by Radha Stern
Early spring, 1996
One day my life was completely normal. I was making lunch for my brother, Abram, who was visiting me from New Jersey, and my best friend, Bettina, when the doorbell rang. I answered it, with my apron on, to a man from the Sheriff’s department. He informed me that another officer needed to speak with me, and told me to call a number he handed to me.
With the Sheriff’s officer looking over my shoulder, I phoned and heard someone say “coroner’s office” on the other end. I could barely speak. A voice informed me that my son was dead…that he had been shot four times by his school roommate during an argument about dishes.
My 21-year-old son, Christopher, who at the time was studying heating and air-conditioning at a trade school, had brown hair and startling green eyes and was the kind of person who brought home all the kids no one else would talk to on the first day of school. He is my only son.
I had just seen Christopher a few days earlier. When he came to visit, I had stocked him up with enough food for the coming week. After we had done his laundry together, he gave me a huge hug. “I love you, Mom,” he said as he left, his green eyes sparkling.
Now he was dead. Shock set in. My body rocked back and forth, as I repeated, “They killed him.” In those first 15 minutes, I lost every liquid a body can lose. The shock was so much more physical than I’d ever imagined. I felt like I had been run over by a tractor-trailer truck, but without visible bruises or breaks.
What hit me first was that Christopher’s chapter with our family was over. No more photos, no graduation. We wouldn’t watch him get married, and I wouldn’t be a grandmother to his children. Our photo albums would not be filled with him.
Then an earthquake of reality struck. I realized I had to share this shocking information. I needed to tell my family and friends and my daughter, Christina. Abram, Bettina and I started making phone calls. There were many to make: my brothers, my sisters, father, ex-husband and his family, and many friends notified.
After the calls, we waited together until Christina arrived home from school. I had made a plan that my husband, Gary, would be the one to tell her. The school was an hour away, and it seemed a safer idea to get her home first. When she arrived home, she got out of her car happily, for she was excited about seeing her Uncle Abram. But as soon as she saw my face, she knew something was very wrong.
“Christopher has been shot,” Gary told her. “What hospital is he in?” she asked.
It never occurred to me that she would ask if Christopher was alive. When Gary told her Christopher had died immediately, she collapsed. We had to carry her into the house. Seeing my child in so much pain was the worst of my suffering so far. As a parent, I wanted to kiss Christina, put a Band-Aid on her and have everything be better. But I was in so much pain myself that it was hard for me to do anything. And this time, I knew nothing would work.
As the news spread, people began to reach out to comfort us. A stream of friends and neighbors came pouring into our home. By evening, all my family members who lived close enough had arrived.
The violence of Christopher’s death made it more difficult. He was shot with a handgun four times. The first shot put him into deep shock but was not fatal. I was assured by doctor friends that he never felt the others. Even in death, I didn’t want my child to suffer.
That evening, as I lay in bed, alone, Christopher visited. He came from the corner of the bedroom, like an angel. I could see his face and his body down to his waist. He reached out his hand to me, hovering from above, and said, “I am fine, Mom.” And then he sparkled away like a magic mist.
I wasn’t surprised to see him. When I first learned of Christopher’s death, I had a vision of him falling into my mother’s arms. My mother, Jane, was with her best friend, Shirley, in the vision (my mother had passed many years ago and Shirley recently). That night, I felt so grateful. Christopher’s visit gave me a feeling of peace, and I was able to sleep.
The next morning, I awoke to the waves of grief brought into my life by Christopher’s murder. They rolled into me, body and soul, and engulfed me. They wouldn’t let me come up for air. My skin was salty from my tears. My reality was so shaken that I felt unconnected, and had to go outside to feel the cold, to sense where my body ended.
My “Mother on Earth,” Beth (my biological mother, Jane, died three days after Christopher was born), offered me the first bit of relief. She told me, “You don’t have to get over this, ever.” That was comforting and still is to this day. I was relieved that people did not expect me to “get over” the death of my son. How could I ever “get over” him, he is part of me?
When he heard the news, a friend who is a criminal attorney gave me another important thread of relief. “Don’t let this man take any more from you. He has taken more than he was ever entitled to,” my friend said. “Don’t move away, don’t not go on vacation. LIVE.”
I had always been the doer in our family, the glue that bound us together. This was the first time in my life I was not taking care of everyone else. Now it was someone else’s turn. I arranged grounding activities for myself, regular massages and short visits with close friends. It was a time I needed to be kind to myself and not feel selfish for doing what I needed to do to get through another day. I gave myself permission to cry anywhere, at any time, for the rest of my life, and learned that the shower and the treadmill were great places to cry.
The first thing I did when I had a bit of breathing room was to join the Compassionate Friends, a grief group for parents who have lost children, and also their siblings. I took Christina to all the meetings with me, as I knew it was important to include her in everything I did to help with grieving. It was tough to walk into the room for my first meeting; I was the only parent to lose a child through murder in all the years the group had been supporting parents. All the parents in the room understood my intense pain and helped me feel less alone.
I attended these meetings once a month for three years — and still keep in touch to this day. The Compassionate Friends has a newsletter for parents, a mobile library of grief books, and information on bereavement services in your area. Every year they provide an excellent holiday memorial gathering that parents and family can attend to feel safe and comfortable with their grieving. Equally important, this event provides all of us another way to remember our children we miss so terribly.
The second thing I did was to ask a friend to research organizations working with gun control in effective ways. I felt the need to do something, anything that could prevent another parent from experiencing what I had. Three months after Christopher’s murder, I started volunteering with the Trauma Foundation, part of San Francisco General Hospital, to work on gun control. It was obvious to me that if a gun had not been involved, Christopher would not be dead. He may have had a bruised ego, a broken arm or a black eye, but he would be alive today. One of the projects I became involved with was the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C. Marching with so many people who cared about gun control and saving people’s lives, being involved in something that mattered, softened my grief and made me feel like I was making a difference.
Through the Trauma Foundation, I got involved with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (formally the Legal Community Against Violence). The Law Center grew out of a tragedy — the 1993 assault weapon rampage, which began at a law firm at 101 California Street in San Francisco and ended with nine people dead, including the shooter, and six wounded, one of whom subsequently died. Within days of the shooting, Bay Area lawyers formed the Law Center. My husband and I are still members today and make sure we support the anniversary dinner every year.
May 11, 1996
Since Christopher had been murdered, an autopsy was required. We had to wait for that process to be completed to claim his body. When the autopsy was finished (cause of death: gunshot wounds), a month had passed since Christopher’s murder. After arranging the transportation and cremation, I went to get my child. My three sisters, Sheridan, Michele and Kristin, came with me. When we arrived, I was handed my son in a small wooden box.
My family wanted to take some of Christopher’s ashes and scatter them on the top of Mt. Tamalpais, where he had loved to watch the sunset. He called it “checkin’ out the set.” Because I wanted to have a bit of him at home with us, before the ceremony my dear friend Jeannie and I funneled ashes and dried rose petals into glass bottles, which we sealed with wax. I asked my brother, Paul to find a spot for Christopher where he could watch the sunset every day. Paul picked a beautiful and majestic California Bay Tree from which you can see for miles.
The family went up the day before the actual ceremony and built a round, rock wall to hold Christopher’s ashes. The next day, friends and relatives poured his ashes into the castle we had made. As we poured, we heard a steel drum band playing. I hadn’t hired them but figured that Christopher, who loved reggae music, had — for all of us. The California Bay Tree is called Umbellaria Californica, and it became Christopher’s umbrella, holding all of us inside its branches, the tinkle of the steel drum soothing us.
Christopher loved Christmas. He loved to dress up as Santa — with a cotton beard, a silly Santa hat, and a pillow stuffed in his belly — and pass out the presents. I couldn’t face Christmas that first year, so I asked my brother if we could go away as a family. And we did. My sisters flew from Seattle, and the rest of us came from San Francisco. We headed into the sun of Arizona, where we supported each other in the grief that was welling up in us all. Because I think it is easier for everyone to acknowledge the “elephant in the room,” and not try to avoid their feelings and thoughts of grief, we talked about Christopher, lit a candle for him at all our dinners and even brought a little decorated Christmas tree along. It was grand to be together, celebrate together, miss Christopher together, laugh together and cry among people who understood. And we are still doing some version of this every Christmas.
As the criminal trial was approaching, I also joined a group called Justice for Murder Victims. The group helps families through the legal processes of the court system. It was important to have support at a very trying time. The court system is complicated to understand, unfriendly and riddled with delays. Legalese is confusing and intimidating. If that weren’t enough, the reason I was there made everything feel hateful.
The trial was a slow-motion nightmare, and we were witness to “everything you don’t want to know about murder.”
Christina and I each had a support person in court every day. I felt like a ball of stress and took massive quantities of vitamins and minerals to keep my body going. Although I never felt hungry, I ate well and drank lots of fluids (no alcohol).
After enduring five weeks of trial, we had a verdict: Mark James Taylor was convicted of second-degree murder.
The sentencing hearing was scheduled for six weeks later.
While waiting for the sentencing, I felt I needed to spend some grounding time with myself. I drove alone to a five-day hiking retreat on the San Mateo coast. I knew I needed to reconnect to myself after the biggest job in my life so far — and the sentencing was looming. I was hopeful this retreat would help me. It was held in a beautiful stone hotel with large open spaces. Every day we would hike, eat healthy food and get a massage. The first afternoon, before going on a short hike, we gathered on a large deck and shared why we had decided to come. I felt very vulnerable and raw, crying and telling people I had just been through a murder trial in the death of my son. I knew my reasons for being there were different from everyone else’s, and I knew it was time for heart work instead of the trial work.
At night, there were talks about health and spirituality. One evening, during a magical drumming session, I felt the drum reverberating along with my heartbeat, which made me feel very alive and grounded.
The hiking was another lesson for me: emotional exhaustion saps your physical strength. My mind had been working so hard during the last year; I felt unfit. Most of the hikes were a struggle even though I have been an active hiker my whole life.
One of the hiking guides was a Hindu barefoot hiker. I was usually at the end of the hiking group because I felt tired and like to look at things, and he was always at the end too. When he learned that my name was Radha, he was very excited. My namesake, Radha, is the Hindu Goddess of Love – Krishna’s consort, a mortal cow herdess who remained faithful to Krishna when he went off to the war of the Gods. The Hindu people were so impressed by this that they named Radha the Goddess of Love.
When I gradually opened up to the guide about my reason for being on the hikes, he said to me, “Radha, you must find a place to pour the love for your son. You cannot love your daughter or your brother more; that is their love. It is your job to go out and love the world – that is what Radha does.” The words from the Hindu hiking guide have stayed with me all this time. I carry them around in my heart.
The perpetrator, Mark James Taylor, was sentenced to 19 years to life. (The sentence is indeterminate, and the courts will decide if and when he may be considered for release.) When the judge asked if Mark Taylor wanted to say anything to our family, he replied, “I just wanted to express my sorrow at the terrible tragedy here that I inflicted upon Chris’s family and my family. And if I could turn back the clock and undo it, I would, but that’s all I wanted to say.”
By the second Thanksgiving after Christopher’s murder, I felt there was a lot to be thankful. The trial and sentencing were over. We could begin soulful grieving instead of jumping through the hoops of the legal process. Thanksgiving is my favorite family time. I cook the meal at my house, including everyone’s favorites. Christopher’s favorite was his “orange Jell-O treat.” One year, I forgot to make it, and each year after that, he called to make sure I remembered. When I realized that Christopher would not be calling me anymore, I burst into huge sobs, devastated. But I made the dish for him anyway — and still do.
Once Thanksgiving had been celebrated, I was ready to jump back into life and look ahead for the first time since Christopher’s murder. I felt I needed to do things that would honor who he was. And I knew if there were things I could touch; it would keep Christopher present in our lives. We planted a particular tree in our garden. And our family placed a picnic table with a dedication — “Always With Us CRH 1974-96″ — on the east peak of Mt. Tamalpais.
Because I wanted something I could touch in my house, I commissioned a quilt by a local artist, Liz Piatt, in Christopher’s memory. I loved the concept of family quilts that pass down history from one generation to the next. I requested that Liz include 21 hearts somewhere on the quilt, one for each year of Christopher’s life. I also wanted it to be a happy quilt, with some of his favorite images (fishing, sports, Mt. Tamalpais, cookie dough ice cream, and Thanksgiving) and his favorite colors (blues and greens). Liz usually works on four or five projects simultaneously, but this work was so emotionally charged that she put everything else aside and focused only on this quilt until it was finished.
When it was completed, I arrived with a few family members and friends, and we all started crying when we saw the quilt. It was so beautiful, and it told the story of Christopher’s life, which I had now shared with someone who never had the chance to meet him.
Seven years after Christopher’s murder, at a holiday party given by dear friends, I met Jacques Verduin, who ran a program called Insight Prison Project.
Several days after the party, Jacques called and asked if I would be willing to work with him. He wanted to understand the victim’s perspective, which he felt was a missing part of his education in working with prisoners. Jacques wanted me to tell my story to him and then again to the prisoners with whom he works. I agreed.
Jacques and I spent ten hours together in five visits. Sometimes we sat in my living room, where we looked at pictures of Christopher growing up. During those sessions, I spoke of memories from birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, vacations, homework, and loving notes he wrote me.
On other visits, Jacques and I walked on the beach and ate picnic lunches. As we sat on a log or a rock, we went over every tiny detail of Christopher’s death, from the moment the sheriff arrived at my door to the present. No questions went unanswered or ignored, and no difficult details were spared. It was an emotionally calming experience. I had not touched many of these memories for years, and it felt good to share them so freely after the right amount of time had passed for me. We discussed Christopher’s young life and the challenges he faced in adulthood. He had been excited to go to school and settle into a career he felt good about. He had told me he wanted to study heating and air-conditioning because he wanted people to be comfortable in their homes.
The 10th anniversary of Christopher’s death was approaching. I felt that such a significant anniversary needed to be marked in some way, so I created a memorial card and sent it to everyone who had been on this journey with me. My immediate family and several close friends spent the day with Christina, my husband and me. We had breakfast at home (blintzes, one of Christopher’s favorites), and then took the journey to his spot on Mt. Tamalpais, where we scattered rose petals and laughed and cried as we told stories about Christopher.
I realized that day that time is a gentle healer. At first, I didn’t want it to go by, and then I was grateful it had. Time had begun to feel like a good blanket wrapped around me to protect me from the cold. I could now pass a picture of Christopher and not cry. My pain sat well below the surface and no longer rose so frequently. I could console others because I had become a seasoned veteran of grief.
Very soon after Christopher was murdered, I attended an anniversary fundraising dinner for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. There I met Michelle Scully, who was wounded in the 101 California shooting in San Francisco on July 1, 1993. Her husband, John Scully, was fatally shot while shielding her from the gunman. He died in her arms. When we met, she hugged me and said, “I know you are not ready to hear this, but there are gifts with death.”
I said, “You’re right, I’m not.” But when I saw her the next year, I thanked her. She is right.
About the Author: Since the murder of her son, Christopher, in 1996, Radha Stern has devoted herself to helping others who have lost a loved one due to a violent crime. She created and maintains her website, Griefprints, to share her experiences throughout her journey from the darkness of grief into the light of gratitude. She is active in Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (formally the Legal Community Against Violence) and the Insight Prison Project, as well as The Compassionate Friends, an organization for parents who have lost a child. Radha is an experienced grantmaker, fundraiser, and marketer, and her extensive volunteer activity over the last two decades includes work with trade organizations, advocacy groups, and victim’s rights programs.
She is a past member of the Board of Directors for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation; a program officer for a family philanthropic foundation that supports organizations providing basic services to critical-need populations; and a volunteer at the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks. Radha’s book, Griefprints: A Practical Guide for Supporting a Grieving Person, was published in June 2013. She is also a contributor to the inspirational book Courage Does Not Always Roar: Ordinary Women with Extraordinary Courage (Simple Truths, 2010). A native Californian, she lives with her husband, Gary; together they have five children.