In 2007 the United States Congress passed resolutions establishing this day each year, September 25, as the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims. As are you, I’m glad they did it, but as with you, I ask, “What took them so long to do it?”
Well, the answer to that question is more complicated than the usual reasons we hear for the fumblings of politicians. It’s the M word. Murder. People are afraid to say it, people are afraid to talk about it, and people are afraid it will happen to someone they love. For everybody knows, deep down, that it’s the worst thing that could happen to their child or brother or mother or sister or father or any other loved one; and they also know that having a loved one murdered is the worst thing that could happen to them. And they shudder and recoil at the thought of what that murder would do to them. They know, dimly and just by intuition, what you have come to know in brutal, harsh reality: each murder does not end one life, it ends many lives. It changes everything.
Whether the murder of your loved one happened 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10, five, one or even just a few months ago, you know that you have been changed, and the person you were the day before the murder is gone, completely gone. The fact you---- and so many members of your family and the way you interact with them----changed on that dreaded day is just one part of what makes murder the most evil act and the worst sin a human being can do, the most heinous crime.
Dr. Wanda Bincer who’s adult daughter was murdered, writes of her experience at realizing every parent’s worst nightmare:
“I was thrust into the world of senseless violence, grief and anguish with the sudden news of the murder of my oldest child and only daughter. It began with utter shock and disbelief and a slim hope that a mistake had been made. The shock and disbelief still catch me at times, even though four years have passed. And of course a terrible mistake was made; some cruel and misguided man ended the life of a young woman, who loved life, people and animals. She picked up stray puppies, loved children, had a radiant sunny smile and wanted to start a camp for mentally retarded and disabled children. A part of me was killed with her and I will never be the same again.
Indeed, she will never be the same again. I guess all of you already know that.
But I would like to suggest to you tonight, something that might on its face seem crazy, something that at first may seem ridiculous, and something that might even seem offensive, hurtful or disrespectful to your loved one. Of course, I want you to know it is not any of those things, but it can be hard to hear at first. It can be hard to hear at first. It is this: You have been changed, but it just might be, it just might turn out later to be, that you have been changed for the better. In a profound triumph of life over death, of love over hate, of memory over malice, and of persistence over pain, your very presence here tonight at this time of remembrance of your loved one stolen from you by murder, shows that there is within you and even perhaps already upon you new qualities of life, new powers of humanity and compassion that have come into fruition because of the fire you have passed through, and live within every day. Like a hillside that has been ravaged and scorched by a terrible blaze, and later sees the slow return of living things, so the contours of your soul- --shocked, burned and crumpled by the cruelest, ultimate unfairness---murder, may yet have given rise to the growth that a new and different season brings.
Now when I daresay that the changes you have endured and are enduring are ones that can be for the better I am not saying any of the following horrible, absurd ideas: the murder of your loved one has turned out to be okay, it’s all been for the best, or you’re glad it happened. None of those crazy thoughts are true at all. I know you would give anything and everything not to be here tonight and to have your loved on back. But because of your love for them, because of your living commitment to them, and because of your persistent declaration of their life and its everlasting beauty and value, the turning of time’s pages are seeing a new story written. The indescribable agony you experience as a survivor of homicide is being written as a part of the larger story of your transformed life. You are not defined by grief and victimization, but rather you are defined by the love you had and will always have for your murdered loved one. You are defined by the banner of their precious memory that you hold high every day, and you are defined by your affirmation that your love for them will never, ever dwindle or diminish one tiny bit, and that your pursuit of true justice for them and for your family will never stop. You are defined by your survivorship and by your glorious human victory over vengeance, for you are better than the barbarity you have seen.
The uniqueness of your epic loss and grief coupled with the courage you are showing as a survivor is empowering you to grow through grief, journeying through the storm to a shore that is different from where you were before. It’s not where you wanted to be, but there are aspects of this place that have their own unusual, secret beauty to them, a beauty known only to you, the survivors. What are these new and deeply human beauties? Well, they are hard to define precisely, they can only really be understood by people like you who are on this odyssey of sorrow. I can just describe what they look like:
--I once saw the mother of a murdered son greet a newly bereaved mother at a POMC meeting with a strong hug. She just hugged the sobbing mother, they silently hugged and cried together for a couple of minutes. Then she told the new mother, “I know what you’re feeling, only you and I can know what this is like.” She told the mother that her shock and dismay was normal and would last a long time, and that she should talk to other survivors—when she was ready, about what she was feeling. That was extraordinary sensitivity. ---I once saw the father of a murdered son tell the enraged and frustrated mother of a murdered child that she must not show emotion in the courtroom during the trial of her son’s murderer, because if she did, it could impair the case against the assailant on trial. It was not what the mother wanted to hear, but it was the hard truth she needed to hear. That was extraordinary compassion. ---I once saw the mother of a murdered daughter start and lead a chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, and work for years at developing the chapter into an ongoing resource for other relatives of homicide victims. Every month this incredible woman---permanently wounded by the rape and murder of her treasured daughter---would show up at the meetings, and lead discussions about terribly difficult topics and model for other survivors the uncommon strength and dignity that characterizes the people who lead and participate in chapters of POMC all across the country. That was exceptional courage.
Great sensitivity, great compassion and great courage, those are only three of the changes that took root in the burnt soil of the soul of survivors, but they were lovely in their ability to give hope to the hopeless, wisdom to the weary and strength to the suffering. It is amazing to think that a human being can be utterly devastated, and yet come back again and offer to others help, comfort, support, strength and guidance. And, all of those to an extraordinary extent, to a degree which they probably would not have been capable of, had their loss not been so great. Out of great suffering came great goodness. Yes, in the survivors of homicide who gather here tonight we find heroes, heroes everywhere. Why heroes, because you have taken life’s hardest blow, the most powerful punch human wickedness can render, and you have stood back up, and you stand here still tonight. Perhaps before your life was changed by murder you didn’t think you were capable of being a hero, of doing great things. But not of your own choosing you have become someone new, and of your own choosing you have become someone extraordinary, someone who is now gifted in special new ways, special ways maybe not yet fully realized.
From the cocoon of a grief like no other you sit here this evening with new wings, a person inwardly more beautiful and more powerful than you know. And who knows where you will choose to fly from tonight, and who knows whose life you will enhance in a profound way, because of what you have become---and are becoming---changed and changing always in honor of that forever cherished someone for whom your love is supreme.
About the Author
Brad continues to write on the psychology and spirituality of bereavement, as well as on topics of social and religious concern, in both nonfiction and fiction formats. Brad Stetson is author of Living Victims, Stolen Lives: Parents of Murdered Children Speak to America (Baywood, 2003). He is a writer and funeral chaplain in Southern California. Seewww.bradstetson.com. He’s published ten books on a wide range of religious and social topics, including Tender Fingerprints: A True Story of Loss and Resolution (Zondervan, 1999). His work has been critically reviewed in academic and popular venues.