The Worst Has Happened: Life After the Death of My Children
Living Without the Girls
People ask me how I can go on. I've learned that all you can do is put one foot in front of the other -- sometimes quite literally. Several days a week my running group shows up at my door before dawn to take me on a six-mile run. We have done it for years and even though I don't always want to go anymore, I join them because it's what I did before the accident. We're back by 6:15 a.m., which used to be great because then I could make breakfast for the girls and pack their lunch. Now I come back to a silent, empty house. But at least it forces me to start the day. If I didn't get up to run I would have no reason to get out of bed.
I am grateful every day for my friends and family, who have gotten me through the worst. They brought us dinner every single night for a full year. I used to love to cook, especially with the girls. I can still hear Alyson bounding into the kitchen, saying, "Yummy, Mommy! What smells so good?" The memory was so strong that after the accident I stopped cooking completely. Maybe someday I'll be able to try again.
When I was raising three kids, my house was always filled with noise and excitement. I sometimes thought all I wanted was a moment of silence. Now the silence tortures me.
Time seemed to stop for me after the girls died, but at the first anniversary I realized that other people's lives had started to go on again. I knew mine had to, as well. It's been hard. I don't like to meet new people now because there's too much to explain and somebody always starts to cry for me. And whenever I go out, I worry that people are staring. When the girls were here Warren and I had a special evening out each weekend with our friends, and to regain some slice of normalcy, we have started doing that again. But when we're at a restaurant on a Saturday night, I think people are whispering, wondering how I can be having fun, asking, "How can she be all dressed up?" as if I've forgotten the girls. They can't imagine how I feel a couple of hours later when we get back home and there's no babysitter to pay. They don't see me the days I'm in my pajamas, unable to move.
Parenting is not something you can ever let go of, even if your children are gone. Warren and I still celebrate the girls' birthdays, just as we always did. Family, friends, presents, cake -- the only things missing are Emma, Alyson, and Katie. We write messages to the guest of honor on balloons and release them into the air, hoping they get to her in heaven.
I often worry that my friends and family don't want to share their problems with me now, that they don't feel like the issues they're facing are significant compared to what I've been through. But everyone's problems are important and I want to be able to help my loved ones the way they've helped me. Who knows, maybe I already have. If I can keep getting out of bed each day after the very worst has happened, maybe that helps them realize they can, too. Maybe my story helps them appreciate what they've got.
But even for me, keeping perspective isn't easy. I still argue with Warren or get upset about some stupid little thing. I wonder if any of us can really appreciate what we have when we have it. I know I didn't. Before the accident I'd look around my house and wish we could move someplace bigger. I'd worry about money and think about all the things I wanted my girls to have. It shouldn't have taken a tragedy like this to get me to finally understand: Things don't matter. They can be replaced. But before the girls died, I didn't realize just how much I could really lose.
One thing that has helped restore my faith has been the kindness of strangers. After the accident we received thousands of letters of sympathy from people all over the country. I could imagine reading about a tragedy like this and feeling terrible. But to actually take the next step and find an address and send kind words or a gift? I think that's amazing.
The outpouring of support inspired us to set up the Hance Family Foundation to honor the memory of Emma, Alyson, and Katie. We began community programs, mostly aimed at helping young girls gain self-esteem. We have a family fun day in the spring to raise money, and this year 1,600 people of all ages participated in fun runs and hundreds more came to the local park for games and an auction. It's wonderful to hear the laughter and joy -- even though three children who would really love the day are missing. Sometimes it hurts to see other children benefiting because my children have died, but I'm proud of the foundation and what it offers.
After the accident so many people suggested that Warren and I consider having another child. They said having a baby was what the girls would want and it would give us a future. At the time it wasn't something I could really take in. Anyway, when Katie was born, I'd had my tubes tied. But after listening to my friends, I slowly began to investigate in vitro fertilization. We had just paid for three funerals and a beautiful burial plot, so I didn't know how we could afford the expensive procedure. And we'd been hit with another shock: The relatives of two of the people who died in the SUV were bringing a lawsuit against Warren. The car Diane drove was my minivan, which was registered in Warren's name. By some horrible irony, Warren could be taken to court. While everything that mattered was already gone, everything that remained could still be taken.
A friend of a friend worked for a fertility doctor in Manhattan and had heard about my situation. The doctor contacted me and offered to do the procedure. Everyone in his office was incredibly kind. I did two rounds of drug injections and egg retrieval, which gave me something hopeful to do every day. The eggs were fertilized and the resulting embryos frozen, though I didn't really plan to use them. Even though I'd gone through the process, I wasn't in a place where I could seriously think about having another child. I'd taken my friends' advice and followed through on the doctor's generous offer as if in a trance. It was just something to do, a way to keep my mind occupied.
Then a few months ago Warren and I drove back to the doctor's office. I'd had a dream that I was standing in heaven and I could see Emma, Alyson, and Katie through these big gates. God would not let me inside the gates. He said that I had been given a gift from that doctor and I had to use his gift before I could be with my babies. So, almost in a daze, I told the doctor I wanted to try to get pregnant, never expecting it to work.
I got pregnant the very first time.
I want to be excited, but I know how random life can be, and how unfair. However much we try to protect our children, the worst can happen.
At the funeral, Warren spoke, and he said, "Love your children, cherish your children, kiss your children, and don't ever forget." Every day all I want is to be reunited with my girls again in heaven. But Emma, Alyson, and Katie have other plans for me right now.
Our baby is due in the fall.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2011.