Saturday, March 8, 2008


Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.
- Buddha

What can hurt a parent worse than to watch the suffering of her or his child? As a mother, I cannot imagine a greater pain. As a social worker, I don't think I've seen greater pain. The only thing worse is feeling powerless to help your suffering child.

Being a parent is the combination of the greatest love and greatest fear. The greatest love because, well, just because it is. There is something ancient and primal about it. The love a parent has for his child is visceral – we can feel it in our guts. That leads to the fear part. We want to protect them, to make them safe, to fight for them, and clear life’s path for them.

In my work, I’ve spoken with many parents who despair at being unable to save their suffering children who are caught up in the trap of domestic violence. We’ve learned to call the victim’s mother when we are prosecuting a batterer. Most of the time, she’s worried about her daughter, even been cut-off from her and can’t figure out a way to help her get away from the violence. Occasionally, we find the mother not defending her daughter, but the batterer. That conversation is also enlightening - and disturbing. We know, too, that the parents of the abuser also suffer. Many times, the son is repeating the lessons of the father. As much as he hated his father beating his mother when he was growing up, he has internalized the behavior.

Not long ago, I met with some parents who were unable to help their daughter. Her estranged husband had killed her. The parents knew their son-in-law had been violent with their daughter. They didn’t know the extent. They did what they could. They begged her to bring her four-year-old son and come home to live with them. The daughter did try to end the relationship with her abusive husband. But, she felt she could manage the situation and didn’t want to move back home with her parents. Who could blame her? She was an adult and didn’t want to feel she was moving backwards in life. Besides, he may have gotten her at work or some other place. Moving home with her parents was no guarantee of safety.

Lost. That is the word I would use to describe her parents. They had endured many sleepless nights knowing their daughter and perhaps their grandson was being hurt. They probably felt some initial relief when their daughter ended the relationship with her husband. They probably didn’t know that a battered woman is most likely to die when she ends the relationship. Many people don’t and that is why they ask, “Why she doesn’t just leave.” They don't realize that leaving is the trigger for death.

The parents did what they could. In the end, it wasn’t enough. Nothing was. How they must have suffered. And, how they will suffer asking themselves “what if” questions. I am sure either one of them would have traded places with their daughter. Most of us parents would gladly trade our suffering for that of our children.

Our part begins with that initial meeting. We will work to bring the killer to justice. I hope the parents experience some catharsis through this process. Many do, I’ve learned. That’s what we can do for them and what we will do for them. It isn’t enough – nothing could be. But, it is something.

In suffering, there is compassion, understanding and eventually hope. The loss of a child, especially to violence, is never something to “get over” and I’ve heard many parents tell me there is no “closure.” Eventually, we hope, there is acceptance and some measure of peace.

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