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- March 31, 1997
- Vol. 47
- No. 12
The Mourning After
Wealth and Fame Are No Protection from the Death of a Child
Tragedy strikes the famous and the uncelebrated with equal force, of course. But a celebrity who loses a child bears the unique burden of having to suffer, grieve, soldier on, relapse into sadness and soldier on again—all in public. Talk show host Sally Jessy Raphaël says that her own high visibility has only prolonged her grief over her daughter Allison Vladimir, who died of respiratory failure in 1992 at age 32, after a lethal, accidental mixture of two prescription drugs. "Being in the public eye just makes it worse," says Raphael. "You're constantly asked about it in interviews. People stop you on the street and say, 'I know you're grieving, but have you thought about Buddhist doctrine?' They mean to be helpful, but your tragedy is public."
Mourning a child "is a very private experience," says New York City psychiatrist Andrew Slaby. "It's a sacred time. When you're in pain, you're in pain no matter who you are or your degree of success."
And yet former Sen. George McGovern, whose daughter Teresa died as a result of alcoholism in 1994, has said that when the time for healing began, his status as a public person was a boon. He shared Terry's cautionary tale with millions through a book, Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism, and numerous media interviews. By helping others, McGovern says, he gained a measure of comfort for himself.
On the following pages, McGovern, Raphael and other celebrities describe the contrasting ways they cope with the loss of a child.
On July 22, 1988, Carter Cooper, 23, Vanderbilt's elder son by her late third husband, writer Wyatt Cooper, dropped from the terrace of her 14th-floor Manhattan penthouse as she looked on helplessly. She believes her son, one of four boys, wasn't suicidal but that he became disoriented due to an allergic reaction to his asthma medication. Her memoir A Mother's Story was published last year.
There are moments that Carter and I had when he was a baby that come back to me—brief flashes of color and sunlight and loveliness. It's almost impossible for me to look at a baby now. That's very difficult for me.
Right after it happened, I thought everyone who came into the room was bringing a message that it hadn't really happened. Even when people came in after the funeral, I remember looking at each face and thinking, this is the one who's going to bring the message. One knows logically that isn't true, but a kind of fantasy takes hold.
When I lay in bed, I would see in front of me a huge screen like in a movie theater, and the whole thing would play over and over again. I'd blame myself for all the things I could think of that I could have done while it was happening. What if I'd pretended to faint? Maybe if I'd spoken very softly and logically and tried to reason with him. I haunt myself with that.
The suicide survivors' support group I joined six weeks later certainly saved my life. The Waspy background I came from, if you cried, you went into the bathroom and shut the door. Rich people do it differently. They don't communicate.
The group met once a week. I wish it had met every day. You walk in, and it's a roomful of strangers—all at rock bottom. There was someone who'd had it happen two days before; another to whom it had happened 10 years ago. You could look at him and say, "It's been 10 years, and he's alive and okay."
I remember a visit from a friend whose daughter had taken her own life about three years before. She said to me, "You will laugh, and you will live again." Her words meant nothing to me. It was inconceivable. But of course she was right. It's almost nine years later now, and I've laughed and lived. But I'll never be the same. I am determined to survive because it will help others to know that if I can survive the worst thing that can happen, they can too.
Adam Walsh was 6 on July 27, 1981, when, while shopping with his mother, Revé, at a mall near their Hollywood, Fla., home, he was abducted. His mother and father, John, 51, then a hotel developer and now host of the TV show America's Most Wanted, never saw him alive again. The crime remains unsolved.
Revé was three aisles away from Adam. He was watching four boys play video games. She was in the lamp department. When she returned three minutes later, he was gone. Revé demanded they start a search in the store. She called me at my office and said, "Something is terribly wrong."
We searched through the night. I camped out at the Hollywood police department for two weeks. We distributed the first poster of a missing child all around the country. I was so naive. I didn't know what a pedophile was. The police showed us a book of 200 child molesters on parole in Broward County. My heart started to sink. I didn't know that such child killers existed.
I decided to go to the national media but was turned down by news director after news director. A friend knew the mayor of Orlando, who was Good Morning America host David Hart-man's college roommate. He called David, and he agreed to put Adam's picture on the air. We flew to New York. That started the worst day of our lives. They found what turned out to be Adam's severed head in a Vero Beach, Fla., canal. I started screaming and trashed the hotel room. I didn't believe that someone could kill this beautiful little boy. The most horrible thing was telling Revé. It was unbearable.
The pain is a huge wound that scabs over, and certain things set it off: birthdays, memories, pictures. You're not supposed to bury your children. They're your legacy. But I would never have accomplished the things I have, such as the Missing Children's Act, which brings the FBI immediately into cases involving missing children, if it wasn't for Adam and my love for him.
Before the murder, I was so happy. We were building our dream project, a $26 million hotel. I lost everything. I couldn't work. Our house went into foreclosure. People don't understand the devastation the murder of a child does to someone. Eighty percent of parents of murdered children wind up in divorce. The only thing you have in common is that horrible sadness. You can't see the joy of your previous life. Revé and I fought to stay together. We've had these kids—Meghan, 14, Callahan, 12, and Hayden, 2—and they're our life, our joy.
I tell other parents to cherish their memories. Adam's pictures are everywhere in our house. I saved his model boats. I've given them to Callahan and to Hayden, given them a legacy of their brother. I tell them, "Celebrate that boy's life."
In 1961, Neal, the Oscar-winning actress (for 1963's Hud), her husband, writer Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and their three children moved to the tranquil town of Great Missenden, England, after their son Theo was almost killed by a Manhattan taxi cab. A year later, 7-year-old Olivia, the eldest, contracted measles. Inoculation was then rare in England, and Olivia had never received measles vaccine. Less than a week after coming down with the virus, she developed measles encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. On Nov. 17, 1962, she fell into a coma and died.
The phone rang. It was the doctor. He said, "Mrs. Dahl, Olivia is dead. Did you hear me? I said Olivia is dead." I said, yes, thank you. I couldn't believe how cold he was. Roald came back from the hospital and he cried. Oh, he cried. He had seen her dead. I unfortunately never did. My sisters-in-law talked me out of it. I wish they hadn't. I stayed up that first night just looking out the window. Your love is dead, and the sun still comes up. It's just so sad.
I was the strong one at that point. I don't want to brag about myself, but I've never seen anything like it. Roald really almost went crazy. I held everything together. I cooked all day and went on. Of course 34 years ago anything like a survivors' support group was virtually unheard of. You had to pull yourself together. I loved Olivia, loved her, but my God, I had two more children. I had to go on.
Over the years, I found that talking about Olivia helped immeasurably. Roald—who died in 1990—couldn't say a word. It was locked inside him.
Part of my healing came by having another child. No one could replace Olivia, but a new child would begin to heal the emptiness. In a letter to my doctor in California soon after Olivia's death, I wrote, "I absolutely believe in a soul. And I long to let her go, to free her and hope she will be born again to me." Two years later, Ophelia was born and a year after that, Lucy.
Over the years, I did other things to help keep Olivia's memory alive, donating a silver cup to her school each year to be awarded to the best high jumper, as she was in 1962. And when I played Olivia Walton in the TV film that preceded The Waltons television series, I insisted my character's name not be changed to "Mary" as the producers wanted.
I keep a few mementos of Olivia around the house. One is a letter that she wrote when she was about 6 to a family friend. It says, "Dear Sheila, Thank you for the bubbly gum. I hope you are well. The bubbly was the most exciting present I ever had and I can blow bubbles...Love, Olivia. XXXXX." That's my Olivia. Isn't she a honey of a girl?
At around 7:30 on the morning of Jan. 27, 1994, Wilson, 53, one of the original Supremes, was driving from L.A. to Las Vegas with her son Rafael, 14, when her Jeep crashed into a center divider, then flipped over. Although Rafael, one of Wilson's three children, was wearing a seat belt, he was killed. Wilson, who has been divorced from Rafael's father, Pedro Ferrer, since 1981, suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung.
It's hard thinking back on it, to be honest. I was broken. But I also grew up. I've become a different person. I changed my goals and direction.
The best thing I could do was work. One of the main reasons was to get away from things and still heal my mind and spirit. I still cry every day, but that has not stopped me from living. People make the mistake of not being busy, and that can make you sadder.
But I haven't forgotten Rafael. I made a shrine to him in my bedroom, and I carry a smaller version of it with me on the road. I have his photos and angels and things. You have to keep those you love there physically. When you ignore it, that is the hardest.
We are not taught in America how to handle death. We are taught that death is scary. The spirit is a wonderful thing. I had Rafael in my life for 14 years. That's a blessing: that I had the chance to hold him, help him grow and see him smile.
It's not really pain I feel. It's just a dullness. I was a flower child, always smiling. With Rafi not here, I can't smile like that. I broke. But in breaking, I was reborn. I'm over it to the extent that I can laugh again. A chunk of my heart is gone, but the rest of my heart is there.
On Dec. 13,1994, McGovern's alcoholic daughter, Terry McGovern, 45, one of his five children and the mother of two and who had been in and out of rehabs for 25 years, froze to death in a Madison, Wis., parking lot after a night of heavy drinking.
I recognized almost instantly that this was going to be a major public story and there was not going to be any confidentiality about it. I decided to treat it as such and put a positive light on it. The first interview was with PEOPLE. When it came time to promote the book, I was on nearly every television and talk show, I don't know if I could have stood up under this loss without the healing effect of writing that book and then speaking out about alcoholism. There have been tens of thousands of people who have written to say that Terry's story has saved their lives, gotten them into an AA program and into recovery.
I would recommend to anyone who loses a relative to find some way to put a positive turn on it. That's been a great source of redemption for me. I know Terry has reached a vastly large number of people, so that almost tends to vindicate the death.
What I've had to grapple with more than anything else is that I wasn't closer to Terry in those last weeks. Over the years we had been so close. That particularly comes home to me at Christmastime. Her funeral was a week before Christmas. And the weather is sometimes a bitter reminder. I'll hear that the temperature is 38 degrees here in Montgomery County, Md., and think, "God, if it had been that warm in Madison, Terry would be alive." Or I go out into a bitterly cold blast and think, "That's how Terry must have felt when she died."
My wife, Eleanor, prefers to be private. She has been helped by spending time with Terry's children—Marian, 11, and Colleen, 9. Recently I asked Marian if the sadness over her mother was getting any better. She said, "Well, I'm sad when I think about her, but I'm not when I don't." I said, "Maybe the sad times will be less sad as time passes." She said, "No, I'll always be sad when I think about my mother."
I find the enjoyment of things is coming back. But I'm like little Marian. I'll always be sad when I think about Terry.
On Sept. 18, 1966, in a crime that shocked the nation, Valerie Percy, the 21-year-old daughter of future Illinois Sen. Charles Percy, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death as she slept in her family's home in Kenilworth, Ill.
Valerie was taken from us by criminals who have still not been brought to justice. My wife, Loraine, our four other children—including Valerie's twin, Sharon, who is now married to U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller and is the President and CEO of WETA, the Washington-area PBS affiliate—and I have since dedicated ourselves to trying to be the kind of people of whom she would have been proud.
Following her death, we had to find a way to hold ourselves together. I would often repeat the prayer from Proverbs that meant the most to me: "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths."
It will always be a frustration, not knowing who killed our daughter. Although I am confident that the authorities have done everything they could, I still don't want those guilty people to feel they have been able to get away with what they have done. But instead of dwelling on that, we've found comfort working to implement Valerie's goals and beliefs. One of the cornerstones in my public life was to ask myself how Valerie would have viewed the issue. Her concern for disadvantaged people led to my first major bill: sponsoring home ownership for low-income families.
Another comfort has been in remembering Valerie. We are so grateful for all that we did together during her eventful 21 years. Everyone loved Valerie and we miss her terribly. We hope that she shall always be proud of us. And that the sense of achievement each of our children and grandchildren has is somehow attributable to trying to do what would make Valerie proud.
In January 1986, while riding his motorcycle through the winding roads of Brentwood, Calif, Chad Woolery, the 19-year-old son of the veteran game show host, crashed into a median. He died instantly.
The strange thing is that I had just bought a car for him. I rode with him on his motorcycle one time and said, "I'll never do this again. You're nuts. If you're not careful, you're going to kill yourself." The day he died I told him to drive his car, not his motorcycle.
The day I picked out his casket I had to go to work hosting Scrabble. I had to get my mind off of Chad's death. I went in and taped 10 Scrabbles. My Christian faith is probably the single thing that got me through this. Without the understanding of where Chad is and what I expect in the future, it would have been very difficult. My belief is that he's much better off now than he was then.
He liked to sing and play the guitar. He wanted to be an actor. He loved girls and all sports. He loved me and I loved him. When Chad died, I was crushed. Something died with me that could never be replaced.
Eight years ago, Teri, my third wife, wanted to have children. The problem wasn't the vasectomy I had done after Chad and his sisters—Melissa, 21, and Kitty, 31—were born I told Teri I didn't mind trying to get it reversed. But, I said, "if I had another son, I would be so scared something's going to happen to him." I can't tell you what that fear is like. We've since had two sons—Michael, 7, and Sean, 10 months. I have to be careful I don't smother them. I have watch myself to be reasonable about things. I'll have to tell them one day, "Look, I know you want a motorcycle, but you're not going to get one."
SALLY JESSY RAPHAËL
On Feb. 2,1992, Allison Vladimir, 32, Raphaël's child by her first husband, hotel-management professor Andrew Vladimir, died after accidentally taking a lethal mix of two prescription drugs, causing respiratory failure. Allison, one of Raphaël's three children, was a recovering alcoholic. She was a chef by profession.
When people say, "How do you cope?" that's a question asked by somebody who hasn't lost a child. You don't cope. It isn't like you're a bride and there are tips for having a wedding.
The days following Allison's death were like a bad movie or a dream. The tabloids reported she died of a drug overdose, which wasn't true. You're in a state of shock. I was able to go to the funeral and not cry. I could talk to people. I was in "Sally Celebrity" mode.
Nothing helped, except two calls from celebrities who I've never spoken to before or since. One was from Jesse Jackson. He talked to me for several hours, and although I'm not a religious person, that was extremely comforting. Another came from a celebrity couple who lost a child. I can't mention them because they are extremely private. They told me I would not get comfort. They said, "Don't look for it." That may sound distant or cynical, but in a strange way it helped because it allowed me to realize that there was nothing to make this excruciating pain go away—that this is it, get used to it.
Now every single day is hard. If you've had a child for 30 years, there's no way not to have it always there. My daughter was a chef, and Thanksgiving was hard. We don't celebrate it now. We go away to countries where they don't have Thanksgiving. Christmas is hard. The anniversary of her death is hard. Her birthday is hard. It's all hard.
You never expect that you will not know happiness. But I know I will never again be really, really happy. I have times when I'm more at peace. But there will always be this pain inside. Nothing makes up for that.
with reports by LORENZO BENET, JOANNA BLONSKA, GARRY CLIFFORD. TOM CUNNEFF, ANNE LONGLEY, ELIZABETH MCNEIL, DANELLE MORTON, JEFF SCHNAUFER, MARGIE SELLINGER, DON SIDER, LYNDON STAMRLER, HELENE STAPINSKI, LYNDA WRIGHT and IRENE ZUTELL
- Lorenzo Benet,
- Joanna Blonska,
- Garry Clifford,
- Tom Cunneff,
- Anne Longley,
- Elizabeth McNeil,
- Danelle Morton,
- Jeff Schnaufer,
- Margie Sellinger,
- Don Sider,
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Helene Stapinski,
- Lynda Wright,
- Irene Zutell.
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