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Parents of Slain Children Needn't Face Grief Alone

January 09, 1991|SHERRY ANGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANAHEIM — It's been nearly seven months since 9-year-old Autumn Wallace was murdered, and most of those who were close to her have buried their pain and moved on with their lives.

But not her mother, Linda Wallace. Although she has returned to work and usually tells people she's fine when they ask, her grief is still intense.

She still needs to talk about Autumn, to share the good memories that she hopes will someday stop her from dwelling on her daughter's violent death. But the number of relatives and friends who understand that need and are willing to listen has dwindled to just a few.

One friend who is still there for Wallace is Linda Hand, the mother of Autumn's best friend.

Wallace asked for Hand almost immediately after she came home from work about 5:45 p.m. on June 15 and found Autumn's body lying face down in a pool of blood in the bathroom.

When Hand arrived at the neighbor's house where Autumn's family had gathered, a distraught Wallace grabbed her and cried: "Linda, make it not be true. Please bring my baby back!"

Autumn had been stabbed repeatedly while she was alone in her house on Hudlund Drive in an unincorporated area between Stanton and Anaheim, waiting for her mother and 18-year-old sister, April, to get home from work.

While the murder was still making headlines, 42-year-old Linda Wallace was surrounded by warm, caring people who did their best to comfort her. But then the support system that enveloped her in the first weeks of shock and sorrow began to break down, and Wallace, whose husband died of cancer three years ago, felt increasingly alone in her grief.

Desperate to find people who could understand what she was feeling, she turned to the Orange County chapter of Parents of Murdered Children for support.

She also began seeing a therapist once a week and found herself growing closer to Hand, who had been a casual acquaintance before Autumn's death but had become the one friend with whom Wallace felt completely free to talk.

It's rare to have a friend like Hand who is willing to stay close during what may seem like an endless period of mourning, says Kathryn Yarnall, who is assistant director of the Irvine-based Victim/Witness Assistance Program and who leads the monthly meetings of Parents of Murdered Children.

She says well-meaning friends often tell survivors, "You've got to put this behind you and get on with your life."

But, Yarnall notes, such advice doesn't help those who are still overwhelmed by a loss that is especially difficult for survivors to accept because it resulted from a violent act and because they must relive it again during a murder trial that subjects them to repetitive, often insensitive questions from attorneys and reporters.

Charlotte Hullinger, who founded Parents of Murdered Children in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1978 after her daughter, Lisa, was killed, gives this explanation for creating a comfortable place for survivors to talk:

"The anger felt by a parent of a murdered child is too threatening to many people, so they try to calm us down and discourage us from fully experiencing the intensity of our emotions. And yet if healing is to take place, it must be by expressing and working through our feelings, no matter how negative or destructive they may seem to others, rather than by denying and repressing them."

In "Beyond Sympathy," author Janice Harris Lord observes that "our society expects people to recover from losses very quickly. People tire of listening and supporting." Or, she adds, "they abandon their friend or loved one because they don't know what to say or do."

Yarnall says friends may also withdraw out of fear. "At some level people become afraid because murder is something that happens to somebody else, not somebody you know," she explains.

When it happened to Autumn, Linda Hand didn't suffer any of the uncertainties or fears that keep some friends from reaching out to bereaved loved ones. In a way, she was grieving for a lost daughter, too, so she felt a special bond with Wallace.

Autumn and Hand's 9-year-old daughter, Ronelle, had been friends since they were 4, but they became especially close after Autumn's father died and her mother had to start supporting her family alone.

Autumn used to spend almost every weekend with the Hands, who lived just a few blocks away, and she joined Ronelle and her parents on many outings and short trips. She was treated like a member of the family, says Hand, who recently put together a scrapbook of pictures showing a smiling Autumn playing with her best friend.

"I miss her terribly--she was such a big part of our lives," says the 40-year-old nurse, who works at Anaheim General Hospital.

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