Tuesday, May 12th, early evening
A mother’s broken heart; a little sister’s pain…
My house had become a crisis scene. Two hours had passed since I made the 911 call. A few of our neighbors, the pastor of a local church, and a friend who was also a deputy in the county sheriff’s department, were the only familiar faces there to comfort me during those dark and terrible moments.
I desperately wanted my wife, but Erica was on her way back home from work, and everyone said not to call her…I was warned that it could lead to something worse.
After, what seemed an eternity, one of our friends saw Erica’s black car coming down the road towards the house. Everyone braced themselves for the inevitable. As Erica was pulling up to the house, she noticed all the cars and people. The driveway was blocked by one of the county vehicles, so Erica pulled her car to the side of the road, next to our mailbox, in front of the house. When she saw the emergency response vehicles, her first instinct was to wonder what was wrong. Her heart pounded, fear swept over, and her mind began to race…
‘Why are all these people here at my house? Why is there an ambulance? What happened? Is Matthew o.k.? Are the girls o.k.?’
As she was getting out of the car, our deputy sheriff friend took me by the hand and said we needed to go tell Erica what happened.
I was so terrified, barely able to comprehend the size and scope of our loss and what I had seen; how was I going to tell my wife, my best friend and the mother to our children, that one of our babies was gone?
My friend put his arm around me and held me close as we walked up to Erica. Before we could get all the way to the end of the driveway, Erica asked: “What the heck is going on?” Looking around puzzled and searching for answers, she saw two of our neighbors there, who were also mothers and her friends. The look on their faces said that something was terribly wrong.
Erica looked back at me. The look of sorrow and anguish in my eyes triggered a mother’s instincts. Our friend, who had walked up with me, put his arms around both of us and gently told Erica that something terrible had happened to Elizabeth. Bewilderment and fear flashed across her face, “What do you mean something bad happened…where is she?”,Erica asked.
With a tone of sorrow and regret, he pulled Erica and me even closer and said, “Erica, Elizabeth’s gone…”. As the words exited his mouth, he looked back at me, as if prompting me to explain what those awful words really meant. I could barely comprehend what was happening, much less form the words, and yet somehow, in a painful whisper, I spoke.
Not wanting to believe what had occurred, she looked over at her friends, when they looked down with tears streaming in their eyes she understood. As the truth took root in her heart, she nearly collapsed into my arms with the wail of a mother’s broken heart. Together we stood there, at the end of our driveway, holding each other closer than we ever had before. We were walking through the darkest hour imaginable for any parent, and the only people we had to lean on were one another.
As Erica and I held each other, our friends gathered and formed a circle around us, as if to somehow help absorb some of the pain and to let us know we were not alone.
While we were huddled together in our embrace, Elizabeth’s body was being loaded up into the coroner’s van and slowly driven away. At that very moment, Erica and I looked up and caught a brief glimpse of the van; tears of sorry and anguish poured. Our little baby was in there, and there was nothing we could do to save her.
Our neighbor hugged Erica and asked her if she wanted to walk over to their house so she wouldn’t be exposed to the scene; Erica accepted the invitation. Shortly after that, the first responders slowly began to leave. Their departure only seemed to confirm that there was nothing else to do. This simply echoed the terrible finality of what had happened.
While everyone else was leaving, my friend (the deputy sheriff) walked back from the house and talked with me. He told me something that to this day still echoes in my mind. He said to me that one of the other sheriff deputies, who were there to assist, had found the keys to the gun safe…they were next to Elizabeth.
As soon as I heard that, my knees gave out from underneath me. “Oh my God! How? How could she have found them?”,I exclaimed in shock. As waves of sorrow crashed over me, I wept in disbelief. My friend and the other deputies explained to me that most likely, Elizabeth went looking in the closet for the gun safe keys. When she couldn’t find them in the house, she waited until I was in cutting the lawn in the back yard, before she went through my truck looking for them.
I kept thinking to myself, ‘How could this have happened? I’ve already lost so many people already…this can’t be happening. This is not real…maybe it’s just a horrible dream’. As soon as the thought of the entire experience being ‘just a dream’ crossed my mind, waking reality in all its raw and unforgiving vividness, came crashing back into my state of delirium. Gut-wrenching grief and agonizing sorrow overwhelmed me like an ocean swell.
After a while, the only people who remained where our friends: the deputy and neighbors, the firefighter and my wife’s friend.
In a small town, like the one we lived in, there isn’t a special team of people who come and remediate a scene like the one which had unfolded in my house.
There were things that had to be done. Hard things. The aftermath of what Elizabeth’s fatal choice had to be fixed. It was a task which took a special kind of courage. Without having to ask, friends and neighbors stepped in to help. I made my way to the neighbor’s house and meet up with Erica. Isabella was dropped off by a sheriff deputy shortly after my entering the neighbor’s home. Confused and scared Isabella walked over to us while we sat in the living room. Together, Erica and I embraced our youngest child and explained to her that her big sister was no longer alive. Cries filled with fear and pain came out of her, her little body shook in our arms as the words soaked in her mind.
That was the night that our house had ceased becoming a home. Something awful and unimaginable had happened there – but eventually, we would have to go back. While Erica and I waited across the street at the neighbor’s house, there were calls to make. People came by our neighbor’s house as the news of Elizabeth’s death rocked the foundation of our small community. Disbelief and tears flowed from everyone’s eyes.
I needed to call my chain-of-command, close friends and family back in Rhode Island. Each one of those calls would seem like I was reliving the moment all over again. By the time I hung up the phone with each one, I was drained and in tears. Some of the phone calls were made that day…others wouldn’t be until the following morning.
The phone calls…
Of all the calls I made that day there are a few which really stand out:
I called a close cousin of mine…but he’s really more like my brother. It was he who had lost his little sister, eight years prior, to the same darkness which had taken Elizabeth. He and I spoke for a little while, he cried with me and asked if there was anything he could do. I told him that I needed two things; tell the rest our family what happened and come see me as soon as he could.
The second call was to a buddy with whom I was working with during that particular season. He’s a guy who I had become very close to and share a lot in common with. He was there next to my wife and me in the days which followed. Being a fellow military member, and having traversed his own set of losses, he knew exactly what to do…just be there – plain and simple. Over the course of about a week and a half, I leaned on him for some of the simplest things…because everyday life and its mundane tasks were too much to handle.
The other phone call I made which sticks out in my mind, was the one made to a friend who I had become close to when one of my other uncles (one of my dad’s older brothers) had taken his own life, during my deployment in 2012.
My friend and I had served together aboard a warship, and he was part of that Band of Brothers that God had brought into my life so many years prior.
That night, when I called him and told him about the awful thing that happened, he stayed with me on the phone and prayed with me. He had become close to not only me but to my wife and kids as well. He knew the struggles we were going through; the pain, heartache, and turmoil that Elizabeth had been wrestling with. He and I stayed on the phone for over an hour, talking and weeping. Before we hung up the phone, we agreed on a date which would be best for him to come see me.
The next day I called my grandmother. That call is something which still causes emotions to rise up in me when I think about it. My cousin, whom I called the day before, had already passed the tragic news to everyone in our family, including our grandmother. “Hi Nanny…it’s me Matty”, I said, with tears in my eyes. I could hear and feel my grandmother’s sorrow and empathy on the other end. “Oh, Matty…you poor boy…”. As soon as I heard those words, the tears poured from my eyes. I tried to hold them back, but I felt like the same little six-year-old boy I was back when my dad took his own life over 30 years prior. Nanny was all too familiar with what I was feeling. She had already lost two sons and two grandchildren to the same self-harm which took her great-granddaughter…my Elizabeth. Of those sons she lost, one was my own father, and one of those grandchildren was my own brother. Nanny knew my loss…she felt it, and her heart broke for me and with me.
After I got off the phone with Nanny, I called my one of my uncles (my dad’s oldest brother). As my dad’s oldest brother, I’ve always viewed this particular uncle as the senior biological relative to whom I could call in a crisis. Not only that, but he also knew the sting and heartbreak of losing a daughter and two brothers to the same darkness which had overcome Elizabeth.
By the time I spoke to my uncle on the phone, my cousin had already briefed him as well. My uncle was expecting my call.
Hearing my uncle’s deep calm voice on other the end of the phone somehow made me feel stronger. I knew that he understood my pain and the hard decisions I would be faced with in the coming days. Even though my own loss probably brought back a lot of hard memories for him, my uncle didn’t let it show. He listened and gave me counsel on what were some of the most painful decisions any person or more specifically, a parent, has to make.
In the initial days following Elizabeth’s passing, a multitude of people came by the house to offer their condolences and drop off food and flowers. I remember there being mountains of casserole dishes in the kitchen and dining room and the entire house looked like a florist shop.
The first week was a buzzing blur of activity. Several of my military buddies from work also rallied around and offered whatever help they could, and Erica’s parents and siblings came and visited us from Texas.
When a person dies, there are harsh and painful decisions that need to be made. Sometimes, those decisions are made by someone who’s been designated in writing via a will. In other cases, the responsibility falls on the next of kin. In our situation, Erica and I had to make the hard decisions for Elizabeth, our own child. These were ugly and even morbid choices; stuff that no parent ever thinks about.
But there we were. Erica and I were faced with making decisions to questions which seemed to have crawled out of our worst nightmares.
Things like: was Elizabeth’s remains going to be buried or cremated? If there was to be a burial, where were we going to lay her body to rest? If we decided to have a burial, what kind of casket would Elizabeth’s body be laid to rest in? Which funeral home would handle the arraignments? Would we have a memorial service? If so where would we hold the service? How did we want the service to be structured? Was there going to be a viewing? Considering how Elizabeth had died, was a viewing even possible? If there was going to be a viewing what outfit was, she going to be laid to rest in? And so on and so on and so on…
These were all just some of the difficult questions Erica, and I would have to provide answers to, and we had a very limited amount of time to make these decisions.
Each time we were presented with one of these questions, our hearts sank, and the grief would crash over us. I remember mounds of paperwork had to be signed; every time I put pen to paper, my eyes would well up with tears, and my heart became overwhelmed. It was surreal and painful.
None of these problematic decisions could have been made on our own. Erica and I depended heavily on our close friends and family.
One of the hardest decisions was where to lay Elizabeth’s body for final rest.
This was when I relied heavily on my uncle back in Rhode Island. Erica and I knew for sure that we didn’t want to bury Elizabeth in North Carolina. I’m from Rhode Island, and Erica is from Texas. Besides our neighbor friends, we had no real connections there. Even though we knew that our daughter was no longer there physically, we didn’t feel comfortable for her body to be laid in a place full of strangers.
My uncle and I spoke on the phone several times during that week. He helped me figure out some tough decisions…what kind of casket and which funeral home. In a twist of painful irony, experiences such as this were sadly familiar to my family and me. We had laid to rest so many others who had passed in the same self-destructive way. Because of this inconvenient and painful familiarity, we had become unwilling experts in a subject which is too taboo and too painful for most families to even comprehend.
In the middle of our most difficult and darkest hour, there was one decision which seemed to provide an eerie sense of simplicity. Erica and I decided that Elizabeth would be buried up in Rhode Island, in a place which has become sacred ground to my family and me.
Following the phone calls to some of my closest friends and family were the calls to and from extended friends and even acquaintances. The news of our loss traveled fast within the network of people who had known us throughout the years. Social media was flooded with condolences and words of encouragement from people who we hadn’t spoken to in a long time.
During my writing of this particular experience, I’ve had to call back those special people who were with us that day. People who were with my wife and I during our darkest hour; they stood as mighty oaks in a storm and let us lean on their branches as the winds howled, the rain poured, and the terrible lighting flashed.
Traumatic experiences, like the one I’m sharing now, exact a toll on the human mind and memory. Science has proven it. Countless mental health professionals have studied it.
Seconds seem like minutes, and minutes seem like hours. Time itself seems to slow down, and the field of view narrows to only a few feet. Sights and sounds, outside of that immediate field of observations, become the mere whispers of your worst nightmare.
The mind will involuntarily form mental pictures and flashbacks of the traumatic imagery.
The human soul will remember the emotional trauma and feel it all over again.
The body will produce symptoms such as panic, rapid heart rate and racing thoughts, which can be triggered by sights, sounds, and smells.