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Life after death

Members of that horrible club share their stories of the grief and growth that follows the loss of a child


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JESSIE HIXON - News-Times photo: Jessie Hixon When Gregg Townsley asked Teresa Kohl if she counted the months since her daughters death, she responded: I count the stars. Thats where I see her. They’re hidden behind all the shopping and light displays and bell-ringing and carol-singing.

They’re disguised as normal, functioning neighbors and friends.

They’re the people of grief.

On the east side of the country, they are the people of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In western Washington County, they are the families of sisters Abigail Robinson and Anna Dieter-Eckerdt; of 28-year-old Ryan Horn of Hillsboro; of 4-year-old Jacob Horner, who died during a Christmas trip last year.

As in the Christmas story, their stories all started out joyously, with the birth of a child. Like the Marys and Josephs in manger scenes across the country, they smiled over their babies, unaware of the tragedy coming their way.

But they likely all sensed the vulnerability that comes with parenthood — that feeling of “having your heart walking around outside your body.”

There are far more grieving people than those whose losses made news this past year.

As Teresa Kohl said, “They are everywhere. ‘We’ are everywhere. We just don’t get it — until we are ‘them.’”

Kohl, whose daughter, Megan, was murdered in 2006, was one of five local parents who sat down with the News-Times to talk about grief, its changes over time and how they approach the holiday season. Others participating were Steve Dehner, whose son Paul was killed in a 2003 car accident that severely injured his daughter; Lori Lester, whose son TJ was killed in a 2011 gun accident; Howard Sullivan, whose daughter, Rachel, died eight minutes after her birth in 1986; and Gregg Townsley, whose son Jared died on Mount Hood in February 2012.

Conducted over two separate meetings, the interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

News-Times: We want to look at how grief changes over time. So can you talk a little about your first reactions to your child’s death?

Steve: At the time of the accident I felt complete and utter depletion. I was like a dishrag. You’ve been to the hospital. You’ve been to the funeral home. You’ve seen your son’s body. You’ve wept over it and said goodbye. And then back to the hospital where your daughter’s going in for her second surgery and you don’t know if she’s going to make it. Boom. That was it. Everything has gone out of me. And the only thing to happen after that point is to let God to fill me up.

All this stuff is coming up from my past. I’m thinking about everything I had ever lost in my life: my best friend moving away, my parents divorcing, my girlfriend breaking up. I’m going ‘Wow, I haven’t felt this inside for years.’ I had absolutely no control over it. You are talking about a guy who had only cried two or three times during his entire adult life all of a sudden sobbing and weeping like, hours out of the day.

It was exhausting. I mean, the first day, we went to bed about 2 o’clock and just went to sleep, literally, on the floor of the waiting room.by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - Howard Sullivan (left) says that when people ask him how many children he has, he counts his daughter Rachel, who died eight minutes after her birth.

Lori: I remember just wanting to melt into the floor. Literally, wanting my whole body to just fall to the floor and disappear.

I dropped like 10 pounds right away. My husband had to care for me and it was getting to the point where he didn’t think I was going to get out of bed in the morning. I did go into this depression. I was really upset because everybody else was going on with their life, I just wanted to go scream at the world: ‘Don’t you know my son died? And why is everybody being so happy and walking around like nothing happened?’

NT: When did that depression part start?

Lori: I think it started from the moment he died. And I already was the type of person who gets sad over the winter. I thought I would never get my joy back. That I would just be this sad, sad person. I started an antidepressant in December. It was like night and day. Some people are really against meds, but I am telling you it was my savior.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - Both Steve Dehner and Lori Lester say their faiths were tested mightily by the deaths of their children. Teresa: I do not remember the first year. It’s a big void. I used to not be able to go into Safeway where they have those fresh flower displays. I’d see Gerbera daisies and I’d just have to leave. At her funeral there were hundreds of them. She liked the colors. And I remember times of pulling over on the side of the road. I just couldn’t go any farther. The total rob-me-of-function events.

NT: How did you cope early on?

Howard: I went back to school (teaching sixth grade at Tom McCall Upper Elementary) after a week. I just poured myself into my job. I’d have people say ‘Shouldn’t you be home with your wife?’ And, I’d be like, ‘No, she’s fine and her mom is near her. This is what I need to do.’

Steve: And guess what? We don’t grieve the same way. We’re different from our spouses. We’re different from our friends, our parents.

Howard: I do not go to the cemetery with my wife. At Tom McCall, when November 1st would roll around, Susan Taylor—a counselor at the school district and a very close friend—Susan and I would walk to the cemetery during my planning period.

Every year, she’d call me up and say, ‘Okay, November 1st—we got a date, right?’ And I would look at my schedule and say, ‘Yep. I’ll meet you there. And we’d stand there and she’d ask me ‘How you doing?’ And we’d look at the date and she’d say ‘Wow, it’s been 15 years. Wow, it’s been 20 years.’

My support system at Tom McCall was unreal. There were times when I would leave the classroom and walk down to the counseling office and go, ‘I just need 10 minutes.’

Lori: I tried to go back to work after a few weeks and I couldn’t do it. I’d feel this heavy, heavy weight on me. I am a smiley person normally and I had to go in and fake it. And then I had to discipline kids and I just didn’t have the energy. And I couldn’t even teach math. I could not remember how to do the steps in algebra. My brain was just seriously not there.by: COURTESY PHOTO: LORI LESTER - TJ Lester loved hats and one way his family keeps his memory alive is by taking a collection of his headpieces on vacations and wearing them during photos.

Teresa: I heard from Megan a lot—just crazy little things. Like in my car, I have her stocking cap and her keys. Her little key fob—there’s no way to put a new battery in it, but those times I would pull off on the side of the road, that thing would beep. This thing would go off when I would go off. That’s Meg saying, ‘Mom. Mom.’

I have a psychologist I’ve been going to for years. I first went in support of a friend in 2007 and he was so good. That’s really the only place where I feel totally safe, sitting in his office.

Gregg: I think I chose to treasure the void. I didn’t want to take away from the hurt or the emptiness or the fact that I’d lost something. I wanted to value how my life had changed because of that. The emptiness isn’t empty. It’s full.

Howard: I am a child of the ‘60s. I wondered, ‘Is this fallout from that? Oh, the drugs you took caught up to you.’ We both thought ‘Is this on me?’ The doctor said no.

Steve: Guilt is one of the emotions that really comes.

Lori: Big time.

Steve: I bought a ‘92 Volvo wagon for my family and it wasn’t enough because a year later they came out with side-impact air bags that would have made all the difference. They’re just thoughts but they torture you.

Lori: Mine is ‘I dropped him off at that house. I didn’t check into it. I didn’t do everything I could have done to keep him safe.’ And my husband said, ‘Lori if you didn’t give him a ride, he would have jumped on his bike and gone anyway.’

Teresa: I made so many mistakes at Megan’s expense. I wish I would have been smarter, better equipped, a better mom.

Lori: I think most of us automatically go to what we did wrong. Like Cameron told TJ that day he wouldn’t play xbox with him. That was a huge deal. He could have given his brother that time and instead he made TJ upset. And Terry had a frustrating interaction with TJ because they were trying to move a couch into the office and it scratched the floor. They kind of made up before TJ left that day, but Terry focused on that.

NT: Do you think there’s a difference between losing an adult child rather than, say, a 9-year-old?

Gregg: At least Jared lived a length of time. He lay with a woman. He got drunk on good wine. He drove a fast car. He stood on top of a mountain. That’s different than losing a 9- or 7-year old.

Teresa: With Megan, she was still a child in so many ways. She still had that childlike naiveté. For so long, she was my focus—to save her, to find her. I went to a friend in the FBI and tried to hire private investigators. I find I’m still looking for ways to save her, to pull her away from those horrible people.

Gregg: My son at 32 was on his own journey. I couldn’t save him from that. Our journeys are what they are. We can accept them. We can embrace them. But they’re headed where they’re headed and you’re on the journey with them.

Lori:

NT: Did your faith help your grieving in any way?

Steve: It always came back to being asked to trust God in spite of things that just don’t make sense. Because this life doesn’t make any sense. As painful as death is, it probably doesn’t look nearly as bad from the other side. Paul and TJ probably just laugh their heads off all day long from their side. Probably because they can’t see us crying our heads off over here.

Howard: I started going back to church.

Teresa: I was born and raised Catholic, but I’ve stepped away from the church—from organized, institutionalized anything. I certainly believe in ‘something’ a whole lot bigger than myself. I hope desperately that I’ll be with her again.

Gregg: It has no bearing. Zero. I don’t lean on it. I don’t know if there’s life after death. I continue to wonder. Wonder is as fervent as faith is and feels as good most days.

Lori: I have been very upset with God. You know that song, ‘It is Well with my Soul,’ by the author who lost four children? Well, it’s not well with my soul. I want TJ back. I struggle with that because I’m a Christian. I know he’s happy with Jesus. I know he’s rejoicing, but I’m selfish. I want him back.

He had so many struggles. He went through cutting himself and depression and he was finally coming out of it when this happened. 'God, I thought TJ was going to be your testimony. I thought TJ was going to work with kids.'

Yesterday I spoke at a women’s gathering at the church and I gave my testimony and I sat down and thought ‘Did I really glorify God in that?’ Because there wasn’t some nice happy ending to my story.

Steve: We sang a song in church today — I could hardly get the words out of my mouth: ‘And now I’m happy all the day.’ That sort of saccharine thing just doesn’t wash with me anymore. There’s all kinds of problems with your faith that come up when something bad happens. I already knew that this stuff happens to everybody, to good and bad people, to people who believe or don’t believe. One of the things people say is, ‘Why me?’ My problem with that is, does it imply that as long as it is happening to someone else, it’s okay? It’s not okay.

Lori: You just never think its going to happen to you. But it does make me look forward to heaven now more than ever. I’m really not afraid to die because he’s there waiting for me.

Steve: Yeah, I have that feeling too—that you’re closer to eternity having someone there.

NT: How has your grief changed over time? How has it gotten easier?

Steve: We are just now picking out a headstone. It’s not that it wasn’t important, but I remember going to the funeral home and bringing home the catalogs. As soon as we got to the section of headstones for children and we saw the ones for babies, I just lost it. We closed it up, we sent it back. We can’t do this.

Some time later, Laura went and got the catalog and it was the same thing again. So we waited and waited and here we are 10 years and we finally got to the point where we can do this. It’s really hard. I’ve got three lines to say, ‘This is where Paul Dehner’s remains are and here’s who he was.’ How do I sum up Paul?

Teresa: I finally made myself go to Parents of Murdered Children meeting. For three years, I just didn’t want to acknowledge the name of that.

NT: How was it?

Teresa: It was an amazing experience. It’s that club again. That horrible club we belong to. When we walk in that room, we know that we are kindred spirits.

NT: How has grieving gotten harder?

Gregg: Nobody ever asks how you’re doing.

Steve: One of the most painful things for me is fading memories. It’s not a sharp pain, it’s a dull pain. It’s like all your photos are fading and you know that pretty soon some of them are going to be completely gone. What I really wanted—that I never could bring myself to tell people—was to keep talking about Paul.

Teresa: Did you find people wanted you to be over it? That’s what I get more, like ‘Jeez, let’s move on. Man, this is a drag.’

Steve: There is no other way to say this but you do have the grisly stench of death on you. In a metaphorical sense: ‘I look at you and I see a dead child.’ And that’s just too much for some people. I’m very understanding of that.

Lori: There definitely are those people who avoid you. You feel like you are contagious.

Steve: Yeah people don’t know what to say.

Lori: People say, ‘Everybody’s days are numbered. TJ’s purpose on earth was filled and that’s why God took him home.’ And that eight-minute-old baby—was her purpose filled?

Steve: ‘God wanted him more in heaven.’

Lori: Or, ‘He’s an angel now.’

Steve: ‘God wanted him so badly.’ Really? God’s more selfish than I realized.

Lori: People said to me, ‘Well maybe something really bad was going to happen to TJ so God took him to spare him that.’ People say weird things. They’re not trying to hurt you.

Teresa: My neighbor said, ‘My kids have been in all kinds of trouble but at least they’re alive.’ I love him, but he’s foot-in-mouth. I could just see Megan going, ‘Yeah, right, Mark.’

Steve: I, personally, can't get too upset by those kinds of comments. We buried our son. Our daughter is permanently injured. So what if somebody says something stupid because they don’t know what to say.

NT: What do you do differently because of your child’s death?

Lori: I decided that I would write each of my kids an ongoing letter about how much I love them and what qualities they have and I’m also trying to weave in memories. If I die, they’ll get this letter that will help them remember all the good things.

Howard: My wife and I kiss when we leave the room and say ‘I love you.’ If I get in a wreck and die, I gave my wife a kiss and the last words she heard me say were that I loved her.

NT: In what little ways do you keep your child alive? Like I noticed TJ’s photo is Lori’s Facebook profile photo.

Steve: The month before the accident, my mom went to Italy and got a little cross for Paul and he never got a chance to wear it. For the last 10 years, I’ve had it hanging on my rearview mirror.

Howard: We called Rachel ‘our little angel’ and my wife collects angels.

Gregg: Folks in my family wear orange, like I’m wearing today. That was his favorite color. I wear orange now pretty much every day because of it. I keep a business card in my truck that has his picture on it. The other thing is that I have a large bell on my wraparound porch. I usually tap it when I go by, as a call to the dead to visit.

Lori: When we go on vacation we take one of TJ’s hats and take pictures of people with his hat. He has so many hats and they are all so different from each other, it’s hilarious.

NT: So you still talk about him with your kids?

Lori: We try to bring him up, like when something funny happens, we’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, wouldn’t that crack TJ up’ or ‘That’s a TJ thing’ or we just try to include him in the conversation naturally.

Teresa: I like it that several of my closest friends, they’ll see a shirt and say, ‘Oh this would look perfect on Megan.’ Or we’ll see a hot car--Megan loves hot cars—and say ‘Megan would love that.’ I like it that she’s still with us in that way.

Steve: We went to the graduation Paul would have been in. We’re seeing Paul’s friends get married and have kids. And every step along the way you’re thinking ‘That’s part of Paul’s life that could never happen.’

Howard: I have two really close friends. Had my daughter lived, she and their daughter, Jenna, would be three months apart. I see her in Jenna. In a special ceremony in one of my high school classes one day, I told Jenna, ‘When I look at you and see the things you did, those could have been the same things my daughter did. She would have been going to a prom. She would have been in high school playing on a basketball team.’

NT: Do you have any special holiday remembrances?

Steve: Well, Paul’s birthday was on December 9th, so we would never do anything Christmas-y until after his birthday and we would get the tree the day after. Now we get it on or near his birthday. The holidays were a complete washout for us. Laura’s dad died two days before Christmas the year before the auto accident. And two years later, her mom died right before Christmas. I think maybe last year, we finally got to a point where we have joy in the holidays again.

Lori: We bought a little miniature tree and we started out with an ornament that says ‘TJ’ and every year we add an ornament to it and we pick it out as a family. That will be his tree forever.

And on that first Christmas — and last Christmas — everybody comes to my house so we bring balloons and everybody writes a little note to TJ and we go out on the back deck and release them. That first year, it was like, blue sky and a rainbow in the background, like God gave us a gift.

Howard: My wife bought angel ornaments for ‘our little angel.’ We have about 15 of them. The angel thing comes up.

Teresa: Zach and Meg had their Christmas elves. They’d show up each Christmas and they always brought a gift, a little tiny thing, maybe a pack of gum. Hers is white. I put it in my room.

For Christmas, I go to the beach, rent a home, take a 12” tree, string up some starlights. My son has joined me. It’s soft music, low lights, lying by the fireplace. It’s sweet. I don’t buy gifts. I do a lot of writing, make cards for people at New Year’s. It’s a good time of softness.

NT: How has grief changed you as a person?

Howard: It became part of who I was. Something would happen in class—a teachable moment—and I would talk about it. I became more open with my emotions as a teacher. My generation was ‘Boys don’t cry.’ But now I cry at everything.

Gregg: I’m approaching zero tolerance for meaningless moments. I sat through a meaningless meeting the other day for an hour and I was just outraged that I let myself do that.

Teresa: I don’t fear anything. Who can do anything to me?

Gregg: You’ve already had the worst.

Teresa: Yeah. I’m untouchable. I think even my DNA changed. I think a lot of the changes in me have been for the good. I didn’t care as much about people before. I was just way too self-centered: me, my family, my home. Now, there’s actually a number of professionals who have sent people to me, to talk about losing or struggling with their children. I’m so honored. I wouldn’t have done that before. I really do feel I’m on a path, that I’m moving towards the light. I try not to speak gossip. I think I’m just a better person.

Steve: I feel profoundly changed, but it didn’t happen right away. Before age 40, you never would have seen me sitting and crying. But now, if your heart is broken, it breaks for other people too. You’re just open to the pain other people feel. You don’t just observe it, you connect with it. I don’t advertise it, but I’ll tell you—people come to my office all the time at work and they sit on this little couch and say ‘I just need to cry for five minutes. Is that okay?’ I guess they know my history and feel that sympathy.

I want to get some training because people come to me anyway. I may as well know what I’m talking about. I’ll be doing that sometime in the next year. I believe the greatest healing comes when we seek to help others in the midst of their dark hours.




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