When it was revealed yesterday that 8-year-old Martin Richard was one of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, Aren Almon Kok felt an immediate, sickening tightness in her gut. She’s never met the Richard family and lives nearly two thousand miles away.
But she may understand more than most of us what Martin Richard’s father is likely going through right now while his wife and daughter remain severely injured following the attack.
“It forced images back into my mind of that day. It brought back how I had to look for her. How I couldn’t find her. Just that utter chaos,” she says.
Kok’s daughter, Baylee Almon, was one of 168 people killed 18 years ago this Friday, April 19, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The explosion happened at 9:02 am and the blast was so massive it sheared the entire north side of the building.
Kok had just dropped her daughter off at the America’s Kids daycare center. Of the 21 children in the center, only six survived. Baylee celebrated her first birthday just the day before.
Kok has spent nearly two decades living without her daughter – imagining what Baylee’s first day of Kindergarten would have been like, wondering where she might have gone to college. And this Thursday, like every birthday for the last 18 years, Kok will celebrate Baylee’s birthday by buying a cake.
“My life has never gone back to the way it was and I don’t think it will for that family in Boston either,” Ms. Kok warned. “I am constantly looking around. I am always aware of my surroundings. I look for exits. I always run scenarios in my mind: ‘What would I do if…How would I get my family out when…’ I know it’s a coping mechanism, but it’s the way it is.”
Kok had been a single mom when Baylee was killed. She married Stan Kok two years after the Oklahoma City bombing and is now the mother of a 12-year-old son and a 15-year-year old daughter. The challenge has been keeping Baylee’s memory alive for siblings who never got the chance to meet.
“My children have grown up knowing about Baylee. She’s part of our family. They think of her as a sister. We have pictures of her around the house and I’ve kept her clothes, books, and toys. I gave her car seat away once and it just didn’t feel right; I had to ask for it back.”
And of course, in Boston, it wasn't just Martin Richard's dad who lost a child. Krystle Campbell, just 29, of Medford, Mass., and Lu Lingzi, a Chinese-born graduate student also in her 20s, were taken far too soon from their families. Even the timing of the Boston bombing can make an already painful memory much worse for some survivors of a national tragedy. Today marks the six-year anniversary of the shooting at Virginia Tech, which took the lives of 32 people. Among them were Peter Read’s daughter, Mary, who was a freshman at the school.
“You never get over it. You don’t move on,” he tells Parenting. “What any parent does in this situation is just make a choice to go forward.”
But even the act of simply willing oneself to keep going can be a long road with emotional pitfalls, each steeper than the last, says Fredda Wasserman, clinical director of adult programs and education at the grief center Our House.
"Feelings of confusion, inability to concentrate, disturbances in eating and sleeping are to be expected," she writes in an email to Parenting.com. "Sudden grief outbursts may erupt just when the parent seemed to be 'doing better.' At times, there will be identifable triggers and at other times, feelings will come from out of the blue. It might be a song, a fragrance, or a story in the newspaper. It might be a signficant date on the calendar. It might be hearing a child in the mall cry 'Mommy' and feeling certain it is their child's voice."
It is a lifelong trauma, one that a parent never fully recovers from, says Donna Schuurman, executive director of the Dougy Center for grieving children and families.
“Grief never ends,” she tells Parenting.com. “You will always miss that child. You’re always on a certain level re-experiencing everything they haven’t gotten to experience, and everything you haven’t gotten to experience with them.”
Many parents who have had a child die ultimately feel compelled to find ways to keep that child’s memory alive through taking some course of action, says Schuurman, whether through setting up a memorial fund in the child’s name or, in the case of several parents who lost children at last year’s horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, pushing for tighter gun control legislation.
“One of the things that’s so compelling for them is, ‘I don’t want my child to have died in vain’,” she says. “Whether it's an illness or a suicide or a mass shooting, whatever happened, they don’t want other families to experience what they experienced.”
Indeed, parents who lose children in a national tragedy face a special set of challenges, says Schuurman, who spent several hours with five of the Newtown families that lost children.
Newtown parents have been flooded with mail, gifts and advice – not all of it in good faith, says Schuurman.
“They get crank stuff, they get letters that say ‘this was God’s will’,” she says. “If your child dies in a car crash, your circle of friends is there for you. When it’s so public these families get barraged.”
The urgency and the notoriety does ultimately fade, however. Unfortunately for those left behind, the grief does not.
“It doesn’t get better,” says Kok of Oklahoma City. “After a couple of years, the good days increase and the bad days are fewer, but that doesn’t make it any easier. My heart still breaks and it’s been 18 years.”