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Families Grieve Again After Graves Disturbed : Families Cope With Renewed Grief, Pain


Thoughts of her niece's grave being disturbed had Denise Harlins tossing and turning a few nights ago.

"I had nightmares," says Harlins after learning that proprietors of Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs allegedly attempted to resell burial plots by unearthing scores of bodies and dumping them in a dirt pile.

"All I saw [in my dreams] was that big dirt pile with human bones in it," says Harlins, whose niece, Latasha, then 15, was killed by a Korean-born grocer in a highly publicized, racially charged 1991 case. (Soon Ja Du was sentenced to five years probation for killing the black teen.)

"I didn't go to sleep until 3 a.m. When I woke at 6, I didn't have any good sleep at all. I came to work today and I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't do my job," she says.

Harlins believes--based on a conversation with a state cemetery board official and from an unofficial document--that her niece's grave was among the several hundred graves disturbed. She'll try to find solace at a public meeting at 6:30 tonight at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Training Center, 11515 South Colima Road, Whittier. At the meeting, members of the state cemetery board will explain what they've learned about the status of plots at the cemetery.

But whatever Harlins learns probably will not ease her anxiety, an understandable response to the unwanted tampering with the grave of a loved one. The disturbance, experts say, destroys the sense that survivors have completed a period of mourning and are moving on with their lives.

"We come to a stage of acceptance that this person is now departed," says clinical psychologist Wayne Kelley, who has a private practice in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. "Now a person, or an organization, has stained their resting spot. That creates anger.

"The question is: Who did this?" says Kelley. "That's always the biggest question as well as 'Why did it happen to my loved one?' . . . Another question which comes is what did they do with the body once they dug it up?

"Those questions are as painful as the question of why did he or she have to die in the first place," says Kelley. "The questions begin to parallel one another and they feed each other. That's the emotional trauma."

Trauma may also develop from a sense of betrayal by the cemetery proprietors.

"When a family goes to a mortuary, they are in grief and they are vulnerable," says Gerald A. Larue, emeritus professor of religion at USC. "It's a terrible blow to find that someone who appears to be empathetic to your grief and pain is not honest and that they've taken you and misused you."

In addition, there is an ongoing relationship that exists between the living and the dead, says Larue, citing elaborate Christmas decorations on graves at Forest Lawn, for example, "as if there's an attempt to include the dead in festivals of the living," he says.

"The caring and the sense of loss and the feeling of a desire to maintain a oneness with the deceased . . . is amazingly, beautifully human," says Larue.

For people relating to loved ones in this way, Larue says, the invasion of a grave site is frustrating "because there's not much you can do about it. . . . Unless there's a remedy or some way to find out what happened to the remains."

Underlying these concerns, experts say, is the survivors' need to know that the body is secure and at rest.

"People have need for structure about where is that person and are they at rest," says Sharon Valente, a psychologist who is an assistant professor in USC's nursing department.

"For children sometimes that can be: 'When I look at a star I remember Dad and that he's peaceful in heaven.' For most adults it's the burial place and the whole ceremony surrounding the burial, and the knowledge that the peaceful place is not disturbed.

"Any disruption of the circumstances around the death makes that more difficult. It almost can take people back to . . . how it [originally] feels with all the pain and grief."

That is how Denise Harlins is feeling.

"They went in there and did some things that I can't even find the words to comprehend," she says. "It's a sick feeling. I want some answers. This is not fair to us. We're a family that cannot stop grieving."

'It's a terrible blow [when] someone who appears to be empathetic to your grief . . . [has] misused you.'

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