Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Murder, the Death Penalty, and Cancer, a personal perspective

Twenty-five years ago, my mother was raped and beaten to death by a teenaged neighbor on drugs. My mother was 70 years old and had been his friend since the time he was a small child. For a long time, I didn't talk much about it except in private situations. This was not to keep it a secret, but to compartmentalize my life so I could function. At first, it was too difficult and then, as the years passed, I refused to let this single incident be the defining experience of my life. Recently, however, I have felt inspired to use my own experience of survival and healing to speak out against the death penalty. I don't write this to convince you one way or another on that particular issue, but to try to illuminate how the two issues are related for me.

My mother's murder was a spectacularly brutal, headline-banner crime, but it was only part of a larger tragedy, for the perpetrator's family had suffered the murder of his older brother some years before. I knew this, but for a long time it didn't matter. My own pain and rage took center stage. But with time and much hard work in recovery, I came to the place of being able to listen to the stories of other people.

We all lose people we love. Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I would interpret that to mean that each loss, each set of relationships and circumstances is unique, but there are things we share.

What might it be like if one family member were murdered -- and another family member had killed someone? What does it feel like to watch the weeks and days pass while the execution of someone you dearly love draws ever nearer? How can we wrap our minds around loving someone and accepting that they have caused such anguish to another family? I've had a chance to talk with people in all these circumstances. It's been a humbling experience.

One thing I have learned over the years is that grief isn't fungible; you can't compare or exchange one person's experience with another's or say, This one's pain is two-thirds the value of that one's. Grief is grief; loss is loss. We cannot truly understand what another's loss is like, especially when it is as devastating and life-altering as the violent death of someone we love. But we can say, "Even though I don't know what you're going through, my heart goes out to you." Whatever our personal story, we can be allies, for surely there is enough compassion, enough tears, enough rage and enough mending of hearts to go around.

I've been on both sides. I believe we have something deep and essential in common -- our broken hearts. Our mending hearts. Our resilient spirits. Our capacity for healing. Our journey through the darkness. I know that I would never, ever want to be part of inflicting what I have endured on another family. I know that life is filled with awful things, and I have faith that kindness lightens grief. I believe all these things are true whether we are the survivors of a murder, victims ourselves, loved ones of perpetrators, or the families of the executed.

What this has to do with cancer is that right now, by the inexplicable way life unfolds, a number of friends -- some of them very close to me -- have been battling various forms of cancer. Here there is no human malice or sudden tragedy, one moment you're fully alive and the next, everything is over. The breakdown of order and health is internal and continues over time. Even in cases where the end comes soon after the diagnosis, it is not instantaneous. You have time, if even a small stretch, to consider your own mortality. And so do those who care for you.

I find I am as angry about the possibility of my friends dying from cancer as I am about losing a loved one to violence. I want to rage at the universe at the unfairness and unfeelingness of it all. I wish there were an old man with a long white beard up in the sky so I could grab him by that beard and let him have a piece of my mind.

I look for someone or something to blame.

In the case of a murder conviction, there is someone to blame. The jury said so or the person admitted it in pleading guilty. In the case of cancer, I don't believe in blaming the victim -- he smoked, she didn't exercise, he ate too many charbroiled steaks and not enough broccoli, she lived near a cellphone tower. Justice demands that we hold those who commit crimes accountable. What do we do with the craving for revenge in our hearts? Or, in the case of cancer, the need to point a finger of blame -- at the patient, at the doctors, at the pharmaceutical companies, at the health insurance carriers.

In neither case will my retaliation bring a loved one back to life or affect the course of a friend's disease. In both cases, I myself become a victim. The impulse to lash out at the responsible person or institution is universal and human. Adrenaline helps us through the early stages of shock and helpless immobility. When it goes on too long, however, it consumes us from within and prevents us from being present in the moment.

I could spend 25 years dedicating my life to ending that of the man who killed my mother. Or I could spend 25 years healing, connecting to life, making the world a better place, writing wonderful stories...being the person she would have wanted me to be.

I could spend the months and years of my friend's cancer in expectant grief and one crusade after another against anything and anyone who isn't finding a cure fast enough. Or I could be present with her, each of us alive at this moment.


  1. This makes me want to hug you and thank you. It means so much. I came across it on the Goodreads site, but thought I'd leave the comment here. Thank you for speaking so clearly, for your witness and your push toward hope and life.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment. It's scary to put myself out there on such a painful, difficult topic. But the words need to be said. This is how we heal, as individuals and as a society.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story Deborah. Whether it takes a year or twenty five years I think that sharing your story and being present for others during their time of need shows incredible courage. I'm sorry for your loss.

  4. Deborah, I was led to this entry after posting a question on Writers Unboxed about writing through grief. I am crying as I write this. My cousin, who was like a brother to me, recently lost his life in to a violent and tragic end. The day he died, a close friend of mine texted me that she was on her way to find out about her best friends cancer prognosis...this exchange went on because we were in the process of organizing a fundraiser for a community member also living with cancer. Another close friend of mine was diagnosed a few months ago, at age 32, with stage 4 lung lymphoma. I am just struck at how unique and how common all of these experiences are at the same time. Thank you thank you thank you for this post. I can't explain what it means to me. I also wanted to tell you that in researching cancer treatments, I have come across some amazing research regarding mushrooms and healing. Specifically turkey tail and maitake mushrooms. If you haven't yet found this research, I encourage you to look it up. Again, thank you for sharing your experience. As you said, each moment of grief is unique, but somehow it helps to share and comfort each other. Best to you!

  5. Camas, thank you for sharing your own story. May the memory of your cousin become a blessing in your life.

    I think we walk through our painful journeys in community, and the internet has made geography irrelevant -- we find allies and kindred spirits everywhere.

  6. Deborah: You'd told me some of your mother's story on one of our walks in Wyoming last summer. Reading this post this morning, I feel again like I've been punched in the gut.

    Too often other people's pain is "out there," touching someone else rather than someone who's near and dear to us. But then, tragedy strikes closer to home, whether through crime or illness or some other mechanism.

    The rage and the anger are important, because they can be what force us to look at ourselves and what we're experiencing, and can inspire us to make another choice. We can waste years of our lives getting stuck in that drive for vengeance, or we can choose compassion. We can choose to be present for those who are still suffering. We can choose to attend to our own healing and by extension offer some relief to those around us.

    I am so moved by your posting. I thank you sincerely for sharing this. You have my love, my gratitude, my compassion, and alway ALWAYS my friendship.

  7. Jen, thank you. You are a gift in my life, as well.

  8. Deborah, sorry for my poor english, I hope I'm able to express what I'm feeling. You're such a wonderfull person! I cried a little with your post, thinking about the pain you'd suffered and about my own pains and losses. You were able to see the pain in a way so... sublime!! I couldn't imagine that such a marvellous writer as you are had faced so much pain!
    I never lost a beloved one in a violent way, and I just can't imagine how hard it must be this experience. But somehow I already lose very beloved people, and sometimes I spend my days feeling a huge blue, a huge weight in my soul. And I must learn to see the life in a more lightness way. I'm reading your The Fall of Neskaya, a very good book! Epic adventure in Darkover, great!
    And I want hug you too!

  9. Well said and heart felt, too.

    The death of my baby siser, Janette, to leukemia at the age of 2 years when I was 13 helped me to understand that death can happen to anyone for no reason what so ever. While I grieved her death, I also got to watch my parents look for someone to blame.

    My mom decided that there could not be a God and she gave up on finding a faith community which I believe contributed greatly to her lonliness and bitterness towards all. It made for a sad life and made it difficult for her remaining 3 sons, too.

    My dad decided that the doctors failed his daughter and that led to him not seeking help when ill and setting a terrible example for my even younger baby brother.

    Looking back 50+ years, the suffering my parents endured all their lives because of thier reaction to their baby girl's death seemed greater to me, than the pain of the loss of my sister.

    Janette had a wonderful (though short) life, filled with uncondistional love and affection. She smiled and laughed alot. She didn't seem to suffer very much. Thankfully, they did stay together. .. beathing the odds on that score. They did love each other very much and seeing that was a gift to us.

    Sadly, my parents closed a large part of their hearts to their other chidren over the fear of the pain they might suffer should they lose another child.

    Life is a gamble. I say we need to love unconditionally as long as we can. Thanks Deborah for helping me to relive my sister's death and to get clearer how we can "Choose Life" or not.

    You message, Deborah, helps to remind me that I need to do more to make sure those in our community who suffer such losses know they are loved and valued and needed, even in their anguish and tears.