For the last 781 days, I have been dealing with a family tragedy that most families will never have to deal with. On March 12, 2015, my cousin Cris was brutally murdered at her home in North Carolina. If this was not bad enough, her husband JT and her unborn baby Skylar were also murdered. Brutally murdered. I will never forget getting the call that she had not been heard from in a few days. I honestly thought maybe they went camping or hiking in the mountains and maybe had an accident and would be found. I never in a million years thought their neighbor had gone to their house and murdered them and done despicable things to their bodies in order to conceal his crime and erase their physical existence completely. Just 5 days ago, their murderer was sentenced to 59 years in prison for his crimes. I don’t believe the punishment fits the crime, but that is another article. In this article, I am focusing on what it has been like to be a parent while also dealing with such an enormous tragedy that can consume your life and family if you allow it.
Children are naturally curious beings. They pick up on a lot more than you could ever think they do. It is hard for a parent, much less a mother, to be able to express emotion and NOT have a child immediately pick up on it. I have always taught my children that expressing emotion is healthy. Cry, scream, laugh, punch a pillow…It is ok. It is normal. Do not hold those emotions in because they will build up like an explosive ready to blow up. I was in no way scared to show emotion in front of my 3 girls ages 15, 9 and 4, at the time of the murder. I just did not want to scare them in any way. Thankfully, I was made aware of the murder early on a Monday morning. This was helpful being that my girls went to school all day that week and I was able to do what was needed to do on my end while they were away. The time would come, though, that I would have to explain to them (not in detail) that my cousin Cristie had been murdered. My girls knew Cris well and since she owned a catering company that catered major movie sets, she would bring them on the set of movies like Planet of the Apes and Focus to visit and eat. They also knew how close Cris and I were growing up. Cris and I were only 2 years apart in age. We wreaked havoc at family functions and holidays and my girls saw all the pictures of when Cris and I would do our hair big (it was the 80’s) and put on some crazy outfit and dance around the house. Movies like Cry-Baby, Teen Witch, and Dirty Dancing were our favorite movies to watch growing up and I introduced these to my girls a long time ago. I know that telling them what happened would be extremely difficult and I would need to stay “somewhat” strong for them (and myself). My girls took the news better than I expected. I could tell they were more worried about me than they were anything else. I remember there was a lot of “being quiet for mommy” moments which I appreciate to this day.
A few months later, instead of planning a baby shower, my family was now planning a memorial. Unfortunately, because we did not have any remains, her memorial consisted of a big beautiful picture framed in the center of an altar with her favorite boots and flowers and other items laid out. It was a beautiful memorial and we all wore yellow (her favorite color) with sunflowers in our hair (her favorite flower). About halfway through the service, my 4-year-old began looking around asking “where is Cristie?” she did not understand. My 9 year old seemed to not take an eye off of me for even one moment so I did my best to give her a smile when I could to assure her that I was ok. I would be ok. I think that was the most important thing I could do for my girls. Just let them know that I am sad and maybe angry but I am and will be ok.
It has been a long 2 years since they were killed. It is like being on a roller coaster that goes up and I become very emotional because I see stories of her on TV or in magazines or the roller coaster would go down and be stable for a while. People go on with life and time continues marching on. Months would go by with no mention of it, no updates, nothing. It almost seemed like life was going back to normal. But something would happen regarding the trial of the murderer and I would go on high alert again. All throughout, I would try to separate myself from the girls because I would not want to scare them at all. They knew I was sad, they knew that being sad was healthy and they knew I would be ok.
Unfortunately, in today’s world of social media, it was not hard for my older girls to come across stories of the murders online. Others that go to school with my girls would ask them questions also. Both schools had an amazing support system that consisted of counselors familiar with what happened and they would check on my girls often. I still appreciate that to this day. When they say ‘it takes a village” they are right. My girls had to hear and read things no children should ever read, let alone about a family member. But open communication was the key. Ask questions and know when to believe something and when to ignore something. And always know, Mommy will be ok.
There is no “right way” to parent while also going through a tragedy. No one can prepare you for how to be a good mother while also grieving a brutal killing of a family member. That is just not something in any handbook. I can only pray other parents never have to learn how to do this the way I have. But, unfortunately, I know that some will. And if you are a parent who has experienced any tragedy while also being a parent please know, you are doing fine. You will be ok. Your kids will be ok. Communicate and support each other fully. Allow the feelings.
I wish I could have met little baby Skylar. I imagine she would have blonde hair and big blue eyes and wear dresses with boots. I know Cris and JT would have been great parents. I would have been “Aunt Aims” and my girls would have taught her all the fun hiding spots at my mom’s house for Easter or hidden in the closet with her at my grandmothers when they play hide-n-go seek. I can almost hear the laughter.
Now, though, they are all angels. Watching us. Making sure we all have enough sunflowers to cheer us up.
In memory of JT, Cristie and Skylar Codd