Coping With an Unspeakable Tragedy

AS TOLD BY JAMES GIARRANO

Being grandparents is one of life’s great joys. With much anticipation my wife, Vicki, and I awaited the birth of our first grandchild. Our daughter, Theresa, and her husband, Jonathan, were expecting a baby in early October 2000. We could not have imagined that we were about to face an unspeakable tragedy.

MY WIFE and I, along with our son and his wife, left for vacation on Saturday, September 23. We were going to meet other relatives and spend a week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Theresa and Jonathan had decided not to come on vacation with us because she was in her ninth month of pregnancy and it was a long drive—about 11 hours from our home in Ohio.

We wanted to postpone our vacation, but Theresa insisted that we go. She assured us that she would be all right. Besides, her doctor felt that her pregnancy would probably go full term, and her due date was a couple of weeks away.

Wednesday, September 27, 2000, was a beautiful day that reminded me of why our family has chosen to vacation in this area for the past several years. Little did we know that before the end of the day, our lives would be drastically changed.

“Theresa Is Missing!”

That evening I received a phone call from my brother back in Ohio. He was extremely hesitant and nervous. Finally, he got the words out: “Theresa is missing!” The police were involved because the events surrounding her disappearance were suspicious. When Jonathan arrived home that afternoon, he found the front door unlocked. Theresa’s breakfast was still on the table, and her purse was left behind. Something else was strange: Her shoes—the only ones that fit her in her ninth month—were still by the door.

Jonathan had called home about 9:30 a.m. Theresa told him that a woman had called saying that she wanted to come and look at the car they were selling. Afterward, Theresa was going to run some errands. Jonathan called home at lunchtime, but he couldn’t reach her. During the afternoon, he kept calling, but there was still no answer. When he got home at 4:15 p.m., he noticed that the car was missing. He called the hospital because he thought that perhaps Theresa had gone into labor. She wasn’t there. He also called some family members, but no one had seen her. He was frantic, so he called the police. About 6:00 p.m., the police found the car not far from their home. But Theresa was still missing.

Back in North Carolina, we were stunned by the news. My wife and I, along with our son and his wife, packed our bags and headed home. It was a long, emotional drive. We traveled through the night and arrived back in Ohio the next morning.

A Break in the Case

Meanwhile, Jonathan and some relatives, close friends, and others cooperated with the police in searching for Theresa, working through the night. The search continued for five agonizing days. Finally, on Monday, October 2, there was a break in the case. By then, the police had traced the phone call that had been made to Theresa’s house on Wednesday morning. A woman who lived just a few blocks away had made the call from a cellular phone.

After interviewing the woman, the police were suspicious. Later that evening the police returned to the woman’s home. But as they approached the door, they heard a gunshot. Breaking into the house, they found the woman dead. She had shot herself. To their surprise, they found a newborn baby boy in a room on the second floor. Incredibly, he had slept through all the commotion!

But still there was no trace of Theresa. For the next few hours, the police searched the house for any evidence that she had been there. The search ended in the early hours of Tuesday morning inside the garage. There, in a shallow grave, they found Theresa’s body. The coroner later determined that she had been knocked unconscious, then shot in the back. She had died instantly, and then her baby had been taken from her womb. In looking back, there is a measure of relief in knowing that she did not suffer.

The newborn baby was taken to the hospital, where he was found to be in excellent health—not a scratch on him! A mandatory DNA test confirmed that he is indeed our grandson. Jonathan gave him the name that he and Theresa had chosen—Oscar Gavin. After a short stay in the hospital, our 8-pound 11-ounce grandson was released into his father’s arms on Thursday, October 5. We were thrilled to have our grandson, but words cannot describe how devastated we were that Theresa was not there to hold him.

Community Reaction

My family and I were moved to tears by the outpouring of support—in many cases from people we had never met. During the days that Theresa was missing, hundreds volunteered to help in the search. Many donated money. Several local office-supply stores made thousands of copies of flyers free of charge. And volunteers distributed the flyers over many miles around Theresa’s home.

One of our Christian sisters works for a local attorney, and when she told him about our situation, he offered to assist. We accepted his offer, and this proved to be a tremendous blessing. He helped us to deal with the media as well as with certain legal issues that arose. In addition, he recommended two private investigators, who did much to help with the case. Their genuine concern for us truly touched our hearts.

After our grandson was recovered, the support intensified. Several grocery stores sent food and household supplies. Many individuals donated clothing for Oscar as well as disposable diapers, baby formula, and toys. We received far more than Oscar could ever use, so we gave the surplus to the maternity ward of a local hospital. Because the media had picked up the story, we received thousands of cards and letters—not just from our community but from around the world.

The outflow of support was particularly evident at the memorial service for Theresa, which was held on Sunday, October 8. We knew that many people wanted to attend, but the response exceeded our expectations. Arrangements were made to use an auditorium at a local high school, and with more than 1,400, it was filled to capacity. In attendance were family members, friends, police officers, the mayor, and others from the community. Members of the media were also present, and local television stations filmed the discourse, which was also broadcast live over the Internet. In addition, hundreds of people stood in the school lobby or huddled under umbrellas outside in the cold rain, listening over speakers that had been hooked up. The discourse gave a far-reaching witness about our Bible-based beliefs.

Afterward, hundreds of people waited patiently in line to offer condolences. We stayed for nearly three hours, hugging all those who had come and expressing our appreciation for their presence. Following the service a local hotel graciously provided a meal for over 300 of our family members, close friends, and others who had assisted in recovering our grandson.

We cannot adequately express how much we appreciate what people—mostly strangers—did to help us. This experience has made us more determined than ever to have a full share in the Christian ministry, for there are a lot of kindhearted individuals whom we want to reach with the good news of God’s Kingdom.—Matthew 24:14.

How the Congregation Responded

From the beginning of this ordeal, we were enveloped by a wave of support from our Christian brothers and sisters. This seemingly endless support came from our own congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as from surrounding congregations.

Even before we arrived home from North Carolina, the elders in our congregation had helped to organize efforts to locate Theresa. Many of our brothers and sisters took time off work to join in the search. Some told their employers that they were willing to forfeit salary, but in some cases their employers gave them time off with pay. During the days that Theresa was missing, some of our spiritual brothers stayed with Jonathan so that he would not be alone. A number of brothers and sisters just came over and kept our home clean and neat. Others helped to feed volunteers and answer the phones.

About six weeks after Theresa’s death, my wife and Jonathan faced a daunting challenge—going through Theresa’s things and clearing out her home. Jonathan felt that he could no longer live in the house that he and Theresa had shared, so he decided to put it up for sale. Going through Theresa’s belongings was a painful task—everything reminded them of her and how much they missed her. But here, too, our brothers and sisters came to our aid. They helped box up her things and even did some needed repairs on the house to prepare it for sale.

Most important, our brothers and sisters provided our family with spiritual and emotional support. They called and visited us to offer encouragement. Many sent touching cards and letters. This loving support continued not just for the first few days and weeks but for many months.

A number of our brothers and sisters told us to let them know whenever we needed someone just to listen, and we have taken them up on their kind offer. It is so comforting to be able to share your feelings with friends you love and trust! Truly, they have exemplified the words of the Bible proverb: “A true companion is loving all the time, and is a brother that is born for when there is distress.”—Proverbs 17:17; 18:24.

The Impact on Our Family

I must say that coping with Theresa’s murder has not been easy for my family and me. It has truly changed our lives. There are times when I am angry that she is not here with me. I miss her hugs and kisses.

My wife was extremely close to Theresa. There wasn’t a day that they didn’t at least talk to each other. They spent countless hours talking about Theresa’s pregnancy. They worked together to set up the nursery.

Vicki describes her feelings: “There are so many things I miss. I miss sharing in the preaching work with her. I miss our shopping together. What hurts the most is not seeing her with her baby—it just breaks my heart. I know how much she loved Oscar even before he was born. She knew that she was having a boy. After I made a blanket for the baby and gave it to her, Theresa wrote me this card:

‘Dear Mom,

Thank you so much for the beautiful baby blanket. I really appreciate all of the hard work that you put into it. I just want to thank you again for all the help and encouragement that you’ve given me to get through some of the hardest times of my life. I will always remember and thank you for that. I’ve heard that one day you’ll grow up and realize that your best friend is your mom. Well, I just thank Jehovah every day that it didn’t take me too long to come to that realization. I will always love you.’”

It was also painful for us to see what our son-in-law went through. While Oscar was in the hospital, Jonathan faced one of the most difficult things he has had to do. Since he decided to move in temporarily with us, he had to move the nursery that he and Theresa had set up at their house. He packed up the rocking horse, the crib, and the stuffed animals and moved them to our home.

What Has Helped Us to Cope

When you lose a loved one in such a tragic way, a lot of confusing questions and emotions arise. There have been times when I as a Christian elder have endeavored to comfort and help others struggling with such questions and feelings. But when you are the one grieving, emotions can cloud clear thinking.

For example, knowing Theresa’s condition and that we would be away for a week, I had prayed for Jehovah to protect her. When she was found murdered, I must admit that I initially wondered why my prayers were not answered. Of course, I know that Jehovah does not guarantee miraculous protection for his people individually. I continued to pray for understanding. I have been comforted in the knowledge that Jehovah protects his people spiritually—that is, he provides what we need in order to safeguard our relationship with him. That type of protection is most important, for it can affect our eternal future. In that sense, Jehovah did protect Theresa; she was serving him faithfully at the time of her death. I have found peace in knowing that her future life prospects are in his loving hands.

A number of scripture texts have been especially comforting. Here are some that have helped me to cope:

“There is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) I have long believed the Bible’s promise of a resurrection to an earthly paradise, but now that hope is even more real to me. Just knowing that I will be able to hold Theresa again has given me the strength to make it through each day.

“Jehovah . . . is a God, not of the dead, but of the living, for they are all living to him.” (Luke 20:37, 38) There is much comfort in knowing that the dead who will one day be resurrected are, even now, “all living” to Jehovah. So from his standpoint, our dear Theresa is very much alive.

Vicki would like to share some of the Bible texts that have been particularly strengthening to her:

“‘It is impossible for God to lie.’ (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2) Because Jehovah cannot lie, I know that he will fulfill his promise to resurrect the dead.

“‘Do not marvel at this, because the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear [Jesus’] voice and come out.’ (John 5:28, 29) The words ‘memorial tombs’ suggest that Theresa is in Jehovah’s memory until he has his Son, Jesus Christ, resurrect her. I know that there is no safer place for her to be than in Jehovah’s perfect memory.

“‘In everything by prayer and supplication along with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known to God; and the peace of God that excels all thought will guard your hearts and your mental powers by means of Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4:6, 7) In particular, I pray for Jehovah’s spirit to give me strength. When I get really upset, I go to Jehovah and say, ‘I need more of your spirit,’ and he helps me through another day. Sometimes I cannot even articulate the words, but he gives me the strength to go on.”

Jehovah truly has helped us to cope with this unspeakable tragedy. Oh, we still grieve for our dear Theresa. We expect that our grief will not be completely erased until we can hug her again in Jehovah’s new world. In the meantime, we are more determined than ever to serve Jehovah faithfully. Jonathan is determined to do his best to raise Oscar to love and serve Jehovah, and Vicki and I will assist him in every way possible. It is our heartfelt desire to be on hand in God’s new world to welcome Theresa back and introduce her to the son that she did not get to hold in her arms.

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Our daughter Theresa, listening to her baby’s heartbeat

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We felt the outflow of support at the memorial service

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With my wife, Vicki, at Theresa’s wedding

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Our grandson Oscar