Tom Robinson and Susan Dieter-Robinson describe inconsolable grief and the amazing power of love
With their fall sweaters and paper coffee cups, the man and woman who stopped by the News-Times office could have been any couple out for an early morning walk.
Physically, there was no hint they'd experienced unimaginable loss just two weeks earlier, when their two young daughters 11-year-old Abigail Robinson and almost 7-year-old Anna Dieter-Eckerdt died after being hit by a car while playing in a leaf pile.
In the face of emotional devastation, Susan Dieter-Robinson and Tom Robinson have been uncharacteristically public about both their grief and their warmth toward the community that has reached out to support them.
They extended that generosity to the News-Times, where on Monday they spoke at length about everything from heaven and amazing coincidences to the kindness of friends and strangers.
NT: How are you managing to even stand upright and speak?
Susan: People across the country are praying for us. We feel that. Im standing because of those prayers. There is no other explanation because we should be curled up in a ball. We should be in a dark room rocking back and forth. But were not. Because of the support and the love weve felt from our community.
NT: Can you describe some of that support?
Susan: Our friends are amazing and they swooped in. Chad Toomey is a firefighter and a friend and he was there that night and he took care of the media. His wife, Amy, is a dear friend of mine. She was at Annas birth and she basically put together the memorial service.
Its been this ripple effect. Theres this core group of people that are taking care of us that are close to us. Then theres this other group of people that are taking care of them. People are coming in from Portland to help by cleaning their houses, taking care of their kids, walking their dogs while theyre with us. Our really good friends, Brenda and Phil their parents came from Baltimore to just be present for their kids and make sure they were able to take care of us.
Yesterday my neighbor brought scones. He said, Here. These are for the people who come visit you. So everybodys taking care of one another.
Tom: You think you live in a good place and you think youre all connected. And then something like this happens and its mind-blowing. The love people have had for each other is really just incredible. We got a note from someone who used to walk past our house and see the girls out front playing in the fairy garden.
NT: The what?
Susan: We made a little fairy garden and the girls would make fairy houses and I made these little fairies and theyd play for hours out there. So theyd be out front and this woman would walk up and down our street and she wrote us a poem. The repeating phrase was And I dont even know your names. But shed give these little excerpts of what she would see when shed walk past our house of Abigail reading on the bench and the girls playing in the fairy garden and laughing with each other. It was beautiful but we dont know who she is. Her names Caroline. Thats all I know.
NT: Do you run into people who seem afraid of you and your grief?
Susan: We don't want to be the 'elephant' in Forest Grove. Some people dont know what to say.
NT: What should they say?
Susan: Just give us a hug and say, Im sorry. Its sad. Its super-sad. I worry about the kids, though. Ive been out to Dilley and talked with kids from Annas class and the other first-grade friends. And I answered questions.
NT: Like what?
Susan: Are there unicorns in heaven? Are Abby and Anna hurting? Are they together? I miss Anna. I love Anna. One little girl, so sweet, just cried. I got a note from her mom on my doorstep saying Thank you for coming out. Seeing me gives them that comfort of Were not okay, but were all in this together.
This afternoon, were going back out to Dilley to have Annas (parent-teacher) conference. We already had Abigails conference. I told her teacher not to sugar-coat it. She didnt. Abigail wasnt a straight-A student.
Tom: She had a couple Cs in there.
Susan: But that was fine.
NT: What else is hard for you?
Susan: The other thing I struggle with is, Im a caregiver. Thats my nature. So like, my mom flew in the next day from Ohio. And I cant take care of her. 'Cause Im just doing what I can to take care of myself. When Tom was grieving Abigail, at points he was inconsolable and I couldnt be the one taking care of him because I was dealing with my own grief.
NT: Do you grieve differently from each other?
Tom: I think Ive probably had it harder than Susan has in terms of the normal crying and stuff like that.
Susan: We miss them terribly. I want them back. I dont even think Ive scratched the surface of grief. I keep myself busy.
I went trick-or-treating in our neighborhood Thursday. And I walked out and just started crying. How am I walking around the neighborhood on Halloween?
But whats my other option? To sit and have my lights out in my house? As we walk by, people are just hugging me and supporting me. Life needs to continue. I dont want it to continue around us with us in this bubble. I want to be part of that continuing. This little girl we gave a stuffed animal to came running up and gave me a piece of candy and grabbed me so tight. I was like Thank you. Thank you.
NT: It's evident that faith plays a strong role in how youre dealing with this.
Susan: We have a tremendous amount of peace because of our faith. Theres not a doubt in my mind where my children are. Theyre together. And I know theyre in heaven. Its a blessing there was no suffering. They were having fun and smiling and then they went to heaven. There was no suffering in between. That brings me peace as well. The accident it had to be perfect the way their injuries were exactly the same. There could have been so much damage done to their bodies that they would be suffering a really long time. I toy with that as well.
NT: Do you have any specific ideas of heaven?
Tom: There are monkey bars and ice cream.
Susan: And now there are unicorns.
NT: Did you talk about heaven with the girls?
Susan: Anna and I have had lengthy conversations about heaven. Shed ask, Whats the order, Mama? Will you die first? And Id say Well, thats the plan. Ill be waiting for you if I do. And if thats not the case, then youll be waiting for me. 'What happens when you die? Well, Jesus will come down and hell come get you and hell take your hand. Her face was horrified because she had a little cartoon Bible with a creepy picture of Jesus. I said, Scratch that. Just Its peaceful. Weve also had those discussions with Abigail. A couple years ago, just in one week, two neighbors died.
Tom: She was quite close to one of them.
Also, we went to church that last Sunday morning and the pastor was preaching on filling the gap (in our understanding) with trust in God. So the fact that the pastors preaching on almost the same thing that weve had this discussion with Abigail about was just like, Ah, this is great stuff! To have that on the Sunday when Abigail went to heaven talk about filling the gap with trust.
NT: Have there been any mini-miracles?
Tom: Abigails nurse three nights in a row her maiden name was Abby Jo Robinson.
Susan: Her name was the same as Abigails. So Abigail Josephine Robinson.
Tom: God giving us comfort.
Susan: My really good friend from back home flew in. Her co-worker felt very compelled to give her a saint a little medallion that had been blessed. We were sitting in the car and Amys like, I need to give you this and she gave it to me and said My co-workers name is Bev. Well Annas imaginary friend is Bev, from when she was little. Every so often now Ill say, Hey, wheres Bev? and shell make up some elaborate story. Theres big Bev and little Bev. It was just one of these ...
Susan: And the weather. The week our house is getting painted we cant have bad weather. It was gorgeous all week.
NT: Your house got painted, your deck was repaired. What was that like?
Susan: First we felt guilt for that. We talked to our pastor and hes like, No, no, no. thats God. God is using the community and using your friends and using all these people to basically wrap his arms around you. Its interesting to see our friends who dont have a belief system and to say to them, God is using you to help us.
NT: Do you ever lash out at God?
Susan: God did not take my children. God loves my children. Im not going to be mad at God. Then I go to Can I be mad at Cinthya (the driver of the car)?' And I go No, because I truly feel it was an accident. A week before, I was driving home from Joseph Gale and there was a pile of leaves. And two kids pop up in it. They were hiding. I stopped and said, Kids Do not play in those leaves like that. Cinthya made some very poor choices after the accident, which changed the course of how I could grieve my child. That was a question that came up at Dilley.
NT: How so?
Susan: They were asking about the girl that hit Anna. I said, When youre out on the playground, have you ever accidentally knocked somebody down, hit someone with the ball? Raise your hand if youve done that. Every kid raises their hand, including the teacher and myself. What do you do when you do that? And every kid said You go back and check in with them and make sure theyre okay. She didnt do that and at some level, theres consequences to that behavior. So am I mad at her for what actually happened? No, Im not angry. Im disappointed in the choices she made afterward.
NT: How has your view of the world changed in the past two weeks?
Tom: The temporary nature of everything is very much evident. And the fact that everything we have comes from God and were just here to steward it for a short period of time. Those two things for me have spoken really loudly.
NT: This is something you knew, rationally.
Tom: You know it. But feeling it and recognizing it are different. Knowing that my girls are in heaven, any possible fear I had of death is completely gone. Im looking forward to joining them. But before I leave this world, I want to do some things that will hopefully have an impact in the way the girls would want it.
Susan: We have a lot to do for them. Were going to live out the rest of their lives for them and every day we will honor them. Every day. Were also very committed to praying about what is next. We want to do what God wants us to do, not what we want to do. And we always have felt that, but we are parents, and theres all this stuff: horseback riding and dance classes and dinner. And now theres a huge gap of time and I just feel like all I want to do is give back.Weve felt so loved and so taken care of, I just want to love it forward.
NT: Are you sleeping at night?
Susan: We werent.
Tom: We just pray and God gives us sleep. And then we get up and pray again: 'Thank you.'
Susan: I still wake up in that panic: Where am I? I need to do something? Where are my girls?
Tom: It's still surreal. I think in some respects we havent even begun to feel it. I think a lot of people grieve because they have regrets about things they didnt do.
I think we take a huge amount of solace in that we had so much joy, so much laughter.
NT: Our societys notion of grief seems to exclude the idea that it can be mixed with joy. This morning, in talking with us, you've smiled more than you've cried.
Susan: How can you not have joy when you have seven and 11 years with two beautiful little girls? For seven years I had this little being in my life who was part of me. I wish I had a lifetime. But I got seven years.
Tom: Grief and joy are like the flip sides of the same coin. The deeper the grief means the greater the joy. Im trying to capture the joy I had. Im using whatever I feel right now. Im really lucky Susan took 15,000 photos. Ive taken to writing it down, all the great times weve had.
Susan: Every morning Anna would jump out of bed and wed hear her come down the steps and crawl into bed with us and shed snuggle. And that was one of the things I miss so much. Mornings are really hard. So what I do now is I grab my computer and we sit there and go through videos and we go through pictures every single morning. Ive started a blog. I never knew what to call it. But we have this 'love-drenched life' and thats the perfect name for it.
Tom: A lot of our first reaction was, To all the people who touched our girls lives, I want to say Thank you. Because they helped make our girls as fabulous as they were. It wasnt just us.
Susan: People say 'Can I stop over?' and we say 'yes.' Our house is full all the time. Everybody gathers around our table and we tell stories about the girls.
Being in the house is wonderful because when we need to get away we just go up to their rooms, which are off-limits to everybody but us.
NT: So that space feels healing?
Susan: Yes. And we didnt think it would be. Tom even said at one point the house was cursed and we didnt think wed go back there. But when we walked outside last week, it was freshly painted by that color we chose. The girls loved green and blue and the doors blue and the house is green. They would be very happy. If I could have my house still be brown, no food in our refrigerator, complaining about all these house projects and listening to the girls laughing upstairs, Id take that in a heartbeat. But I cannot change what happened. What I can control is how I maneuver through the world and honor them.
NT: Do you sense their presence?
Susan: The Thursday night after the accident, we were still in a hotel from being with Abigail in the hospital. But it was 2 o'clock in the morning and we couldn't sleep. We went home to see Sampson (their dog) and went down to the studio and in that space, we just both kind of looked at each other and said, 'Our girls are here.'
Theyre present. I can hear them playing. I open up a drawer and I see hair pretties. And I think, 'Ill probably never clean this drawer.'
Tom: The memories are so much more vivid inside your house. So many joyous memories. Why wouldnt you want to hang onto the memories?
NT: Well, for some, because it's also the scene of the accident.
Susan: My girls died in front of my house. But because of my faith, thats where they went to heaven. I look out there and see that and its hard. But I go out there every night and light two candles. And I will, I think, forever.
After two weeks of being held by a tight circle of friends and lifted by the broader community around them, Tom Robinson and Susan Dieter-Robinson decided they were ready to talk openly about the deaths of their daughters and, more important, how their love-drenched lives enriched their family.
On Sunday evening, the Forest Grove couple sat down with a small group of reporters at Sonrise Church to share their memories of their daughters, who were killed by a motorist outside their home on Oct. 20. The next morning they came to the News-Times office, where for two hours they sat with Associate Editor Jill Smith and Publisher John Schrag and shared some laughter, a few tears and some wonderful family photos.
Excerpts from that conversation, which we recorded, appear in this issue. At their request certain topics were either not brought up or, in a couple instances, omitted from the transcript. These include details of the accident and any discussion of the upcoming criminal trial of Cinthya Garcia-Cisneros and Mario Echeverria.
The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.