The headlines in Tampa Bay newspapers in recent years have been enough to overwhelm. Multiple children have been murdered in shocking ways, and to make a horrible event worse, in many cases, the murderer has been proven to be the child’s mother. The past week in Tampa Bay has brought the news of three more lives cut far too short in this way. In one case, the story is focused on a 14 year old girl. Unable to face motherhood, she allegedly delivered at full term in the bathroom of her family home, killed her healthy baby and then cleaned up the evidence and hid the corpse in her own bedroom, only to have it found days later as her mother gathered her laundry. In the second case, a married mother in her 30s evidently snapped while home alone one evening with her boys. After allegedly drowning them in the bathtub of their home, she went into another room and hung herself from the ceiling light fixture. Her husband, the boys’ father, came home late after an evening out with friends to discover his entire family dead.
The words may read as rather matter-of-fact, but these stories are truly heartbreaking. They have brought a sense of devastation to a large community. It is difficult for most of us to even conceive of the pain of the survivors in these cases and others like them. The fact that there is one of these stories every so often in this part of Florida has also not gone unnoticed. In fact, the preacher this morning at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Tampa, The Reverend Dr. David Shelor, who is also the church’s pastor, spoke to this issue. For me, his words linked some things that I have been reflecting about for a long time and brought me to the following conclusion: These violent acts first began as spiritual struggles.
Anytime a parent kills a child, the situation is of the most complicated and devastating nature. For this reason, when there is a surviving accused parent, the trial is of the most delayed and emotional nature. In almost every instance, only the most severe forms of mental illness are proven to be a factor in the crime. As a society, we believe it is simply unnatural for a parent to choose to kill their own child and so, we accept that a complete and total breakdown has preceded the final act.
However, not everyone appears to recognize how closely aligned experiences of emotional and spiritual breakdown are at their most basic origins. The murder last weekend of two South Tampa boys, ages 5 and 9, was not carried out by a random maniac. There appears to be little doubt, based on published interviews with multiple family members on both sides of the family and friends, and a brief police investigation, that the children were killed by their mother in a very tragic murder-suicide. What is also tragic is that all of these people are still speaking of how much this mother loved her children, even as they are laying them to rest. In fact, the three will be buried together at the cemetery in a family plot and the father has already spoken to the press about his grief and his lack of anger at his wife. He and his side of the family have already forgiven her, they say. This magnifies the tragedy is some ways because it is witness that there was clearly a lot of love in this family and one day, it all went horribly awry.
But these crimes do not come from out of the blue. Although folks don’t talk much about this, it is not just emotional health that keeps us healthy when we live closely with other people. Spiritual health is also key. Isolation, for example, is a spiritual loss. Mothers in these cases who become terribly isolated have been repeatedly shown to be far more likely to abuse, neglect or even kill their own children. In general, it is an extremely rare form of crime. Total isolation is not just a loss of close friends. It is also, perhaps, having a spouse but having no real relationship with that person; feeling cut off in a marriage that may be headed for a divorce that no one realizes is in the works. We now know, from her grieving husband, that the mother in South Tampa had been told by him that he planned to leave their marriage within 24 hrs of her actions.
The rest of us can sometimes perceive parents as living in a far more connectional world than it turns out they inhabit when we get to know them more deeply. Very deep isolation, where one has left (or never joined) a religious community; is not really sharing any deep family relationships; has let go of or never formed friendships; is not in any community groups or talking with anyone who is in the lives of their children, can rapidly spiral into separation from God. God is still present, but a totally suffering person may not see, feel or recognize God. From this total isolation, it is not much of a leap to be in private hell. All of the other problems that families face today in terms of the economy, loss of employment, mental and physical health challenges and so forth can only add to the pain of some one who may already feel she has lost everything.
Perhaps rather than being so sad, bereft even, after each senseless loss of a child and their parent, the answer is for more of us to start recognizing and responding to the warning signs. I have certainly known parents, men and women, that I felt reason to worry about. It may be that none of them will ever kill their children. I certainly hope not. But I don’t like to think that anyone clase to me has been suffering and I did not try to help either. I have come to stop and notice when children always appear to be very sad, when a parent seems to be under far too much stress every time we see each other, when children appear underfed, improperly clothed, or parents appear lonely, isolated or utterly miserable.
I’ve decided that just as we all learned growing up about the kid in the school yard that no one would talk to, these adults need us to approach them and offer a kind word, a smile, or small joke and if we cannot crack that shell after multiple tries and we continue to be concerned and feel our concern is growing and we do not know what to do, then there is absolutely no reason we cannot approach a second adult to guide us in how to help these members of our communities. A person who is miserable in front of us, even that person we feel we do not know very well, may actually silently wish we would help them. And if we help them, we may help their children too. We are all interlinked more than we think. We are all members of the family of God, whether we think of it in this way or not. God does not discriminate. And when even one child is murdered in our midst, we all suffer from a little wound that is never quite going to heal.