The Worst Has Happened: Life After the Death of My Children
How It Happened
My life changed so dramatically on July 26, 2009, that I sometimes wonder if I'm still the same person. I used to hear stories of awful tragedies and think of all the reasons it could never happen to me. I found out that the unthinkable can happen to any of us.
On that Sunday afternoon Diane Schuler drove a minivan the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway in New York and slammed headfirst into an oncoming SUV. Eight people died in the collision, including three little girls who were sitting in the minivan's backseat.
I am the mother of those beautiful girls: Emma, Alyson, and Katie, ages 8, 7, and 5.
The girls had gone off for a weekend camping trip with their aunt Diane, uncle Danny, and cousins Bryan and Erin, ages 5 and 2. They had been excited about this annual event, and they checked in with us many times over the weekend to tell us how much fun they were having. I missed them but I felt confident that they were safe, since my husband, Warren, and I had sent them away with my sister-in-law, the most responsible person I knew. Then came the conversation that I replay in my head a dozen times a day.
On the drive back home, Emma, our oldest, called us from the car and said, "Something is wrong with Aunt Diane." I heard other children crying in the background and then the phone cut out. Warren called back immediately and when he spoke to his sister, she didn't sound right. He told her not to drive -- to pull over right away. We thought she was having a stroke. He got Emma on the phone to describe exactly where they were. I stayed home and called 911; Warren raced off to try to find them.
But by then it was too late. Instead of stopping, Diane drove the wrong way down an exit ramp, continued along the highway and hit the SUV. My three kids, Diane and her daughter, Erin, 2, were all killed. The three men in the SUV also died. Only my nephew Bryan, now 7, survived the crash.
When something this terrible happens, your brain simply can't process it -- or at least mine couldn't. For weeks after the accident I'd wake up thinking it was that Sunday again and that the girls were heading home. And every day my husband or one of my friends would have to tell me the awful news all over again.
For the first month friends stayed at my house 24 hours a day -- sleeping on the couch or sitting outside our bedroom door. It wasn't just to keep me company. I was so dazed with grief that I'd wander out of my room or out of the house at all hours. I don't know what I was doing -- searching for the girls? My friends and family would gently steer me back where I belonged. They were amazing, helping with everything, including dealing with all the phone calls from Oprah and Dr. Phil and other talk shows. News helicopters were circling over my house and police had to rope off our street since so many reporters had gathered. But I didn't talk to anyone. I couldn't.
Since the accident I've spoken to other moms who've lost a child, and they usually say that they needed to stay strong for the children they still have. I didn't even have that. All I could think about was Emma, Alyson, and Katie, my three beautiful girls, and all the wonderful things they'd never do, never see.
The girls were very different, but they had an incredible bond. Emma was a good student and was into sports, everything from gymnastics to basketball. She enjoyed performing onstage, but the role she took most seriously was being a big sister. Alyson loved a good time and wanted to be sure everyone was included in it -- which they always were, since her smile and laugh were contagious. And Katie, the baby, was all about the hugs and kisses, which she gave freely and asked for often. And she idolized her older sisters. My girls were more than just siblings. They were best friends.
We're family, so we buried the girls next to Diane and Erin. But I had no idea at the funeral what we would find out later. Toxicology reports showed that Diane had a blood alcohol level double the legal limit, along with evidence she'd been smoking marijuana. Warren and I were stunned.
People always ask how I feel about Diane. You can't imagine how complex that question is. How does a person go from being like a sister to me -- adored by my girls and cherished by my husband -- to being the one who ruined our lives? How could this person I trusted completely have done something so unthinkable that I couldn't -- and still can't -- wrap my head around it? I pray every day that there is another explanation. To not have any answers is torture. I don't know how to describe that pain.
When something like this happens, you want to be able to hate someone. When I see the misery in Warren's eyes, I know what he's thinking. It was his sister who did this, his sister who destroyed our lives. I can't blame him for her actions. And since Diane's not here, I can't take out my anger, my confusion, or my heartache on her. There's no one left to hate. And anyway, we both loved her very much.
Warren and I have struggled with our grief, and the differences in how we grieve, from the first day. He copes by staying busy and trying not to think about it. I'm the opposite: I need to talk. We are different people, but we're both broken. I need someone to help me to take the pain away. But how can Warren do that for me when he is in the same place, struggling with his own pain? When I look to him for strength, all I see is heartache.
People are always quoting the statistics on how few marriages survive the death of a child. When you factor in our extraordinary circumstances, you really begin to wonder how Warren and I can hold on. But I love him very much -- that part hasn't changed. For that reason, and for the love of my daughters and the family that I cherished, I am holding on to my husband and to the idea that we can survive this. But I have to admit that it's not easy to do.
The split in our extended family makes it even harder. Warren and I have remained private until now, but Diane's husband, Danny, went public to defend her reputation and to search for another explanation for what happened to her. As I write this, I know that a television special made with his permission is about to air on HBO. I can't imagine what it will say. I hope there are answers to all our questions, but I don't know if I'll even be able to watch it. The film is called There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. The fact that they used my daughter Emma's last words as a title only makes it that much more painful.
I miss my niece, Erin. And my godson, Bryan, the only survivor -- I love him and think of him every day. I am hoping I get strong enough to have a relationship with him again. He was in the car, the last person to see and hear my girls. I have so many questions, too many for a little boy to answer. I have to be able to trust myself around him and right now I don't. I want to reach out and hug him and at the same time try to shake answers out of him, answers he doesn't have. So for now, I stay away.
After the accident, desperate for answers, I visited many priests and asked why all my girls were taken. "They needed to be together," I was told over and over again. That just made me angrier. Didn't the girls need to be together here on earth with Warren and me? For my whole life I always went to church. But after this tragedy I stopped going. How could I believe that God had been listening to my prayers?