Living with the grief - Rockyview hospital runs Calgary's largest homicide bereavement program to help deal with grief from violent deaths.

Sherri Zickefoose - Calgary Herald
Sunday, February 19, 2006

The mothers say it hurts to live.

Knives, guns and bare hands have taken their children away and left them with the cruellest grief.

Homicide creates heartache like no other.

After she laid her teenage son to rest, Fern Trithart says she had no choice but to reach out and find other mothers whose children had been violently killed.

CREDIT: Mikael Kjellstrom, Calgary Herald
People gather at the Rockyview General Hospital chapel to attend the city's, and perhaps the country's, only therapy group for people who have lost loved ones to murder.
"I would watch the news, and read the newspaper if it involved someone losing a child. I would look up in the obits to get the e-mail for the funeral home," she said.

"I was looking for somebody."

That's just what she did on Sept. 5, 2003. As Steffi Stehwien stumbled numbly through her murdered teenage son's funeral, Trithart reached out.

"I actually found the church in the obits and took a card to her," said Trithart.

In reassuring blue ink, she wrote to Stehwien: "My heart breaks for you as you grieve. I, too, had my son's life taken away by violence."

The message delivered hope.

"I bawled my eyes out," said Stehwien, who still treasures the white sympathy card with Trithart's carefully printed telephone number inside.

"She threw a lifeline into that basket with the cards."

As the two mothers continued their quest to find others who knew their specific heartache, they were recently invited to take part in Calgary's -- perhaps even the nation's -- very first hospital-run homicide grief support group.

"This is where I fit best," said Trithart, who joined the therapy group last month for its inaugural six-week program. "When you lose someone to murder, it is so different from an accident, or heart attack, or losing a newborn, or cancer. This rocks your whole world and your soul."

Stehwien agrees. "It's sinister and dark and wrong."

Her son, Aaron Shoulders, was stabbed to death after he was swarmed by a group of young men outside a downtown bar. His killer has never been found.

The grief from homicide is the cruellest to endure, she says.

The Rockyview hospital runs the city's largest grief support program with 30 groups to serve people who have lost spouses, babies, parents, siblings and friends. But until now, there was nothing in place for survivors of homicide victims.

As the city's growth nears the one-million mark, Rockyview chaplain Brian Pickering says there is an alarming increase of referrals for homicide grief counselling.

"It's a very unfortunate commentary on the increase in violence in our city," said Pickering, who co-ordinates grief support with Rev. Bob Glasgow at the Rockyview hospital.

Since 2000, there have been nearly 100 homicides in and around Calgary.

To keep pace with the disturbing growth, Pickering created an innovative homicide bereavement program last month. Over a six-week period, seven survivors participated in the first-ever group.

"Homicidal loss is unique because variables such as media and justice issues complicate the length of time to navigate the journey of grief," said Pickering. "The intensity of the pain is unique because of the violence involved.

"There is a sense of being an alien in a strange land because there are so few people who can comprehend the depth and breadth of that kind of loss."

The grief that comes from homicide is complex, he said.

"Homicide can be unprovoked, it's violent and most of the time it's for no reason. It brings up questions around safety and the side of our society that is so violent."

Four months after her 20-year-old daughter Kristen Deyell was shot to death in Mexico, a broken hearted Cher Ewing turned to grief counselling.

"I thought being a violent death, the Calgary police department would have something, but no," she said. Instead, Ewing was referred to a hospice-run program. The closest thing she could find for survivors of her kind of loss was a support group for bereaved parents who had lost children to illness.

She welcomed new friendships and support the group offered, but the darker pall of murder clearly set Ewing apart from the group.

"When I received a call from the Rockyview saying they were going to start a bereavement group targeting violent death, I didn't hesitate for a second," said Ewing.

"The group is exactly what I had been looking for."

When a loved one is murdered, words of comfort and compassion from others can be clumsy.

"Murder is not something people like to talk about," says

Stehwien. "Family and friends feel uncomfortable with my intense, deep pain, my tears, my anger and the rage that comes losing a loved one to murder."

She says over the past six weeks, the grief group has replaced absent family members and friends who disappeared from her life after her son's funeral.

"When I meet mothers who have lost their children to murder, we don't feel like strangers. We have that common ground. The tears come, the hugs come, you feel their pain and they feel yours and it breaks the ice right there."

Trithart agrees, remembering the debilitating exhaustion and loneliness.

"It is such a cruel club we belong to," she said. "It's a very lonely road. You live because you have to at first. I feel like I don't fit in but you have to keep going. We have to learn how to fit into society."

The changes a murder brings to a family are profound, she said. The horror of violence is not easily forgotten.

Murder casts its dark shadow on social lives, too.

As she struggles to come to terms with her sister's killing, Esther Halton has seen her own close friendships fade.

Her 40-year-old sister Dorothy Halton was strangled to death by a former boyfriend in Ottawa on Dec. 11, 2004.

"They just can't handle it," said Halton. "But other people have really come forward and been more generous and really connected."

Few friends can comprehend how murder changes the lives of those who have lost loved ones.

"What I found the most amazing is how people would just give advice, or expect you to start a new cause, or go out there and just pick up where you left off," said Trithart. "They're not even expecting you to change, but you do, and you just feel so empty inside like no parent should ever have to."

Stehwien has shared the same experience from those who don't understand.

"They're angry that you're not who you used to be. I'm an outcast. A lot of my friendships are done. Only those that walk in my shoes can truly understand. The homicide grief support group has become my lifeline in the midst of my horrific violent storm. I feel their deep compassion, sensitivity and care. We share the same pain, anger and feelings of isolation. We have the same questions and we have the same needs," she said.

Those feelings of deep despair and loneliness motivated grieving mothers to seek each other out not just for comfort, but for survival.

"We all find each other after a while. Slowly but surely, we find each other," said Trithart. "You don't have to defend your children to those people. We're all going through the same thing. People are so judgmental, those who think you should get over it and move on."

Parents worry about their children falling prey to disease, but nothing prepares them for the destruction homicide wreaks on their lives.

"As mothers, we know that sickness can happen. A car crash is an accident. But it's not like murder, it's not at the hand of someone else. Somebody took a knife and stuck it in my son. That is a deliberate act," said Stehwien.

"It's a daily nightmare. It replays in my mind. I think about the people standing around and watching,"she said through tears.

"People don't want to talk about murder. We need each other. We need to fight our fight together."

Homicide thrusts its victims and survivors into the public eye. Families say seeing coverage on television or in headlines adds another painful layer to their grief. Images of yellow crime scene tape, police, and even suspects is hurtful to take in, they say.

From B2

Through the eyes of their loved ones, homicide victims are so much more than the sum of what they were doing the day they were taken. They are the sum of their entire lives.

"You automatically get a stereotype of what kind of person you might be," said Trithart. Her son died from a single punch during a pre-arranged fight, but he did not have a

reputation as a fighter.

"We all come from normal families and none of us understand why murder happened to us," said Stehwien.

Issues of justice are also unique to homicide victims' families.

The slow moving wheels of the criminal court system coupled with the traumatic experience of testifying in court are hard to bear.

But in some cases, there is no justice.

Since Stehwien's son was stabbed to death, his killer has roamed free. Not having a suspect behind bars for stealing Shoulders' life has only made Stehwien's grief heavier.

"No one has been arrested. How could I live in the same city where my son's murderer lives free? I thought I was losing my mind," she said. "It's like having a nightmare and when I wake I realize it's my life."

Ewing has endured the most public battle for justice in her daughter's shooting death.

"As it stands, most of the information is kept hidden from us," said Ewing, who revisited Mexico seeking answers about who shot her daughter as she was leaving a Guadalajara nightclub in 2004.

Initially, Ewing was told by

police her exchange student daughter's death was an accident, and that she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing can describe the frustration Ewing felt when she learned the suspect was linked to organized crime and the illegal drug trade, she says.

Investigators shared little information, she says.

"I can understand that there is information that is sensitive. My reply to this position is there

isn't anyone in the world who wants these people caught and brought to justice more than we do, no one."

"What gives them the right to decide what we should know and what we should not? What gives them the right to this information while we are left out in the cold wondering what is being done?"

Shortly before Christmas,

Ewing received the call she'd been waiting for. Mexican police had charged a suspected shooter in her daughter's death.

Even when there is justice, it comes with an emotional price.

Erica Wieser was 16 when her brother, Jason Wright, was shot dead by a stranger near Electric Avenue in 1996.

Wieser remembers sitting through her brother's murder trial and the added hurt of

defence arguments which

portrayed her brother as a bully wanting to fight a stranger for no reason.

But she tries to put it in perspective -- her brother's killer was convicted of second-degree murder.

"For some of the moms there's been no justice, at least there was justice done," she said.

The 17-year-old Chestermere teen whose single punch killed Tyler Trithart was found not guilty of manslaughter.

For years, Tyler's mother has struggled to understand how one boy was freed while her boy is gone.

"There was no justice. What did that show those 90 kids standing around watching it happen? I just live with it now. I want my boys to have a good life like we gave Tyler a good 16 years."

Helping survivors maintain a focus on the future is a job Pickering knows all too well.

Pickering was a grief counsellor in Banff when the murder of young taxi driver Lucy Turmel shook the mountain resort in 1990. Turmel was discovered stabbed to death, lying in a pool of blood in the middle of a road.

Faced with a crush of reporters and a dozen traumatized cabbies to debrief, Pickering experienced the complicated waves of pain caused by homicide.

"Maybe it was a foreshadowing of how my life would somehow be directed to be involved in this area in the future," he said, reflecting back.

"It seems the future is here."

Pickering says his ultimate goal is to provide timely access to grief support to mitigate

further impact on an already stretched health-care system. If support groups can reach bereaved people early enough, they may avoid the mental and physical breakdowns connected to extreme grief.

As a teenager, Erica Wieser had the added trauma of witnessing her parents' day-to-day struggle with grief.

"It was hard as a child going through it and watching your parents go through it," said Wieser.

"I remember walking upstairs at the funeral home and my mother dropped to her knees. There was nothing we could do. As a family, you want to be able to help each other. I was a kid, I had no idea how to help my mom."

Whether it has been a month or 20 years, sorrow lingers forever from homicide.

"It's not about closure or getting over it," said Pickering. "The work of grief is about finding a way to invite and acknowledge that loved one to journey with us into the future in a life-affirming way."

Wieser still struggles with her brother's absence.

"The pain isn't as intense --

I'll never forget that day -- but now it's bittersweet. I do still get angry."

Her first steps to join the

bereavement group have been

a comfort already, she said.

"The people are so real. They truly understand and it was nice being in a room with them. The emotions are the same, even if they are from 10 years ago. I will never forget it, hopefully one day the pain won't be as intense as it is."

Trithart is looking forward to more families participating in the program, particularly the loved ones of Calgary's latest homicide victims.

"We all belong to this club we don't want to belong to. We didn't have a choice. Our kids didn't deserve this.

"It gives you hope. I just want some hope back in my life. This group gives you hope. If you can help somebody else, maybe you're doing some kind of good."

To stay connected to her departed daughter, Ewing told her grief group that she enrolled in a sewing class to learn how to make a quilt. Using squares of Kristen's favourite smiley face shorts, terry cloth bathrobe, pajamas and soccer jerseys, she painstakingly poured hours into the project. Now, when she has a bad day and misses her smiling daughter, she can wrap herself in memories.

"How do you find the energy to do everything that needs to be done when some days it takes all the energy you have just to get through the day?" she said.

"Somehow we will find a way."



"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13

Aaron's Story