There is nothing quite like knowing your loved one was murdered. The fact that they were insignificant, possibly even repulsive enough for someone to take deliberate brutal violent action to stop them from breathing is something that never ceases to haunt you. It can be easy to think that if you loved the deceased and they were disposable, that you aren’t any better.
Having someone you love taken that way intensifies 100 fold the feelings of vulnerability and open exposure to the elements, to people, to life and its fragility. There is a certain feeling of fight or flight, an inherent distrust of people in general that engrains hard and fast into your psyche.
These are feelings I’ve battled ever since I can remember. I knew they resulted from my dad being murdered and didn’t know how to get past them. I was embarrassed that I wasn’t as fun as my peers and hated being looked on as a baby. I longed to let loose and have fun; to experience what it really was like to be carefree and really enjoy things that seemed scary. The sad thing is, most things were scary to me.
I vividly remember watching the news as a child wide eyed waiting to hear that something horrible would affect me, or my family. I would come home from school with a tight knot in my stomach in a teary eyed frenzy after learning about nuclear war and that we lived on a fault line and that the “big one” could rock Utah at any time. Death, violent death, was a very very very real possibility to me. I was never under the illusion that the worst of the worst couldn’t happen to me, because it could, because it had.
For decades I felt there was something wrong with me and that I was some sort of paranoid freak unlike anyone else, that is, until I walked into the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Homicide Sharing Group in 2016 in Washington D.C. I will never forget the sickening heavy, dark crushing sadness that permeated the room. I looked into eyes of parents, fiancés widows and siblings of murdered military. The people were different but the raw frightened expression of ultimate betrayal accented with a question of why united us together in a club nobody wanted to be part of.
We shared deep-rooted horrific commonalities. We laid all sorts of ugliness out on the table, released poison and pain and embraced kinship, understanding and even a little hope. I left that dark room standing taller. Despite the darkness, I left feeling noticeably so much lighter.
Less than six months later, I was road tripping with Ashlee Birk and her kids. Ashlee’s husband/the kids dad had been murdered when the youngest child was less than two months old. I knew we shared a morbid bond but didn’t see them as victims of murder. I saw them for who they were, beautiful talented fun people and my new friends. We laughed, ate peanut M&Ms and listened to music.
It wasn’t until we stopped for lunch that I saw five kids whose eyes darted and scanned the scene before them as they cautiously made their way toward Wendy’s. I noticed their quick pace and hyperawareness of their surroundings. As we were about to leave, Ashlee encouraged her oldest son to give two dollars to a homeless man sitting against the wall. The girls watched intently and whispered cautious assurances to each other that he was ok. These kids didn’t know just how much they knew me. They were just. Like. Me.
One year and several conversations with kindred souls later, Ashlee and I discussed our separate and similar experiences and mindsets that are byproducts of homicide. She, just like her kids in that regard, is just. Like. Me. In some ways it’s a relief knowing I’m not a freakish baby because of the way I feel in crowds. Knowing I am some of the best company strangely helped me relax even more about life.
In the mind of a homicide victim the world is a dangerous place. We scan every setting we are in from the mall to an amusement park to a classroom to church and note where the exits are and the fastest way to get to them. We notice if a fellow moviegoer gets up in the middle of a darkened movie theater and follow them with our eyes as they exit and wait for their return, only to relax once they sit back down.
It is not a fun way to live. For years I tortured and forced myself to sit defenselessly in situations I felt like a potential sitting duck. Once I identified the terror as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and allowed myself to own the condition, I stopped running from it and learned how to live with it.
There are certain situations I avoid. I no longer go to movies on opening night. I go to the mall when it’s not super crowded. When I ride the train, I sit in the bike car near the exit because there are a lot less people in that confined area. I put myself in the mind of a killer and, though safety can never be guaranteed, I can make wise choices and secure personal peace of mind.
I no longer feel embarrassed if I decline an invitation to an activity or a place I would not enjoy. Some things are not worth the anxiety. I still attend events that are important enough to me. I run huge races and attend patriotic ceremonies. I go to Arlington on Memorial Day Weekend and now and then, will go to a favorite concert. I love Disneyland and Six Flags and if there was one near me, I would have a season pass…and use it.
I’ve learned how to live my life and laugh and enjoy. I just do it with a touch of caution, and that’s ok. I still look for an escape plan in most situations but don’t beat myself up for it. I’ve stopped apologizing to myself and to others for the extra level of care I take. And quite frankly, friends of mine in law enforcement often commend me for my caution where, they too, must have some level of PTSD and they too have experienced the ugly side of life and death.
I believe we are meant to enjoy the time we have on this earth. Nothing will change the fact that my dad was murdered and that I grew up with and fight PTSD. We all have our challenges. We are different, not defective and by learning to live with and accept each other’s differences we can coexist beautifully and live rich fulfilling lives.