmare”… only I wasn’t sleeping. 

 During the viewing at the mortuary, one of Dustin’s friends did something that startled me at the time: he brought his two young children with him. What I specifically admire about this is that he was true to his values regardless of what anyone else might think of his actions, and he honored the maturity and caring hearts (and curiosity, I’m sure) of his children. And… he did exactly what I know Dustin himself would have done if the situation had been reversed.

Another very meaningful moment for me during the viewing was when the group of Dustin’s friends  asked for private time with him for a last drink. I absolutely loved hearing the laughter and tears behind those closed doors (and the hugs afterward). 

 I love knowing the feelings behind the gesture of painting one of Dustin's own bikes white and placing it at the scene of the crash as a ghostbike memorial. Thanks to Toby, not only for doing the initial work of placing it, but also speaking with the owner of the property and then moving it and mounting the pictures directly to the bike when that became necessary. The ghostbike means so very much to me!
Thanksgiving 2012 Ghostbike with mom and sister
I attend bereavement groups. They are helpful because just anticipating going to them, being around others admitting to grief, others crying, gives me a sense of relief. I can admit how badly I feel there. I can cry and feel okay about it there. I love knowing that I am not alone in my despair, that I’m not the only one with concentration issues, that no one is going to tell me I need more therapy or medication, that some people understand that it’s going to take as long as it takes for me to “get over it” and “move on.” (Frankly, if I live to be 110, I’m not going to get over this. I don’t even want to).

The women of The Compassionate Friends (a group for parents of deceased children, and my personal favorite) have never once missed sending a card on a “special” day to acknowledge my feelings and let me know they are thinking of me. And they are enduring the loss of their own child or children!

I have so appreciated the men who made comments online and/or to the media about Dustin’s character and actions, and shared their feelings of loss and hurt either directly or indirectly.  They may feel like they need to hide their tears and sadness, but that is what means so much to me. They are all real men! (Yes, my wonderful husband is included here. Thank you, Glenn, for getting just a little tearful last night as you talked about the things you regret not being able to do with Dustin, the father/son relationship you both missed out on).

So what really are “gifts” to this bereaved mother is acknowledgment of the importance of Dustin’s life, the respect and love that was and still is felt for him, and that he is remembered and will not be forgotten.

And when it comes to the most that anyone can do for me specifically, Dr. Oz’s wife Lisa says it beautifully: “You don’t ‘fix’ feelings. You listen to them.” (This wise comment was the reason I made this post).

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Most Unwelcome Decision

In my last post I described making decisions regarding funeral arrangements. Although that, too, was a decision I never expected to make, never wanted to make, and that no parent should ever have to make, it was understandable under the circumstances.  But this next decision was not foreseen at all.

An 18 year old man killed Dustin. It was not an accident, though it was not planned. A young man chose to drink, then he chose to drive drunk, then he chose to flee the scene after killing one man and injuring another.

Man with juvenile record in custody after allegedly striking and killing cyclist early Friday morning

Dustin, 4th of July 2011; picture most used by the media

Ashawntae Rosemon was arrested within an hour. During his arraignment 3 days later, he pled “not guilty.” Within weeks, a grand jury decided there was probable cause to charge him with Manslaughter 2, Failure to Perform the Duties of a Driver, Vehicular Assault of a Bicyclist, DUII, and Reckless Driving. 

Deputy District Attorney Chris Mascal started working with us closely, reviewing our rights, the evidence, the charges and possible sentences, the laws. Our assigned Victim Advocate, Kim, helped us apply for Crime Victim’s Assistance, kept us informed of what was happening with the case, answered our questions, and attended all court dates with us.

Meanwhile, I was still reeling with disbelief, still doubled over sometimes from grief, still having trouble sleeping and eating and concentrating and just getting through the day. I still was being assaulted by vivid mental images of Dustin being rammed by the SUV, flying through the air for 85 feet, then leaving a trail of blood and “body scuff” on the road for another 90 feet. I was in pretty fragile emotional shape.

Then Mascal told us the evidence was flimsy. She said that when she met with Rosemon after the crash, he was so drunk she doubted he could remember anything even if he wanted. She described him as “blotto.” Although he had broken glass in his hair and cuts on his neck (presumably from the broken windshield), his blood and fingerprints inside the vehicle, and his girlfriend confirmed he was given the car earlier in the evening, no one actually saw him driving. Both he and his girlfriend separately told the police the car had been stolen during a car-jacking.

The two occupants of the vehicle directly behind the SUV when the crash happened, who saw the “front of the SUV explode,” didn’t see the driver. The injured bicyclist, Kevin, didn’t see the driver. The man and woman who watched, on a surveillance camera from inside their garage, two people exit the wrecked SUV a few blocks away, told police differing accounts from each other and then couldn’t even keep those stories straight just within a few hours of witnessing it.

Mascal told our family we should consider accepting a plea rather than going to trial. But it was up to us: take our chances at Manslaughter 2 and Reckless Driving with a minimum 75 months prison or accept Criminally Negligent Homicide, Felony Hit-and-Run, DUII, and Vehicular Assault of a Bicyclist with a maximum 60 months prison and the possibility of 12 months off for good behavior.

This was a tough decision. How much time, what type of conviction, was adequate, was fair, for taking Dustin’s life? None. None! I especially rebelled against dropping the Reckless Driving charge. Believe it or not, I was more okay with less prison time than I was with removing the word “reckless.” Dustin wasn’t killed by negligence or carelessness; he was killed because of someone’s recklessness. But keeping “reckless” and accepting a plea was not an option.

“Tell us what you want,” Mascal said. “What do you want in the plea agreement?” As in, what requirements for the person who killed Dustin. I thought, what the heck is this? Someone kills my son and I have to deal with that, and then suddenly and totally unexpectedly I’m put in a position of having to decide what happens to that person?  Wasn’t the court process just supposed to proceed however court processes do and I would deal with whatever that was?

But no. So, while feeling this huge weight of responsibility on me - how unfair it seemed! didn’t I have enough to deal with? – I thought about everyone intimately involved in this tragedy: Dustin, our family, Ashawntae and his family. What would Dustin want? What would he think is justice? What would family and friends see as justice? And what should I do about Ashawntae? I didn’t know him other than as my son’s killer, what I’d read in the police reports, and what I’d seen in the media. He seemed to really have been headed in the wrong direction even before the hit-and-run.

This is when I began thinking a whole lot more about Ashawntae than I was about Dustin. And I resented it. I was using my energy thinking more about a killer than about the innocent child of mine he killed. Who was Ashawntae? What was he like? Was he sorry? Or was he only sorry he got caught? Was there anything redeemable about him? Could he live a better life, be a better person in the future if he just had a chance, some guidance, some support? Would he be raped, beaten, bullied in prison? Would prison make him into even more of a criminal? Would he spend his time feeling sorry for himself and not taking responsibility for his actions? Would he be more of a danger to the public after prison than he was before? And what about his mom?

I researched online. I saw the case of 26 year old Angela Burke, whose killer Caleb Pruitt agreed in his plea to write her family once a year to tell what he was doing to better his life, to attend drug and alcohol treatment, and participate in victim impact panels. I found the Facilitated Dialogue Program offered through the Oregon Dept of Corrections, where the offender and the victim’s family meet. I saw that driver’s licenses can be revoked for life.

These things are what I told Mascal I wanted in the plea. She put them in there, only changing the letter writing to every six months instead of every 12. Ashawntae agreed to these conditions and others (the prison term, etc) and was sentenced. At last I felt relief. I could now just mourn my son, knowing that I had done the best I could to build in safeguards and support and accountability for the person who had killed him. What Ashawntae does with his life now is up to him.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Decisions That Can't Wait

When your child dies, you are forced to make decisions that you never wanted to make, never expected to make, couldn’t/wouldn’t/refused to ever imagine. Despite the disbelief, the despair, the confusion, you have to decide – and quickly – what to do with the lifeless body of your once breathing, loving, laughing, making-a-difference-in-the-world child. 

With Dustin, that entailed considering costs, what he would want himself, and his physical condition: was he viewable? (“was he viewable?” Even today, remembering that question in my mind brings on agonizing tears).   

Thankfully, though it was an emotional process, everything just kind of worked out: Dustin’s appearance was nearly perfect; my cousin, president of Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial - probably the most beautiful mortuary in the area -, took care of all arrangements wonderfully; and the insurance company paid for everything (eventually).

Dustin would have loved the gathering of family during his viewing, he would have joined in with his friends passing the bottle (there was much shouting and laughing behind closed doors), and he would approve of the lovely wooden urn chosen to contain his ashes. 

This particular issue is just one of many responsibilities to be borne by a grieving family after a violent death such as Dustin’s. Once I gather my thoughts further, I will post about another unexpected and especially unwelcome responsibility thrust upon us during our first months of mourning. And then after that, hopefully I can write about what is really weighing heavy on my mind. 

Laying out his funeral clothes

Saying good-bye

Last glimpse

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Some of Everything and More

Wow. Very emotional last couple of weeks due to some unforeseen situations and some that were planned. In order from two weeks ago today:

*Dustin’s father recently found out about Dustin’s death and contacted me after 16-17 years.
*I had a confrontation with a pet owner on Eagle Creek while hiking and proved my craziness to several people including my daughter and my sister who probably wondered who the heck the stranger was they’d been hiking with.  
*I met with Ashawntae, the young man who killed Dustin.
*Someone I love told me that they were arrested for DUII just minutes before the one year anniversary of Dustin’s death.
*We remembered Dustin’s birthday (he would have been 30!).

9 lb, 9 oz Dustin. 20.5 inches long. 11/11/82.
*Glenn and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary in beautiful Port Townsend and Coupeville, Washington. 
*I spoke at my second Clackamas DUII class.
*I met with a group of people to brainstorm and support each other in making our dreams come true (hosted by Tyler Presnell, a young motivational speaker traveling the US telling of his experiences with traumatic brain injury due to a bad car crash when he was 14).

Talk about ups and downs. All of it has just made me even more determined to make a difference. And to make something more of myself. And to do what I like and what I want and what I believe is right. Maybe it’s finally sinking in that I really do need to make the most of life. For my own happiness but also because it is really what I want for my children, and maybe if I role model that it will be easier for them. I will forever be grateful to Dustin for being the first to show us how to live by being true to himself and by pursuing what he believed in so whole-heartedly.

I am so appreciative and grateful for all I have learned from my children - not only Dustin - and from Glenn and for learning what is really important in life.  Dustin, Colin, Sean, Tom, Logan, Eryn, and Jenna, thank you!  And thanks for bringing Lisa, Justin, and Cruz into our lives, too. 

July 4, 2011. Logan, Jenna, Dustin, me, Glenn.

November 2011. Lisa, Colin, Sean, Tom, Logan, me, Glenn.

 And Glenn, I am so happy to be your wife.