A Grief Like No Other

The photographs that appear throughout this article were provided by the families of murder victims. We are grateful for their generous cooperation.

PARENTS of Murdered Children was founded by Charlotte and Robert Hullinger in 1978. She was a legal secretary and a teacher at the time; he was a Lutheran minister. The Hullingers had three children and lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their daughter Lisa, a junior in college, had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend while studying in Germany. She had broken up with him several months earlier. He killed her with a sledgehammer. His father was a corporate vice-president in St. Louis. A defense attorney at the trial argued that the young man could not be held entirely responsible for the crime. A psychiatrist reported that the killer had "never learned how to tolerate rejection." Lisa's murderer was found guilty in a German court, given a prison sentence of three to five years, and released after spending less than a year and a half behind bars.

Charlotte went back to work in the fall of 1978, a couple of weeks after the murder. Many of her friends soon stopped asking how she was doing, stopped mentioning Lisa's name. Life began to seem surreal. Charlotte felt as though she were walking around with open wounds, bleeding, and yet few people seemed to notice. Cheerful Christmas cards arrived at the house without any acknowledgment of what had just happened to Lisa. Old friends who did not know what to say chose to say nothing at all. Bob Hullinger thought that people's response to the murder often seemed like "a conspiracy of silence." Desperate to find a book on the aftermath of murder, Charlotte visited local libraries, but found none. She needed to speak to other people who had experienced the same kind of loss. She heard about a Catholic priest who counseled grieving mothers. Although her husband was a Lutheran minister, as was her father, Charlotte did not hesitate to give Father Ken Czillinger a call.

Czillinger had been interested for years in how Americans deal with, or more often don't deal with, the issue of death. His interest was more than academic. The first funeral he performed as a priest, at the age of twenty-seven, was his younger brother's. Within five years Czillinger had also lost both his parents. Much was being written in the late 1960s and early 1970s about the "denial of death" in American society. Czillinger came to know the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and many of the early pioneers in the study of bereavement. Subjects that had long been suppressed -- the realities of death and dying, the stages of grief and mourning -- were now being openly explored. Czillinger viewed his priesthood not as a stamp of authority for providing answers but as a means for joining the search.

Czillinger introduced Bob and Charlotte to a few other people whose children had been murdered. The meeting took place in the Hullingers' living room. These grieving parents immediately felt a close connection. They could easily express and understand feelings that were considered awkward or inappropriate or disturbing by the rest of society. Hearing that others felt the same way relieved the sense of isolation. Charlotte decided to form a support group for the families of murder victims. "If life experiences are not used," she maintained, "they are wasted." She began to seek out the relatives of murder victims, convinced that many others felt alienated and alone. Whenever she read about a murder in the newspaper, she would get in touch with the victim's family, sometimes driving at night for miles to pick up people at their homes and bring them to the meetings. A group begun out of a desperate personal need assumed a larger importance, as the Hullingers learned how many other devastated parents needed help. At first the Hullingers' living room served as the group's meeting place, Lisa's old bedroom as its office. Chapters were soon formed in other cities and states. Although the group welcomed grieving siblings, spouses, and friends, most of its members had lost a child to murder. Bob and Charlotte wanted a name for the organization that was direct and to the point, not sugarcoated. "Parents of Murdered Children" said it all. This was a group no one ever hoped to join.

The Hullingers learned that the grief caused by murder does not follow a predictable course. It does not neatly unfold in stages. When a person dies after a long illness, his or her family has time to prepare emotionally for the death, to feel an anticipatory grief. When someone is murdered, the death usually comes without warning. A parent might have breakfast with a child on an ordinary morning -- and then never see or hold or speak to that child again. The period of mourning after a natural death lasts one, two, perhaps three years. The much more complicated mourning that follows a homicide may be prolonged by the legal system, the attitudes of society, the nature of the crime, and the final disposition of the case. A murder is an unnatural death; no ordinary rules apply. The intense grief experienced by survivors can last four years, five years, a decade, even a lifetime.

In the days and weeks right after a murder the victim's family is often in a state of shock, feeling numb, sometimes unable to cry. The murder of a loved one seems almost impossible to comprehend. Life feels unreal, like a dream. Survivors may need to go over the details of the crime again and again, discussing them endlessly, as though trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle, struggling to make sense of it all. They tell themselves, "This can't be true." After other kinds of crimes the victim lives to tell how it happened and to describe how it felt. A murder often forces the victim's family to reconstruct events. They ask, How did this take place? Why? Did my loved one suffer? The police usually try to shield family members, keeping them away from the crime scene and from gruesome photographs of the victim. Nevertheless, many survivors demand to see these things. They want to confront the reality of the murder and to know the worst. Denied access to the facts by the authorities or by a lack of information about the crime, the relatives of murder victims are frequently tormented by their imaginations and by questions that can never be answered.

After a natural death the family of the deceased can begin the process of mourning. After a murder the criminal-justice system usually delays and disrupts the grieving of the victim's loved ones. If the murderer is never found, the death lacks a sense of closure; if the murderer is apprehended, the victim's family may face years of legal proceedings and a resolution that is disappointing. Insufficient evidence may lead the prosecution to drop charges or to reduce them from murder to manslaughter. Co-defendants may be given a lesser punishment, despite a role in the murder, in order to obtain their cooperation. Each new hearing may stir up feelings that were seemingly laid to rest. "You never bury a loved one who's been murdered," one survivor has explained, "because the justice system keeps digging them up." The sense of powerlessness that a murder inspires in a victim's family is frequently reinforced by the courts. When the victim's family is barred from the courtroom during a trial (while the murderer's family is allowed to attend, looking somber and well dressed), it seems that the murderer still somehow has the upper hand, still exerts more power. Even when a trial ends in a verdict of guilty and a sentence that seems appropriate, the family of a murder victim may be left with a hollow feeling. They may realize for the first time that no amount of punishment given to the murderer can relieve their sorrow or bring the victim back to life.

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A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

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