It was a summer morning in Michigan. The phone rang. The caller told Cheryl that it was an emergency.
“It was 8:08 am,” she says quietly, her voice breaking. “I’ll never forget.”
We’re talking about the events leading up to the death of Julie, her 27-year-old daughter.
“I hadn’t slept well that night, not sure why. Just an uneasy feeling all night long,” Cheryl explains. “Yet when the phone rang, I knew right away. I felt it.”
She became hysterical, started screaming, and was so fearful of what might have happened that she had to be driven to the hospital.
Once there, she found Julie in the ICU on full life support. Her brain had shut down.
Positive, outgoing Julie, mother of two and much-loved sister and daughter, was being kept alive by machines. Only hours before she’d been celebrating at her best friend’s bachelorette party. She was to be a maid of honor at the wedding. Her friend was marrying her brother.
And yet she went home early. Her boyfriend phoned and insisted she leave. According to those who were with her, she seemed fearful.
That was the last time any of her family saw her alive.
Julie had recently moved into a new home with her young son and daughter. “She lived for her kids,” says Cheryl. “They were the loves of her life.”
“The three of them had been living with me,” explains Cheryl. “Eventually, they moved out. Julie was so excited to have found a place of her own. We’d message every day…”
But then something started going awry. Julie had met a man, and had started dating. Her mother was worried — she could tell something was wrong.
Julie said it was her fault that there were problems in the relationship. She seemed unhappy and stressed.
Tragically, it’s often the victims suffering from domestic violence who attempt to make things look normal to others. They minimize the extent of the abuse or hide it altogether.
They’re scared, embarrassed or fear retaliation. Sometimes they’re in denial about what’s happening. This can lead to victim shaming.
It’s also one of the reasons why domestic violence is taboo.
The devastating reality is that nearly half of all female murder victims in the U.S. are killed by a current or former dating partner. Research indicates that women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by anyone else.
And at a time such as this, during a pandemic, living with an abuser 24/7 may be extremely dangerous. For victims of domestic abuse, lockdown may well result in being exposed to more violence.
In an average year in the US, more than 10 million Americans suffer physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. Organizations providing shelter for abuse victims fear that measures taken to fight the coronavirus will drive these numbers up.
Cheryl describes what happened next. “We kept her alive for seven days so the family could come down to say goodbye,” she tells me with unrehearsed candor. “The day before taking her off life support, we sat in the ICU. We had to explain to her nine-year-old son and two-year-old daughter what was happening.”
And how does one do that? What goes through a mother’s heart when she has to tell her own grandchildren that their mom is going to die?
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Cheryl says.
She goes silent for a few moments before continuing: “Telling her baby boy… she would not be in pain anymore… and her little girl that heaven needed another angel.”
Then Cheryl adds, this time with conviction, “But I don’t ever want them to think that their mom abandoned them, so when they ask, I explain she was murdered.”
On July 10th, 2016, Julie’s life support was switched off.
“The hospital where I gave birth to Julie is where she took her last breath,” Cheryl says gently. “I remember the day she was born, this beautiful tow-head blonde with chubby little cheeks. She gripped my finger right after she was born. All five of her beautiful little fingers wrapped ever so tightly around my pinkie as if she knew ‘this is my mommy’ – like she didn’t ever want to let go.”
On the morning of the attack, firefighters had found Julie barely alive, lying naked on the front lawn outside her home.
Inside, the door to the shower room had been kicked in, and the shower curtain ripped off the rail. When the Emergency Medical Responders arrived, she was reported as saying, “Please help me, I’m dying.”
Julie had multiple injuries to her head. She also had every rib but two broken, both lungs had collapsed, a lacerated liver, two spinal cord fractures, a fractured collarbone, a lacerated spleen, swelling around the heart, and multiple strokes all over her brain.
She had road burn on both sides of her body as well as bruising up around her chest and neck area.
Knowing that our child suffered in their last moments is every homicide loss parent’s worse nightmare. We struggle desperately with the fact that our child was in pain, and was alone as they died. Cheryl is no exception.
“My heart hurts so much thinking about how scared she was. She always called me when she was scared or hurt! Always!” And then she adds: “I wasn’t there, Katja. My baby needed me, and I wasn’t there.”
Her words pierce my heart. To not have been able to protect our child is a horror homicide loss parents must learn to live with every day.
And what about Julie’s killer? Is he in prison?
“No. He’s walking the streets again, on probation. He only spent six months in the county jail.”
Sadly, I’m not surprised by this. The judicial system is broken the world over. That a killer can get away with murder or be sentenced to a short prison term, is not unusual.
Cheryl explains. “He pleaded guilty to reckless driving causing death. There were multiple hearings over three years. The day of the trial, prosecutors pressed to accept a plea deal.”
One of the re-traumatizing elements of being a co-victim of homicide is having to go to Court.
It takes courage and fortitude to withstand the public hearings when your child’s killer is sitting only a few feet away.
“I have been in court for every hearing. Never missed one. The first time I saw him in court, I broke down. Then, I ran into him randomly, and I had a severe anxiety attack. I didn’t go to work the next day, and I couldn’t sleep or eat for days.”
Cheryl works as a technician in a hospital helping those undergoing dialysis. Following Julie’s homicide, she took ten weeks off but had no option to stay home for longer – she had to go back to work.
“Dealing with patients whose life expectancy is less than five years, well, I put on a face and shut down.” It’s tough and often she feels she’s running on empty.
“Some days I’m angry and strong, and other days I’m lost and confused.” She says she finds it hard to put into words how she’s feeling. “I’m not good at expressing emotions. When I try to explain how bad my heart and soul feel, the word ‘broken’ always comes to my mind.”
And now with the coronavirus? How is she dealing with the added stress?
“The whole situation has caused my anxiety to be extreme. Nightmares, lack of sleep… the pandemic definitely affects my grief for Julie. And I worry about my patients. Last night I woke up in a cold sweat, crying.”
But she fights on in memory of her daughter. Cheryl has set up a FB page Julie Warriors and now tries to raise awareness about domestic violence, or as it’s often referred to — IPV (Intimate Partner Violence).
She also supports Turning Point, a non-profit organization providing individual counseling services for children, teen and adult survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
“I’m definitely very concerned for the women who are locked down with their abusers,” she adds. “I worry that there’ll be arguments that will lead to further abuse.”
Along with Julie’s children, siblings, and friends, Cheryl has participated in the Tara Grant Walk. “I’m advocating for victims. I want to break this taboo. It’s what Julie would do.”
Cheryl explains that many organizations helping victims of abuse have put out special telephone numbers. And shelters are open during the lockdown.
And then she says, “I want to stop these domestic abusers. If Julie’s face, her story, if what happened saves one person, I know she’d be so proud.”
HOW TO GET HELP
Safety Alert: Your computer can be monitored by your abuser. It is difficult to clear your tracks completely. Follow this link www.awhl.org for advice on how to erase your cache and browser history.
USA — National Domestic Violence Hotline — advocates are available 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) in more than 200 languages. All calls are free and confidential.
UK — Government Domestic Abuse Website — find out how to get help if you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse. Also, the Women’s Aid website has specific advice for those living under the Covid-19 lockdown.
Australia — National Counselling Service webpage