Life after death

May 19, 2004, midnight | By Sherri Geng | 16 years, 8 months ago

Blazers find strength after the loss of a parent

Every year around May 19th, junior Paul Wong buys flowers.

Then, he and his mother make the trip up Georgia Avenue, driving until they see the gold fence and the large, green stretch of land enclosed within. They park the car along the street, walk a few minutes out on the road and then silently cross onto the grassy grounds; flowers in hand, feet brushing softly against the earth.

Wong's destination is in the back. As he approaches, he spots the bronze plaque that marks the spot where he has come each year, for as long as he can remember. Then, he unwraps the flowers and carefully lays them down—upon the bronze grave marked for his father, "Tso Sang Wong."

Within the "Gate of Heaven" burial grounds in Silver Spring, Wong and his mother join hands in front of his father's grave and in unison bow nine times. Then a moment of silence ensues, where Wong speaks to his father in his head, small talk as if he were not really gone at all. But, when Wong goes home, he will face the reality: that his father is indeed gone, and he has been for almost thirteen years.

In the U.S., 1.2 million children will experience the death of a parent before age 15, and one in twenty will lose a parent by the end of high school, according to Project on Death in America and the 1990 U.S. Bureau of the Census. These children will likely experience the devastating effects of an emotional and psychological drain that can often linger for up to two years after the loss, according to a Harvard University study. For Blazers left behind in the wake of their parents' deaths, the result is an aching void that has been neither simple to accept nor easy to fill.

"I couldn't even cry"

According to MCPS Psychologist Brenda Barbour, the initial reaction that accompanies the sudden death of a parent is often shock, a blanketing numbness in which the child denies that anything happened. Then, a general anger surfaces, followed by a bargaining process: "If I do this it'll go away; it'll be okay," explains Barbour. Near the end, the child sinks into a period of depression or despair, before reaching the stage of acceptance where he or she realizes, "This is really happening. He's not coming back." These five stages comprise the Kübler-Ross model of "the grief cycle," named after psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross who published her groundbreaking work, On Death and Dying, outlining this cycle in 1969.

Junior Jessica Yen, who lost her father to a stroke when she was in fifth grade, plunged quickly into the denial process while still struggling to overcome the initial shock. "The body was taken away, which was really surreal to me," she recalls. "I just kept on thinking it was a nightmare. I felt like I was watching my life happen from a TV show... It wasn't real to me."

The night of her father's death, Yen got no sleep; she and the rest of the family "were just lying in bed and holding each other," each trying to come to terms with the sudden loss. Yen was stunned for a week.

"At the funeral, I was still shocked. I couldn't even cry, I was so shocked. I was still looking at my father's body and just hoping that by some miracle he would just take a breath," she says, "that his chest would start moving, and his heart would start pumping again." It was not until her brother delivered the eulogy when Yen finally realized: "My father's dead…and he can't come back."

Sophomore Hannah Thresher's denial period lasted over a month; when Thresher's mother suddenly disappeared in May 2000, she immediately spiraled into shock. After dog searches, dive searches and extensive interviews with friends and family, police still had no lead on where Thresher's mother was.

This lack of closure made it difficult for Thresher to fully comprehend the reality of her mother's disappearance, and only when her aunt brought home a newspaper clipping did Thresher suddenly realize the truth. The last line of the article read, "She left behind two children, Hannah and Sam," and Thresher remembers vividly how "the fact that this reporter had said ‘she left behind' was some revelation." She could not stop crying for three days. "I'd go and find every picture of her that I could and just sit and cry for hours on end."

Later, when a new detective was assigned to her mother's case, he declared it a suspected homicide, sending Thresher into a second violent emotional breakdown. "It was too definite," she says. "Even though I wanted that closure, it was too much at the time."

Unlike Thresher, sophomore Vanessa Penney's realization of her father's death came as an immediate, overwhelming and heartbreaking crash into finality. Penney's father was hit by a car on his bike on Sligo Creek Parkway on Jan. 10, 2002; he died on impact. Penney, who was home sick that morning, was the last to see him alive.

"It was a big, big slap in the face," Penney recalls. "The first week after he died, I was so taken out of everything; I sat up in my mom's room and drank soda and watched TV and read books."

Penney found dealing with other people overwhelming and kept to herself among the crowds of people surrounding her who hoped to help. "I couldn't talk to anyone. There were a million people over at my house, and I just couldn't talk to any of them," she says bleakly. "I couldn't deal with being around people, because it was really tough for me to just be around myself."

Penney's grief also came with a powerful fury at fate for not intervening to spare her father his life. For Penney, unlike for Yen or Thresher, the loss of her father was avoidable. "It was an accident! It was preventable!" she explains angrily. "It wasn't like he had cancer, and he was going to die. He just left one morning and never came back."

"Maybe he'll be there"

For many children, a haunting effect of the aftermath of death is the parent who "never came back" who suddenly begins reappearing in dreams, nightmares, empty rooms and phantom memories. Penney had recurring nightmares of her father's death where she would play out his accident and wake up screaming.

Every year on the night her mother disappeared, Thresher wakes automatically between 4:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., the hours between which her mother was suspected to have been murdered.

But the pain from Thresher's loss is marginally reduced by the times she has felt her mother's presence in a room. "I feel like she's with me, and it's sort of creepy but I know she's only there because she loves me and wants me to be happy," she explains.

However, Yen's memory of her father, watching TV with his legs tucked neatly underneath him, haunted her for two years in a different way. "I would close my eyes and think, maybe he'll be there. But when I opened my eyes, he wasn't," she says.

Other reminders around the Yen house also elicited both pain and comfort. Slightly embarrassed, Yen admits that a year after her father's death, she found she could not remember his face without a picture.

Through simple reminders like pictures, mourners are often transported back to bittersweet times where they shared a laugh, a conversation, some interaction with their parents.

Thresher, for example, finds it difficult to watch Seinfeld because it was her mother's favorite show. "She laughed so hard," Thresher remembers. "Times when she laughed are when I miss her the most. Things that I know she'd think were funny—that's what I miss the most. She was such a bright person, and her laugh was infectious."

To this day, Thresher's mother's case is still unsolved. "It hasn't been put away on the books, but there's so little evidence that [detectives] can't go anywhere from here," she explains. At the urging of her father about a year and a half ago, Thresher's mother was officially declared dead.

Life after death

Gradually, Thresher has learned to channel her grief through photography, art and writing. But, she says, the emotional outlets sometimes fail to ease the pain. "It comes and goes; it's hard to say whether one day I'll be upset or not," she says. "I can't tell."

To cope with her pent-up anger, Penney turned to poetry. "I was your typical depressed poet kind of person; I wrote a lot of poetry and songs, and I used to make up stuff on the piano," she says.

Barbour says that many students will turn to school at the bleakest moments in their grief. Penney, for instance, threw herself into her schoolwork after her father's death and came home that quarter with straight A's. She confesses that while she was never good about doing her schoolwork, "being with the books took my mind off of everything that had happened."

Immediately after her mother's disappearance, Thresher sought support in family and friends. She explains that what helps the most is often what people do the least: listen. "Saying ‘I know how you feel'… well, you might have similar feelings, but you don't know how I feel," she explains. "It's better to just listen."

With the loss of her mother, Thresher also learned to treasure the family that she had left. "I have become more respectful of life," she says. "At this point, I cherish my brother and my father more than anything else in the world."

"I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye"

For Penney, charting the waters to acceptance has been difficult. She was overwhelmed by memories, and even after a full year, she felt unable to recover. "It was the first year he'd been gone; and I'd gone through the motions, but he wasn't there," she says. "I'd dealt with it, but I didn't really feel any better; I still felt like crap."

She was constantly plagued by regret, especially when confronted by the fact that her father would not see her develop into maturity and eventually adulthood. Amid the flood of regrets was guilt and blame. "I used to think it was my fault," Penney recalls. She is also constantly haunted, even now, by the times that she and her father argued. "I was always really upset for all the bad things that had passed between us; I was so mad that I had ever let myself do that."

Yen, like Penney, is also haunted by guilt; she wonders, if she had come home earlier, would she have been able to save her father's life? Even more, however, she was unprepared for the sudden loss. "I was angry at myself, angry at something, because I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye," she says.

Yen also had to deal with the practical issues that lingered on after her father's death—finances, taxes, finding rides to school—the broken aftermath of a storm that had ripped through her life and left her feeling inescapably alone. "The entire time, it was almost like I was reliving his death," she admits.

But often the most painful reality to swallow, says Thresher, is that her mother would not be her in her future. Like most teenage girls, Thresher dreams of her prom and her wedding, but she knows that unlike for other girls, her mother is "never going to be there to do the things that I want her to do, and that's the hardest part of this whole thing," says Thresher.

For Penney, acceptance has slowly replaced the endless wondering. "Especially right afterwards, I always would think, ‘What would he be doing today, what would he be doing tomorrow?'" she says. "But recently, I've come to terms with the fact that for him, there is no tomorrow."

Gone but not forgotten

It has been six years since Yen has last spoken with her father, five since the last images of his face have faded from her mind; three since she could walk into his room without breaking down and two since she has last visited his grave. "But just because I may not be right there at the cemetery doesn't mean I don't think about him," she says. "I'm never going to forget him."

Thresher, too, has accepted that her mother may never return. In her mother's honor, she and her family planted a tree in Vermont symbolic of growth and permanence: like the tree, her mother's memory would be there forever.

As a token of love, the Thresher family has also put in a bench on Sligo Creek Parkway between Holy Cross and Colesville Road. The plaque on it reads, "In memory of Alison Thresher. Love, Hannah and Sam."

When she seeks comfort, Thresher often finds herself at the bench to "find a little prayer, sort of saying, ‘I love you, Mom,'" she says. "Every time I'm writing, and I need some inspiration, I say in my head, ‘Come on, Mom, give me something here.' It helps me connect with her on a different level."

Wong visits his father's grave to honor his father's memory. "It's just something we do. I don't try and think about it too much," he says. "[It's about] honoring him and making sure that we remember what he did."

Others find it harder to visit their lost ones, and the cemetery becomes a place of bittersweet comfort but also suppressed regret and longing. "Whenever I go to the cemetery, I always feel mixed emotions," says Penney.

For Penney, the days that are the hardest are the days of remembrance, when she can feel the impact of her father's death so keenly that it is difficult for her to get up or function. "It's those days where I wake up, and it really feels like something is wrong; something is definitely out of place. And then it hits me: well, my dad's not here anymore. It just sticks in my mind all day, and I just really can't deal with anything else," she says.

When Penney does get up, however, she will see the dried white roses—her father's favorite flower—that always sit on her dresser, a tribute to her father's memory and an everyday reminder of who he was. And, she will remember him as she loved him, but she will also accept that he is gone: gone, she knows, but never forgotten.

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Sherri Geng. Sherri Geng is a senior in the Magnet and SUPER excited for what promises to be another excellent year of Silver Chips! She has insane love for chocolate, sleep, funny people, and her big fat lovable dog Teddy, who is the smartest and most perfect … More »

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