• U.S.


6 minute read
Susan Cohen

More than 7 1/2 years ago, my only child, my daughter Theo, was murdered by the terrorists who blew up Pan Am Flight 103. So it is with a very personal and special pain that I have watched the events following that other explosion in the sky, TWA Flight 800. In particular I suffer over what the families are going through and will go through, all of which will be made worse by the way America tries to pretend there’s no such thing as tragedy. The great grief scam has begun again.

Flashback to Dec. 21, 1988. I was crawling along the corridor floor of the motel room where Pan Am had placed me after my husband and I had spent hours at J.F.K. We’d been forced to go to the airport because the Pan Am phone lines were busy all day, and the only news we were getting was from TV. By the time I was in the motel it was late at night, and I had learned the truth. My charming, vibrant daughter, my Theo who sang like an angel and had a golden future, was dead at age 20. Had a gun been handy I might very well have shot myself. Instead there was nothing to do but cry and scream and crawl along the floor.

The so-called grief-therapy expert assigned to me went into his act. According to him, I had good memories to comfort me and could look to the future with hope. He started barking questions at me about Theo. What year in school was she? What were her hobbies? I told him to leave me alone. My grief was the grief of Greek tragedy, his response the verbal junk food of psychobabble. My husband, sunk in his own grief, told the “expert” to leave. He refused. My husband had to threaten to grab him by the neck and throw him out.

In the nightmare world that would now be mine forever I was learning fast that victims are pursued by many kinds of ambulance chasers, and they don’t all have law degrees. Put the media too on the list of those who would denigrate tragedy by treating it as a curable disease. Good coming out of evil is always a popular angle on a story. If nothing else, victims can always be ennobled by tragedy, finding a new meaning in life, growing and changing for the better. Cheer up, America! No matter how horrible things seem, the future is always bright and tragedies are mere glitches on the road to happiness. On. Dec. 21, 1988, I found out what a lie that is. My only child is dead, and for me grief is constant and permanent.

The next day, after I got the news that Theo was dead, I went home and found out that the grief-book industry was rolling strong. Grief books are profitable, I’m told, right up there with How to Make Dieting Easy and Ten Ways to Improve Your Self Image if You’ve Just Lost Your Job. I was given religious books about souls meeting in heaven, books that told me how best to understand the grief process.

The very phrase “grief process” tells it all. Bland, neutral words that have nothing to do with my personal hell. The grief therapists I encountered at first were no better than the books. There was the rabbit-eyed, frightened individual who would cower behind his desk when I was in his office and who told me to adopt a child. I couldn’t even look at children then. There was the tough therapist who told me to get back into the flow of life quickly and encouraged me to get on a plane well before I was ready. My trip to the airport left me a crumpled wreck in the parking lot. There was the grief-group therapist who told me she was worried about my anger, that I should open my heart. Well, my heart was open, all right. It was an open, bleeding wound. I didn’t need cliches. Most of all, I didn’t need anyone telling me there was something wrong with the enormous rage I was feeling. My daughter dies in a mass murder, and I’m not supposed to feel anger? I am a skeptic by inclination, a fighter by nature, and it was beginning to dawn on me that there were a lot of people making a lot of money promoting denial and passivity. Of all the emotions I have felt since Theo’s murder, anger is the best. Rage gives me energy. Rage makes me strong.

I tried victims’ organizations next. Some members of Parents of Murdered Children knew how to listen and did not lie to me, but I couldn’t take the platitudes of their newsletters. The Compassionate Friends’ saccharin was not for me. All this searching around did finally get me to an excellent grief therapist. I’m afraid she may be one in a million.

O.K., so here I am today. Aren’t things at least a little better? The passage of time has helped. I get up every day, go places, meet people. I live my diminished life. But grief is always there. I am in pain all the time. Theo wanted to be an actress and singer. We shared a love of music. We shared a love of plays. Music is gone from my life now, and I can’t walk into a theater. I go out of my way not to have to pass one. Call it living defensively, this always being prepared for the unexpected reminder, always being on guard against the shock that creates panic, this eternal vigilance against the innocent remark that will bring on depression.

Like a child going through nightly rituals to ward off fear of the dark, I too must be especially careful at bedtime. My first line of resistance against night is checking to see that my favorite books are by my bed. Step 2 is loading a tape into the vcr, something safe I’ve seen many times. I want no surprises. First, I read. Then I turn on a P.G. Wodehouse audiotape. I close my eyes. If Wodehouse doesn’t work, nothing will, and it will be a long, sleepless night, with a movie perhaps providing a little relief. If I fall asleep, I dream. Catastrophic dreams. Sad dreams. Dreams of searching for Theo. The worst dreams are when I find her and feel happy. I can’t stay asleep forever. I wake up, and the daytime suffering begins.

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