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Circle of Love

Faced with heart-rending tragedy, a Ladera Heights family found there is no replacement for the support of loved ones in times of loss.

July 21, 1999|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last weekend on TV, we watched some of the Kennedys walk on the Cape Cod shore. We saw them gathered at night, silhouettes in the windows of their Hyannisport homes as they waited for news of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s downed plane. We heard the endless drone of TV's talkers, asking somberly what it must be like for them--such a large family, cloistered together again to endure yet another loss?

Is a family's grief more manageable if there are more family members to share it? Is a family's solace more potent if there are relatives to empathize?

Pamela Klein doesn't have to wonder. Her own tragedy has lent answers she'd rather not have.

Her family--the Coles, of Ladera Heights--had none of the Kennedys' fame or power. But she believes those are irrelevant assets in times of grief. What counts is the closeness of a large family, the indescribable bond that can cement together parents, siblings and a whole array of relatives, no matter how devastating the trials.

*

In 1991, Pamela's father Robert Cole was a practicing orthopedic surgeon. He and his wife, Barbara, were the parents of three grown daughters and a son.

Two of the daughters, Pamela Klein, 34, and Stephanie Content, 32, were married but as yet had no children. Kathy Simpkin, 29, had three--all babies at the time.

Robert Cole Jr., 27, had finished medical school in Washington, D.C., and won a prestigious internship with an AIDS specialist in Australia.

It was a golden time in the Cole family, Pamela Klein recalls, especially for Robert Jr.

"He was so excited about becoming a doctor, getting this job, changing the world. We were all so happy--and so happy for each other."

On Feb. 1, 1991, Stephanie drove to LAX for dinner with her brother, who was due to change planes there on his way to Australia.

He never appeared. His arriving US Air flight slammed into a departing commuter jet while Stephanie waited in the terminal. She phoned her sisters, who called various other relatives, all of whom converged on the airport. Her parents, away for a wedding, heard the news on TV and headed back.

Klein remembers that all relatives and friends of passengers were ushered into an airport VIP room staffed with Red Cross trauma experts to await news of possible survivors. In retrospect, Klein says, it was there that she first understood the difference between people sharing grief with their families and those dependent upon strangers for hope and for help.

"The Red Cross was great with people. But I had my sisters, parents, aunts, uncles. I got such great support from that. I remember crying in the arms of my sister, who was feeling the exact same agony.

"When you grieve with family, strength is not necessary. You don't have to act any particular way, because they are grieving too. You don't have to worry about your body language, words, the expression in your eyes. You can't say or do anything wrong when you're with family--you don't have to 'hold up.' You can completely let go. You don't have to feel guilty about maybe making someone feel sorry for you. . . . They feel sorry for themselves, just as you do.

"Outsiders feel pity for someone in pain. But family members don't--because they share the same raw, deep agony."

Hilary Cohen, director of Our House in Los Angeles, which offers grief support groups for adults and children, says that big families indeed offer "more people who can be supportive. But the flip side is you have more personalities to deal with."

*

The Cole family waited at the airport all night. The next day, after being told that Robert had "probably died" in the crash, they gathered at their parents' home. They fell into each other's arms and howled; they sat in a circle, held hands and prayed.

The sisters' husbands took care of all the details of death: obtaining the dental records to help identify the body, going to the morgue, the coroner's office, whatever needed to be done.

"They took care of it all," Klein recalls, "so that we, the most grieving, could do nothing but grieve." Members of Barbara Cole's bridge club, women who'd practically become part of the family after hanging out together for 25 years, came in to cook and clean.

All this time, Klein says, the family presumed that the worst had happened.

"But much like the Kennedys, we held something out in our gut. Just held it open, in case the phone should ring and somebody told us our brother had turned up in a hospital and wasn't really dead. You know in your heart he's dead, but it's too painful. You can't let go of hope just yet."

Later in the day, the coroner's office called to say that Robert's body had been identified.

Even now, eight years later, Klein starts to sob as she recounts "the indescribable, shocking pain." For weeks afterward, she says, she barely slept. When she did, she dreamed of specific ways in which he might have died without pain. "You want so much for the end of their life not to be painful. . . . You try and re-create a painless death in your dreams."

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