The Awkward Smile of Grief
I haven’t blogged in a few years. One of the main reasons I stopped was so that nothing I said could possibly negatively impact the murder trial surrounding my son’s death. On Thursday April 13, 2017, this changed – Joaquin Rams was finally convicted of the capital murder of my son Prince. Rams will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Just a reminder: This blog is not about Rams. This blog is about community, social justice, and the drive to fix the broken justice system that failed my son.
I wrote the following essay before my son’s murderer was convicted. One of the things I strive to do with my writing is let folks know that they are not alone. I am happy to finally be able to share it with you. It isn’t easy telling people for the first time a story that is possibly one of the worst they have ever heard. Many of us are often caught in public, unable to respond, to invasive questions by complete strangers. This can be something seemingly innocent like:
1. “Do you and your husband want children?”
What if you and your husband can’t have children? Is your fertility really any of that person’s business?
2. “I am so sorry for your loss. This must be so hard. Do you need anything?”
Totally innocent question, but imagine trying to answer it when your current struggle is getting out of bed and putting on clothing.
3. “Is she your only child? Is she your first child?”
I get asked this on nearly a weekly basis. In fact, I was just asked this today while at the eye doctor. My blog post today talks about how I answer this question.
In the wake of my 15-month old son Prince’s murder, I smiled awkwardly whenever I was forced tell a stranger what happened to him. Though I knew smiling was not an appropriate response, and it certainly didn’t mirror how I felt inside, it was like an instinctive reflex that I couldn’t control.
I dreaded answering the casual question of how many children I had, when asked by a complete stranger. “Two, but only one is still alive,” I should have answered. More often, I either dodged the question, or lied and claimed only my daughter – completely ignoring the existence of my son.
Answering this question honestly forced me to tell the strangers standing across from me a story that was possibly the worst thing they had ever heard, and one that illustrated rock bottom of the human condition. Curiosity peaked, an honest answer was inevitably followed by the even more awkward request for the story behind why one of my children was no longer alive. It was gut wrenching to relive his murder every time, humiliating to cry in front of strangers, and draining to try and respond in a way that others found appropriate.
A couple months after my son was killed, one of the first times I got out of bed after the tragedy, I went to a crepe stand that my son and I visited nearly every weekend. Everyone who worked at the stand knew my son by his big smile, deep soulful eyes, and animated curls. This was the first time I went there without him, and his presence had been so big that it was obvious that he was absent.
“Where is your son?” It was an innocent question. It mortified me, and I panicked. What was I going to say to this woman? Crying in the middle of the street wasn’t an option. I wasn’t ready to tell her why he wasn’t there and why he would never come back. I fought back the tears that were threatening, and swallowed several times as though doing so would resolve the pain I felt in my chest. I considered pretending that I didn’t know what she was talking about, or pretending I wasn’t who she thought I was. At a loss for reasonable alternatives, I blurted out the truth.
As the words escaped my mouth, she burst out into tears. I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, emotionally naked and vulnerable. As she stared at me, painfully and intensely, I folded my arms over my chest. Shielding my fully clothed body, I desperately tried to feel less exposed.
Why had I been so afraid of telling her? And why was I having such a hard time knowing how to react to her sadness? “It’s ok,” I said, though of course it wasn’t at all. Still fighting back my own tears, I began to try desperately to stop hers.
As her breakdown continued, I continued tap dancing – I smiled, giggled, and tried to shift the conversation as though what I had just told her wasn’t a bit deal. “Why aren’t you crying?” She appeared stunned by my reaction. The unexpected judgement that was depicted in her face left me feeling ashamed. My cheeks grew red, and my hands started to shake. The heat welling up on my face so strong that I felt the urge to press my hands up against it. I wanted to stop this reaction, but was completely powerless.
‘What did this woman expect me to do’, I wondered. I wanted to vanish, I wanted my son back, and I wondered why I couldn’t have died with him. The truth was, I didn’t know how I was supposed to act after my life had just been shattered. Though it wasn’t my job to make this woman feel better about what had happened to me, I didn’t know this at the time.
I started lying to people when asked about my children. I pretended as though I had never had a son, attempting to save myself from reliving the death through the eyes of someone new. I was afraid that speaking of him would cause me to react in a way that was uncomfortable for others. Managing the emotions of strangers was more than I could bear. Denying Prince’s existence allowed temporary solace, but it also tore me apart from the inside out. I felt as though I was disrespecting his memory, and this was killing me.
Everyone had advice on how I should cope. Initially, I listened to everything. I grasped for advice because I was lost in sorrow. This constant, often conflicting, advice began to give me whip lash. Out of options, I had to decide to stop listening to it. I started standing in my truth, and decided that my son’s memory was more important to me than how the reality of his death made others feel.
Smiling, and giggling awkwardly, had been desperate attempts to diffuse the pain I saw in others. I was putting everyone else’s needs before my own. I don’t think I will ever feel safe crying public, but now that I had decided to stand in my truth, I had to also force myself to accept my son’s story as my new normal. This required me to trust that it would get easier over time. It also forced me to allow myself to be vulnerable in the process.
One recent fall morning, I was again faced with the decision to run from the pain or stand in my truth. Me and my daughter were shopping at the local farmer’s market in our neighborhood. “Is she your only child,” a woman asked, as my daughter grabbed apple samples. Just as I felt my cheeks start to get red, and the fear of a panic attack set in, I took a deep breath. “No, she isn’t.” I smiled, grabbed my daughter’s hand, and continued to walk. Though the moment was brief, I had included my son in our family that day. I felt like I had taken back the power required to claim my dead son. Prince was finally holding my other hand.
I prayed for you and your family that man would never see the light of day. God Bless you all ❤
<3 <3 Prince will forever be holding your other hand. <3<3
I was just thinking of you last week, thinking your case had to have gone to court by now and wondering if justice was ever served. I hope you’ve been able to somewhat put that part of it behind you so you can go on with your life knowing he won’t be able to hurt anyone else.
Best wishes to you and your daughter/family that you are able to put this part of the situation behind you and move on with a feeling of closure.
I am so relieved that Prince’s murderer will finally serve time! I hope that this will maybe bring you at least a small bit of closure. I can’t begin to imagine what you’ve gone through. Bless you and your family.
Thanks for updating this blog and letting everybody know the monster was found guilty. I cannot imagine all you have gone through. But you have and you’ve done it with strength and integrity! I do so hope for a fix of such a broken system and the only way this will ever happen is when those in power are held accountable for allowing such a tradegy to happen. You, your son, your daughter and entire family were victims to a very flawed, biased and unjust system. You are in my thoughts and I hope you find peace and happiness in your life.
Hera, thank you for speaking out once again. I read the Washington Post that morning and yelled out loud that a little crumb of justice had been done. Your writing about what it is like to be Prince’s mother is incredibly poignant. Thank you and blessings to you and your girl.
I think of you and your family often. Thank you for telling your story. I have learned alot about life and dangers that are hard to imagine. Normal people don’t think like these psychopaths and that’s a valuable lesson that you have taught. You helped many understand how to identify dangerous people.
I am very sorry for your loss and wish you nothing but the best and send love your way.
Hi Hera, I heard your story today on bbc radio for the first time, and I was shocked at the fact that the law system failed to protect women and babies.
Your writing about how to answer those daily social questions is really resonating with my own experience. Since I lost my husband 8 years ago, I have facing the same dilemma of whether to tell the truth and relive the pain or lying with guilt of betraying him.
Please take care and all the best for you and your family!