Time is on your side…..

My 21 year old son, Christopher Robin Hotchkiss, was shot four times with a handgun on March 21, 1996, by his school roommate, Mark James Taylor, because Christopher put dishes in the wrong cabinet. 

I had just seen Christopher a few days earlier. He came to visit and I’d stocked him up with enough food for the week. We did his laundry together and when he left, he gave me a huge hug and told me “I love you, Mom” as his green eyes sparkled.

I couldn’t believe what I heard when the police told me Christopher was dead.  Was this real? Could it be a mistake?

Shock set in. My body rocked back and forth. I kept saying, “They killed him.” I cried rivers of tears. In those first 15 minutes, I lost every liquid a body can lose from every place a body can. The shock was so much more physical than I’d ever imagined. I felt like I had been run over by a huge tractor trailer truck, without visible bruises or breaks. I was racked with emotions. It all seemed like a horror movie. But in movies, when murder takes place, it is phony. This was happening, and to us.  It was real. VERY REAL!

It hit me that his chapter with our family was over. No more photos, no graduation. I wouldn’t watch Christopher get married, wouldn’t be a grandmother to his children. Our photo albums would not be filled by him, and our lives would never be the same. No more memories with Christopher in them.

The next morning, I awoke to the waves of grief brought into my life by Christopher’s murder. They would roll into me, body and soul, and engulf me. The waves wouldn’t let me come up for air. My tears wouldn’t stop. My skin was salty. I was still in shock. Total shock. I would go outside just to feel the cold, so I could sense where my body ended.

Well-intentioned friends would tell me I’d feel better someday.  I didn’t think I would.  Ever.  When my “Mother on Earth,” Beth (my biological mother died three days after Christopher was born) said, “You don’t have to get over this, ever.”  I felt so comforted.....and still do to this day. I was relieved that I was not expected to “get over” the death of my son. Why would I want to ever “get over” him, he is part of me?

I had a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that the rest of the world was turning as usual; people drove to work and shopped for dinner, while our world was turned upside down. Would life ever be normal again? What was normal? The first time I went into my local grocery store to buy food, I remember thinking “Don’t all you people know how much pain I am in?” I realized, of course they did not have a clue.  How could they? You would not wish anyone the pain and trauma of losing a child.

The first of everything is the worst when you are deep in grief; the first hour, the first day, the first week, the first month and the first year.  Christopher was killed on a Thursday morning (March 21, 1996) and I dreaded Thursday mornings for a long time.  The reality that you are a parent of a murdered child is a very hard first.  It is even hard to say “My son was murdered.”  People are very curious by nature and want to know what happen.  Most of the time I was prepared to speak with them about Christopher’s murder, but occasionally, it was not the right time or place.  I would just say,” I am happy to share with you but this is not the time.  We need to be here for the reason we came.”

Another very hard first was going through Christopher’s things.  Some were in storage here at home and the rest came from the apartment he shared with his murderer.  I felt it was very important to give Christopher’s possessions to his friends.  I imagined it would help with their grief.  I know it made me feel better.  This was a first for them to have lost a young friend.

 I kept Christopher’s favorite pair of green shorts, which he practically lived in, and his favorite lime-green blanket.  Some of what I still have from his life has become treasures: his baby teeth and hair from his first haircut, for example.  Anything with his handwriting is very dear, as are art projects from school.

April Fool’s Day came right after Christopher was murdered and I found myself wishing with every part of my being that this had been a “joke.”  Just have him walk in the door....please!

The first time I went to get my nails done, a few days after Christopher was murdered, my nail person looked at me in shock and said “Why are you here?”

“Because I want to do something normal,” I replied.

Then his first “birthday” (May 15) without Christopher, which is still the hardest day of the year for me.  I birthed him and my mothering is such a huge part of who I am; losing him was and is extremely difficult.  It was also very difficult for his sister, Christina, and any time she was in pain, it was more difficult for me.  As a parent, I wanted to kiss her, put a bandage on her “owie” and have everything be better.  But this time, nothing would have worked ‑ not for this kind of trauma.

Christopher’s birthday is followed by Mother’s Day, which adds to the birthday sadness already there.  All celebration firsts without your loved one are painful.  In the beginning you are so raw with grief; even small everyday things are hard to do.  I remember the first time I laughed.  I was so shocked.  I think someone told a joke.  It was as if a light had come on – I just laughed!  For me it was a small forward step in the grief process.  But going to any kind of celebration was very hard; even with family.  Several months after Christopher was murdered we celebrated our grandson’s birthday.  It was hard to join in the festivities without thinking that Christopher would never have any more birthdays.  But, after embracing the sadness (feeling sorry for myself was never comfortable), I knew it was important to celebrate the life in front of me.  Constantly reminding myself of how important it is to “be here now” helped me stay present in the joy around me.  I also KNEW Christopher didn’t want me down here miserable and certainly would want me to embrace the joy.

The first time I went to a large gathering was a significant reminder of how my life had been altered.  I am the kind of person who can cross a ballroom filled with people and talk to most of them.  I love people.  If I don’t know them, it is not a problem.  I just start talking and making friends.  This time was different.  My protective shield had been breached and I needed someone I knew to be with me.  I felt so vulnerable and so exposed.  I was not my carefree self.  It took a while for that part of me to come back.  It has and I am grateful.

This was the first time in my life I was not taking care of everyone else.  I was the doer in our family and the glue that bound us together.  But now, I felt the need to give the tragedy of Christopher’s murder my full focus and energy.  I arranged grounding things for myself, regular massages and short visits with close friends.  It was a time I needed to be kind to myself and not feel selfish for doing what I needed to do to get through another day.  I learned that the shower and the treadmill were great places to cry.  I realized I had permission to cry anywhere at any time for the rest of my life.  You need to get good at listening to yourself.  Know what your limits are and what you need to get through things.  For a while I always traveled with someone close to me.  If that was not possible, I didn’t go. 

Visiting my son Christopher’s resting place was also a very hard first for me.  It seems so unreal to have to visit your son on top of a mountain; under a tree.  To this day, it is still painful.  It is a very real reminder of his being taken from us in such a violent way.

The first anniversary of Christopher’s death was particularly difficult.  It was another marker in the tragedy of his death.  Yet, another reminder he would never come home from school.  Fortunately time passes quickly and eventually becomes a very gentle and welcome healer.  The first year I did not want to go to sleep on the 364th day.  I did not want to face the reality that it had been a whole year without Christopher.  Now, the years roll along – each one different but a bit kinder to us all.

17 years have passed now.  Every occasion is different.  No anniversary is the same.  The anticipation is now worse than the actual day.  Christopher’s murder has become part of my life.  I am used to it and it feels comfortable to carry it around now.  My story is harder for the first-time listener than for me now; it has become such a part of me.

For those who have lost a dear one, know that time is on our side….




About the Author
Since the murder of her son, Christopher, in 1996, Radha Stern has devoted herself to helping others who have lost a loved one due to a violent crime. She created and maintains her website, Griefprints.com, to share her experiences throughout her journey from the darkness of grief into the light of gratitude. She is active in Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (formally the Legal Community Against Violence) and the Insight Prison Project, as well as The Compassionate Friends, an organization for parents who have lost a child. Radha is an experienced grant maker, fundraiser, and marketer, and her extensive volunteer activity over the last two decades includes work with trade organizations, advocacy groups, and victim’s rights programs. She is a past member of the Board of Directors for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation; a program officer for a family philanthropic foundation that supports organizations providing basic services to critical-need populations; and a volunteer at the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks. Radha’s book, Griefprints: A Practical Guide for Supporting a Grieving Person was published in June 2013. She is also a contributor to the inspirational book Courage Does Not Always Roar: Ordinary Women with Extraordinary Courage (Simple Truths, 2010). A native Californian, she lives with her husband, Gary; together they have five children and five grandchildren.
I'm Grieving, Now What?