Homicide grief group takes a forward step

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Today’s news about the launch of the Calgary Homicide Support Society comes nine years after my 2006 story about Calgarians who used to meet at the Rockyview General Hospital chapel to attend the city’s, and perhaps the country’s, only therapy group for people who have lost loved ones to murder.

Great to see this concept coming back to life.

Living with the grief: Rockyview hospital runs Calgary’s largest homicide bereavement program to help deal with grief from violent deaths.

Sherri Zickefoose
Calgary Herald

Feb 19, 2006 

The mothers say it hurts to live.

Knives, guns and bare hands have taken their children away and left

them with the cruellest grief.

Homicide creates heartache like no other.

After she laid her teenage son Tyler to rest, Fern Trithart says she had

no choice but to reach out and find other mothers whose children had

been violently killed.

“I would watch the news, and read the newspaper if it involved

someone losing a child. I would look up in the obits to get the

e-mail for the funeral home,” she said.

“I was looking for somebody.”

That’s just what she did on Sept. 5, 2003. As Steffi Stehwien

stumbled numbly through her murdered teenage son’s funeral, Trithart

reached out.

“I actually found the church in the obits and took a card to her,”

said Trithart.

In reassuring blue ink, she wrote to Stehwien: “My heart breaks for

you as you grieve. I, too, had my son’s life taken away by

violence.”

The message delivered hope.

“I bawled my eyes out,” said Stehwien, who still treasures the

white sympathy card with Trithart’s carefully printed telephone

number inside.

“She threw a lifeline into that basket with the cards.”

As the two mothers continued their quest to find others who knew

their specific heartache, they were recently invited to take part in

Calgary’s — perhaps even the nation’s — very first hospital-run

homicide grief support group.

“This is where I fit best,” said Trithart, who joined the therapy

group last month for its inaugural six-week program. Her son Tyler was killed by a single punch during a fist fight.
“When you lose someone to murder, it is so different from an accident, or heart

attack, or losing a newborn, or cancer. This rocks your whole world

and your soul.”

Stehwien agrees. “It’s sinister and dark and wrong.”

Her son, Aaron Shoulders, was stabbed to death after he was swarmed

by a group of young men outside a downtown bar. His killer has never

been found.

The grief from homicide is the cruellest to endure, she says.

The Rockyview hospital runs the city’s largest grief support

program with 30 groups to serve people who have lost spouses,

babies, parents, siblings and friends. But until now, there was

nothing in place for survivors of homicide victims.

As the city’s growth nears the one-million mark, Rockyview chaplain

Brian Pickering says there is an alarming increase of referrals for

homicide grief counselling.

“It’s a very unfortunate commentary on the increase in violence in

our city,” said Pickering, who co-ordinates grief support with Rev.

Bob Glasgow at the Rockyview hospital.

Since 2000, there have been nearly 100 homicides in and around

Calgary.

To keep pace with the disturbing growth, Pickering created an

innovative homicide bereavement program last month. Over a six-week

period, seven survivors participated in the first-ever group.

“Homicidal loss is unique because variables such as media and

justice issues complicate the length of time to navigate the journey

of grief,” said Pickering. “The intensity of the pain is unique

because of the violence involved.

“There is a sense of being an alien in a strange land because there

are so few people who can comprehend the depth and breadth of that

kind of loss.”

The grief that comes from homicide is complex, he said.

“Homicide can be unprovoked, it’s violent and most of the time it’s

for no reason. It brings up questions around safety and the side of

our society that is so violent.”

Four months after her 20-year-old daughter Kristen Deyell was shot

to death in Mexico, a broken hearted Cher Ewing turned to grief

counselling.

“I thought being a violent death, the Calgary police department

would have something, but no,” she said. Instead, Ewing was referred

to a hospice-run program. The closest thing she could find for

survivors of her kind of loss was a support group for bereaved

parents who had lost children to illness.

She welcomed new friendships and support the group offered, but the

darker pall of murder clearly set Ewing apart from the group.

“When I received a call from the Rockyview saying they were going

to start a bereavement group targeting violent death, I didn’t

hesitate for a second,” said Ewing.

“The group is exactly what I had been looking for.”

When a loved one is murdered, words of comfort and compassion from

others can be clumsy.

“Murder is not something people like to talk about,” says

Stehwien. “Family and friends feel uncomfortable with my intense,

deep pain, my tears, my anger and the rage that comes losing a loved

one to murder.”

She says over the past six weeks, the grief group has replaced

absent family members and friends who disappeared from her life

after her son’s funeral.

“When I meet mothers who have lost their children to murder, we

don’t feel like strangers. We have that common ground. The tears

come, the hugs come, you feel their pain and they feel yours and it

breaks the ice right there.”

Trithart agrees, remembering the debilitating exhaustion and

loneliness.

“It is such a cruel club we belong to,” she said. “It’s a very

lonely road. You live because you have to at first. I feel like I

don’t fit in but you have to keep going. We have to learn how to fit

into society.”

The changes a murder brings to a family are profound, she said. The

horror of violence is not easily forgotten.

Murder casts its dark shadow on social lives, too.

As she struggles to come to terms with her sister’s killing, Esther

Halton has seen her own close friendships fade.

Her 40-year-old sister Dorothy Halton was strangled to death by a

former boyfriend in Ottawa on Dec. 11, 2004.

“They just can’t handle it,” said Halton. “But other people have

really come forward and been more generous and really connected.”

Few friends can comprehend how murder changes the lives of those

who have lost loved ones.

“What I found the most amazing is how people would just give

advice, or expect you to start a new cause, or go out there and just

pick up where you left off,” said Trithart. “They’re not even

expecting you to change, but you do, and you just feel so empty

inside like no parent should ever have to.”

Stehwien has shared the same experience from those who don’t

understand.

“They’re angry that you’re not who you used to be. I’m an outcast.

A lot of my friendships are done. Only those that walk in my shoes

can truly understand. The homicide grief support group has become my

lifeline in the midst of my horrific violent storm. I feel their

deep compassion, sensitivity and care. We share the same pain, anger

and feelings of isolation. We have the same questions and we have

the same needs,” she said.

Those feelings of deep despair and loneliness motivated grieving

mothers to seek each other out not just for comfort, but for

survival.

“We all find each other after a while. Slowly but surely, we find

each other,” said Trithart. “You don’t have to defend your children

to those people. We’re all going through the same thing. People are

so judgmental, those who think you should get over it and move on.”

Parents worry about their children falling prey to disease, but

nothing prepares them for the destruction homicide wreaks on their

lives.

“As mothers, we know that sickness can happen. A car crash is an

accident. But it’s not like murder, it’s not at the hand of someone

else. Somebody took a knife and stuck it in my son. That is a

deliberate act,” said Stehwien.

“It’s a daily nightmare. It replays in my mind. I think about the

people standing around and watching,”she said through tears.

“People don’t want to talk about murder. We need each other. We

need to fight our fight together.”

Homicide thrusts its victims and survivors into the public eye.

Families say seeing coverage on television or in headlines adds

another painful layer to their grief. Images of yellow crime scene

tape, police, and even suspects is hurtful to take in, they say.

Through the eyes of their loved ones, homicide victims are so much

more than the sum of what they were doing the day they were taken.

They are the sum of their entire lives.

“You automatically get a stereotype of what kind of person you

might be,” said Trithart. Her son Tyler died from a single punch during a

pre-arranged fight, but he did not have a

reputation as a fighter.

“We all come from normal families and none of us understand why

murder happened to us,” said Stehwien.

Issues of justice are also unique to homicide victims’ families.

The slow moving wheels of the criminal court system coupled with

the traumatic experience of testifying in court are hard to bear.

But in some cases, there is no justice.

Since Stehwien’s son was stabbed to death, his killer has roamed

free. Not having a suspect behind bars for stealing Shoulders’ life

has only made Stehwien’s grief heavier.

“No one has been arrested. How could I live in the same city where

my son’s murderer lives free? I thought I was losing my mind,” she

said. “It’s like having a nightmare and when I wake I realize it’s

my life.”

Ewing has endured the most public battle for justice in her

daughter’s shooting death.

“As it stands, most of the information is kept hidden from us,”

said Ewing, who revisited Mexico seeking answers about who shot her

daughter as she was leaving a Guadalajara nightclub in 2004.

Initially, Ewing was told by

police her exchange student daughter’s death was an accident, and

that she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing

can describe the frustration Ewing felt when she learned the suspect

was linked to organized crime and the illegal drug trade, she says.

Investigators shared little information, she says.

“I can understand that there is information that is sensitive. My

reply to this position is there

isn’t anyone in the world who wants these people caught and brought

to justice more than we do, no one.”

“What gives them the right to decide what we should know and what

we should not? What gives them the right to this information while

we are left out in the cold wondering what is being done?”

Shortly before Christmas,

Ewing received the call she’d been waiting for. Mexican police had

charged a suspected shooter in her daughter’s death.

Even when there is justice, it comes with an emotional price.

Erica Wieser was 16 when her brother, Jason Wright, was shot dead

by a stranger near Electric Avenue in 1996.

Wieser remembers sitting through her brother’s murder trial and the

added hurt of

defence arguments which

portrayed her brother as a bully wanting to fight a stranger for no

reason.

But she tries to put it in perspective — her brother’s killer was

convicted of second-degree murder.

“For some of the moms there’s been no justice, at least there was

justice done,” she said.

The 17-year-old Chestermere teen whose single punch killed Tyler

Trithart was found not guilty of manslaughter.

For years, Tyler’s mother has struggled to understand how one boy

was freed while her boy is gone.

“There was no justice. What did that show those 90 kids standing

around watching it happen? I just live with it now. I want my boys

to have a good life like we gave Tyler a good 16 years.”

Helping survivors maintain a focus on the future is a job Pickering

knows all too well.

Pickering was a grief counsellor in Banff when the murder of young

taxi driver Lucy Turmel shook the mountain resort in 1990. Turmel

was discovered stabbed to death, lying in a pool of blood in the

middle of a road.

Faced with a crush of reporters and a dozen traumatized cabbies to

debrief, Pickering experienced the complicated waves of pain caused

by homicide.

“Maybe it was a foreshadowing of how my life would somehow be

directed to be involved in this area in the future,” he said,

reflecting back.

“It seems the future is here.”

Pickering says his ultimate goal is to provide timely access to

grief support to mitigate

further impact on an already stretched health-care system. If

support groups can reach bereaved people early enough, they may

avoid the mental and physical breakdowns connected to extreme grief.

As a teenager, Erica Wieser had the added trauma of witnessing her

parents’ day-to-day struggle with grief.

“It was hard as a child going through it and watching your parents

go through it,” said Wieser.

“I remember walking upstairs at the funeral home and my mother

dropped to her knees. There was nothing we could do. As a family,

you want to be able to help each other. I was a kid, I had no idea

how to help my mom.”

Whether it has been a month or 20 years, sorrow lingers forever

from homicide.

“It’s not about closure or getting over it,” said Pickering. “The

work of grief is about finding a way to invite and acknowledge that

loved one to journey with us into the future in a life-affirming

way.”

Wieser still struggles with her brother’s absence.

“The pain isn’t as intense —

I’ll never forget that day — but now it’s bittersweet. I do still

get angry.”

Her first steps to join the

bereavement group have been

a comfort already, she said.

“The people are so real. They truly understand and it was nice

being in a room with them. The emotions are the same, even if they

are from 10 years ago. I will never forget it, hopefully one day the

pain won’t be as intense as it is.”

Trithart is looking forward to more families participating in the

program, particularly the loved ones of Calgary’s latest homicide

victims.

“We all belong to this club we don’t want to belong to. We didn’t

have a choice. Our kids didn’t deserve this.

“It gives you hope. I just want some hope back in my life. This

group gives you hope. If you can help somebody else, maybe you’re

doing some kind of good.”

To stay connected to her departed daughter, Ewing told her grief

group that she enrolled in a sewing class to learn how to make a

quilt. Using squares of Kristen’s favourite smiley face shorts,

terry cloth bathrobe, pajamas and soccer jerseys, she painstakingly

poured hours into the project. Now, when she has a bad day and

misses her smiling daughter, she can wrap herself in memories.

“How do you find the energy to do everything that needs to be done

when some days it takes all the energy you have just to get through

the day?” she said.

“Somehow we will find a way.”

szickefoose@theherald.canwest.com

© 2006 Postmedia Network Inc. All rights reserved.

20 years after mom’s murder, numbness has replaced shock

Sherri Zickefoose
Calgary Herald
Sun Feb 19 2006

The first time her mother was nearly murdered, Tamara Peaker

was 13 years old.

“I was in the house when it happened. I witnessed my mom bleeding

head to toe,” said Peaker, now 36.

Peaker’s mother, Bonnie, was stabbed 33 times by her common-law

husband John Charles McColeman at their Nanaimo, B.C., home. Bonnie

survived the vicious attack and he served 13 months in jail.

After McColeman was released, he broke into Peaker’s house on Aug.

3, 1984, and got drunk waiting for her mother to come home.

Bonnie fled when she spotted him, but McColeman chased the

35-year-old outside onto the street and killed her. He stabbed her

more than 80 times.

It’s now been more than 20 years, but for Peaker, an only child

without a father, the shattering experience profoundly altered her

life.

“My experience has meant growing up overnight. My childhood was

taken away from me,” said Peaker, who moved to

Calgary a few years ago.

“I only have a couple of memories of my mom. I don’t even remember

what her voice sounds like. I don’t know her quirks or nuances. I

barely even know any of her personality traits.”

Peaker’s friendly smile and easy, explosive laughter belie her

years with a darker struggle fraught with self-doubt.

“I never knew my mom as an adult or as a woman. It has meant not

learning how to bond with other women. This is something you learn

from your mother,” she said.

“It has meant avoiding conversations about my family life. How do

you tell your friends at the age of 16 that your mom was murdered?

It has been a lifetime of just wanting to hug her again.”

Joining the Rockyview hospital’s homicide grief support group has

been a meaningful first step for Peaker to finally connect with

others who can relate to her heartache.

“The support group is a safe place to find out that your suffering

is not unusual. It’s a place to meet friends with a common thread

and understanding of a life-altering experience.”

Part of the insurmountable grief Peaker endures is a dreaded

anticipation of being contacted by the courts when her mother’s

killer applies for parole — again.

In January 2000, Peaker and her mother’s relatives attended

McColeman’s courtroom bid for early parole through the faint-hope

clause.

“It was terrifying,” said Peaker, who returned to her childhood

home of Nanaimo, to testify and face the killer as a grown woman.

“The anticipation of waiting to see him in the courtroom had my

stomach in knots. There he was. I just stared at him.”

The judge rejected McColeman’s application and the killer must now

wait until August 2009 to re-apply for parole, when he will have

served the standard 25 years for first-degree murder.

Peaker continues struggling with darkness and pain, but she says

listening to the grief support survivors share their recent losses

gives her some perspective on her own loss.

“That raw feeling does go away. The shock lasts for years and it

gets replaced with a numbness,” she said.

“But I cope and am a lot gentler with myself.”

Dr. Dorothy Halton: Jan. 25, 1964 to Dec. 11, 2004

Calgary Herald
Sun Feb 19 2006

It’s fitting that a music scholarship and donations to

women’s shelters are being made in Dr. Dorothy Halton’s good name.

Halton, an accomplished musician and emergency room doctor,

achieved much in her 40 years.

Her life was cut short when on Dec. 11, 2004 she was found

strangled in her Ottawa condominium on the Rideau Canal. The

Calgary-born doctor’s abusive former boyfriend, Burns Coutts, 36, a

senior policy adviser with Environment Canada, was charged with

first-degree murder.

But before his trial started, he hanged himself in custody at the

Royal Ottawa Hospital.

The fact that Halton’s killer would never face a judge and be

convicted only added to the family’s pain.

“It made us actually feel sick. He had no remorse and he was

worried about himself and his name,” said Esther Halton, Dorothy’s

sister.

“We have no doubt that he did it. But having it on the record is

important. It was first-degree murder, it was planned. This was not

a heated battle, he came there prepared. This was not just a random

act.”

Grief has been a frequent visitor to Esther’s family, which has

seen the loss of a brother and key clan members.

The murder of her sister, however, is the cruelest and most

painful.

“I just couldn’t handle it. Death is part of life and it’s very

tragic, but this was so overwhelming. You just can’t understand why

it’s so upsetting to you, it’s so overwhelming.”

To help Halton’s legacy endure, a Kiwanis Music Festival

scholarship has been created, according to Esther and her husband

Joe Hillaby. Halton, a talented piano and flute player who enjoyed

creating her own compositions, remains an inspiration to Esther’s

daughter, who is also very musical.

Man stabbed to death at party ‘innocent’

Calgary Herald
Sun Feb 19 2006
Page: A5
Section: News
Dateline: PORT COQUITLAM, B.C.
Source: The Canadian Press

PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. — A young man stabbed to death during a

house party in Port Coquitlam tried in vain to run away from at

least four pursuers during an out-of-control brawl involving dozens

of young people.

“He was an innocent person,” said Kim Blanchard, whose home

overlooks the house where the fight spilled into the street on

Friday night.

Blanchard said she watched as 20-year-old Jesse Penner tried to get

away from the violence at about 11 p.m.

“At 11 o’clock, all hell broke loose. There were at least 50 to 60

kids. They were fighting. The girls were as violent as the boys

were,” she said.

“I heard (Penner) say, ‘I don’t need this, I’m out of here.’ ”

Penner was chased down a lane and cornered against a garage door

about 100 metres from the party. He died in an ambulance on the way

to hospital.

Fire crews later hosed away blood from the ground and door.

Blanchard said the partiers scattered when police arrived.

Police arrested several people at the scene for public intoxication

but had yet to officially link the party with the murder on

Saturday.

“At this time we have not identified any suspects,” said Const.

Dave Babineau.

He said the drunks were arrested for their own safety and would be

released when deemed sober.

Kristen Deyell: Feb. 24, 1984 to April 23, 2004

Calgary Herald
Sun Feb 19 2006
Page: B2
Section: Observer
Source: Calgary Herald

Kristen Deyell was celebrating a friend’s birthday when she

was shot to death outside a Guadalajara nightclub.

The vivacious 20-year-old Mount Royal College student got into a

car outside of Balibar moments before it was sprayed with bullets.

Deyell and a local man were both killed. Deyell’s mother, Cher

Ewing, was in Mexico at the time visiting her daughter, who was

enrolled for a semester at the Instituto Technologico y de Estudios

Superiores de Monterrey.

The son of Mexico’s most wanted drug baron was named as a suspect

in Deyell’s murder last June.

On Dec. 22, Ewing learned that Ivan Guzman Salazar had been

formally charged.

“It was the best Christmas present we could have gotten. I had a

really good cry. It felt like the pressure valve had been released,”

she said.

Recently a group of Kristen’s friends joined Ewing to watch a movie

and play cards. Maintaining a connection with her daughter’s friends

is important, Ewing says.

Framed photographs of the beautiful brunette decorate the house,

and Kristen’s beloved Jeep sits in the family garage.

“We can’t get rid of it, she just loved it.”

Ewing recently dreamed she was talking with her daughter in her

living room. She asked Kristen what she liked best about being

alive. In the dream, a sparkle winked from Kristen’s eye. When Ewing

rephrased the question, the sparkle twinkled from Kristen’s smiling

mouth.

“It felt good to dream about her.”

Jason Wright: Nov. 16, 1976 to Feb. 24, 1996

Calgary Herald
Sun Feb 19 2006
Page: B3
Section: Observer
Source: Calgary Herald

On what would have been Jason Wright’s 30th birthday, glasses

were raised high in a toast to what might have been.

Wright, gunned down in cold blood with a sawed-off rifle during a

brief argument after Electric Avenue bars closed on Feb. 24, 1996,

only made it to 21. He died in his friend Kurt Panich’s arms outside

a Macs convenience store on 5th Street and 11th Avenue S.W.

Although his senseless death at the hands of a stranger happened a

decade ago, family and friends mark his birthday each year and try

to imagine he’s with them on special occasions.

“On every anniversary, I go down to his site and bring flowers,”

said Wright’s sister, Erica Wieser, 26.

Wright’s killer, then 19-year-old Adam Cain Peri, was convicted of

second-degree murder.

“I don’t remember him showing any remorse in court,” said Wieser,

who was just 16 when her brother was killed.

Two years to the day he shot Wright dead, Peri was accused of

taking part in a vicious jailhouse beating of another inmate inside

Drumheller Institution. He was acquitted of that attempted murder

charge.

Loved ones can hardly believe Wright, a Henry Wise Wood high school

grad who was poised to enter a manager’s position at Sally’s Spirit

Wine & Beer Shoppe in southwest Calgary, is really gone.

“It’s still hard,” said Wieser. “But my life has been OK. His best

friend is now my step-brother, and it’s nice we have him in common.”

She keeps photos of her brother out where she can see them.

“He’s a memory that lives on.”

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