By Rita Amstrong
No parent should have to cover up their child before the undertaker closes the lid. Yet, this happens much, much too often, day in, day out in our communities without the toll on our lives being heard. Anna’s story and other stories of senseless crime needs a voice. I am that voice… On October 6, 2004, I became what now defines me, consumes me, and has forever changed who I am: a co-victim of homicide. My daughter, Anna Nicole Fowler, was raped, robbed and murdered; then left, rolled up in a blanket, by a broken motel room window because the perpetrator could not get rid of her.
She had just turned nineteen…
What words can I possibly use to effectively convey the sheer agony, immense hurt, incapacitating grief, utter longing and unimaginable suffering that continues to haunt my soul. This loss has profoundly affected me at a very primal level. I have been forced to survive, yet will always walk alongside the victimization of my daughter and my life…as I evolve from the person I used to be to the person I have to become in order to continue on and not let my daughter’s death be in vain.
Losing a child under any circumstances is devastating, but to homicide? It was unimaginable. This happens to other people I see on the news, not me. This was not of my world, my life. I can still remember watching one yellow leaf float peacefully past the window while two detectives gently tried to explain the unexplainable. I called one a liar. You couldn’t possibly have my daughter; her resume is on the table; she has a job interview tomorrow. But it was me; it was my daughter who now lay in the morgue, a statistic among many, many others. I now felt robbed, violated; as the perpetrator killed a part of me that night as well. I am no longer the same wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister or friend. I can only work part-time as an RN; as I have PTSD.
The senseless, horrible loss of my child has impacted me not just emotionally but physically and spiritually as well. The pain was so unbearable at times just to get out of bed was overwhelming. Other days I felt like my heart was physically breaking in two causing crushing, heavy throbbing pain that sent me to the hospital on several occasions. The only time the pain in my heart would stop was when I was asleep; only to return with a vengeance upon awakening. In the beginning stages of my grief journey the anguish to see her, hear her voice, just touch her one.. more.. time…made my question my values and beliefs; to challenge all that I believed this world and beyond….to be. Blinded by tears, I crawled around the house looking for her one day; another day I buried myself in her closet, pulling her clothes down all around me, trying to remember her sweet smell. I would wear her clothes, right down to her underwear and curl my long dark hair; hoping that if I looked like her in some small way she would still be alive. We had to move from our home; as I would sit by the window, my heading resting on the cold, hard windowsill, day in, day out, watching for Anna to come home; her stereo silent and her favorite cherry sandals waiting by the front door.
Most of the time I felt like I was just going crazy, as I tried in vain to accept… the unacceptable. I called it “being in the pit.” It felt like I was ever so slowly trying to crawl to the top of a very deep hole; only to fall down into the abyss again…and…again. I had to hold on to the promise that I would get to the other side; spend less time in the pit, that there would be a new tomorrow, that I might even learn to smile again. But how could this possibly happen? The task seemed so overwhelming in the beginning: I not only lose my only daughter but my best friend. No more shopping excursions, trips to the shore, no late night snuggling as I wrapped my finger around one of her long dark curls as we talked about her future..one that was now…never to be… Relationships with family and friends were altered as well. Some stayed right by my side while others ran for the hills; coworkers avoided me because they were uncomfortable being associated with murder; almost as if they were afraid they would bring it home to their own families. I had one friend see me in a store, turn and walk the other way. She later explained she didn’t know what to say, she was afraid to even look at me. With my bereavement counselor’s gentle guidance; I tried to understand that this was more the norm than I had realized. I also needed to come to the realization that I had to find the inner strength that I didn’t think I had. Also, that new roles would have to be formed in order for me to survive. I had to accept the fact that I had to do what was best for me. I learned it was ok not to be the caretaker, that I was the one that needed to be taken care of..and that as a mother and as a woman this too was ok. In the safety of her office, I was able to verbalize the anguish and hopelessness I felt until they were no longer part of my existence. There, as well, I learned how to redefine my role as a wife, mother, sister.. different, yes, better, definitely. I had a hard choice to make that first day on her couch, box of tissues in hand: I could run my car into a tree (as I asked God to take me many, many times); I could hide under the covers for the rest of my life (family and friends spent countless hours sitting at the end of my bed), or do the hardest work I would ever have to encounter: crawl through the grief until I got to the other side. Grief for me came in waves: waves of hurt, denial, sadness, despair, anger, bargaining, guilt; emotions poured out that I didn’t even know I had. Some were small waves that I was able to jump over rather easily; others would wash over me again and again until I thought I was going to drown. Grief served as an umbilical cord to keep her close to me. My sorrow kept us wrapped together, and I still wanted that badly. I had to accept that she was no farther away or closer to me regardless of my emotional state. She was dead despite what I did or did not do.
Once I was able to look outside myself I saw that the people around me were grieving too. And they needed to grieve in their own way; that there was no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone wanted to believe I was doing well to relieve their own anxiety over what had happened. If they didn’t ask; I didn’t have to tell. And when I stopped crying for just a minute; I could sometimes hear their tears. Just as I was grieving for Anna; they grieved not just for the loss of Anna, but for how useless they felt. They verbalized to me that this tragedy has affected them profoundly as well. They hug their children tighter; kiss their husbands goodbye more often and always, always realize now the potential for, God forbid, this happening to them. Then apologize to me because her death has made them a better person. I struggled in the privacy of a small office in Skippack week after week to not only forgive the people in my life that were unable to cope with what happened; but to forgive myself for what had happened to Anna.
I was powerless
Powerlessness is perhaps the worse emotion to face. Homicide takes away control over every aspect of your life. I was powerless to save her; powerless to be with her as she took her last breath; was powerless in the courtroom as well. The fate of the person who took Anna’s life was left up to lawyers, jurors, strangers, to decide. Our family had no say; no input; were not even allowed to cry out when testimony got to be too much. My son, my brother, even a disabled aunt were taken out, downstairs to be locked up for lashing out when the horror of hearing and seeing pictures of what happened to their loved one was repeated… over and over. Anna’s dad and I couldn’t even stay in the courtroom for the coroner’s testimony; afraid if we had seen anything we would have held hands and jumped out of a window. This went on for three and a half years. That is how long it took from her murder to sentencing; that is how long it took for our family to get closure. We finally convinced the D.A. to drop the death penalty so the perpetrator could be sentenced. He was sentenced within three weeks of our request to life in prison without the possibility of parole. When someone takes a life, they have no idea the wake of devastation they leave in their path or the rippling effect it has on families, friends and society. One senseless act can have many repercussions and everyone touched by it becomes a co-victim. This is what homicide does to our families, to our communities and to our world.
But was I, mother of a murdered child, going to also be a victim? How would this honor Anna’s life..and death? How could I go on though, for the rest of my life without it destroying me? What was I to do with my pain so that it became meaningful and not just pointless endless suffering? And what about my son who was now an only child, verbalizing to his aunt that he not only lost his baby sister, but his mother. This is where the healing began and still continues. To survive is to walk alongside the loss my child, as it will always be a part of my life. You never “get over” what happened. I have to remind myself every day to put one foot in front of the other. I learned however, that it is ok to stumble, to fall; that I will get up again. I was given hope that someday I might even be able to make a difference, even though in the beginning of my journey I couldn’t have imagined sharing it with you today. But I do share it with you now; as a model of hope and resiliency. Do I succumb to the pit still? Of course. But the stay is shorter, the trip not as bumpy, as I know now I will rise again to continue Anna’s legacy. I have become a Survivors Speaker for the Penna. Commission on Crime and Delinquency. As a nurse, I now offer peer support for clients with trauma related mental health issues. I am also involved with Compassionate Friends and the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children. POMC was instrumental in getting the former President to pass a bill making Sept. 25th a National Day of Recognition for homicide victims, incl. the victims of 911. My son and I were in Washington on that bittersweet day for the bill signing ceremony.
I run, I dance, I smile, and sometimes I even catch myself laughing. And yes I have accepted, without feeling guilty, that this is all ok. I would have never thought this possible six years ago. From where I have been to where I might go on this journey gives me hope of where the next six years will take me. I offer you this much: that where there is light, darkness cannot exist. That suffering is merely the non-acceptance of what IS. We might not be able to control the forces that cause our suffering, but we can have a lot to say about what suffering does to us, and what sort of people we become because of it. It is not to ask why it happened, but what do I do now that it has happened? It is not where does this tragedy come from, but where does it lead? The only way to survive bereavement is to step away from it once and a while. You will survive. It just depends on when to decide you actually want to. The fear of the unknown is behind us, because we have already taken a long, hard look at hell. My hope is that people who know our family are moved to handle the difficult times in their own lives with more hope and courage when they see our example.
Love never dies
By losing my daughter I gained many things: compassion, empathy, humility; a greater understanding of human suffering. That is was not about what I can teach others; it was about what Anna could teach me: the bonds between a mother and child can never be broken. That love never dies. We are immortal spirits in fragile and vulnerable bodies. That by giving away her clothes I will never lose the memories. To remember that life is a gift, not to be taken for granted. For the grace to remember what you have left instead of what you have lost. And most importantly, if I could make a difference in just one life…just one…it would be the highest honor I could receive as a mother, as a woman and as a human being. I think of Anna and all that her life, and death has taught me. Yesterday seems less painful, and I am not afraid of tomorrow.