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Gary Borders: On what not to say to the families of murder victims

Gary Borders

A year has passed since our family became engulfed in a horrific tragedy. My father-in-law, Harris Teel, was stabbed in the heart two days before Thanksgiving while sitting in a waiting room at the Good Shepherd day surgery center in Longview. Nurse Gail Sandidge died on the scene, and three others were wounded. Mr. Teel — who was 82 and in good health at the time — died nine days later.

A suspect awaits a capital murder trial, another ordeal this family will have to face. My wife and her three brothers lost their father; our daughter and her cousins lost their Papa. The one thing I am more certain of than ever is that none of us will ever be the same.

I want to talk about how this has affected us, and how the well-meaning but careless words of others can cause even more pain. Maybe someone reading this will think before saying something silly to someone reeling from such a loss.

In the weeks and months after this occurred, the four words any of us — but especially Mr. Teel’s children and grandchildren — hated to hear were, “How are you doing?”  Or, to me, “How are they doing?” meaning the family.

There is no good way to answer this. The truth was — and is — we are not doing well at all; that is to be expected. But for the most part, people don’t want to hear that. It reminds me of a line from “The Late Show,” a Jackson Browne song: “Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing, cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care.”

That might seem a bit harsh in this situation, but so often when I replied to the question, “How are they doing?” by saying, “Not well,” or simply, “Terribly,” people would recoil, change the subject, or find an excuse to slip away. Especially in the first days and weeks after, when asked that question I wanted to say, “How do you think they are doing? How would you be doing?”

But I didn’t.

Other inane remarks and questions followed in the following months. “She (or he) will feel better when she (or he) goes back to work and things get back to normal.” “Time heals all wounds.” “Are they getting over it yet?”

Here is the thing. There is no “normal” for this family, or for any family of a murder victim. Time does not heal all wounds. Some wounds simply do not heal. You just learn how to live with them. And nobody ever, ever gets “over it.”

Really, there is very little that one can, or should, say to people facing this type of tragedy. I was the primary caregiver for my parents in their final years. Both died in the past five years. As much as I loved them, the pain of their dying from natural causes pales in comparison. That is very hard for others to understand, so please take my word for it.

The more thoughtful responses invariably came from the people who knew us best, and in a few instances from people who have suffered similar losses. All that really needs to be said to someone is that you are sorry for the loss and can’t imagine what they are going through. And is there anything that you can do, any way to help?

Anything else is superfluous and, as I said, often unintentionally hurtful. In the past, at some point I have probably said something similarly ill-thought to someone grieving. It will never happen again.

We are a family of strong faith, and for at least some of us it has been sorely tested. I still grapple with trying to understand why this happened, and I guess I always will. I continue to pray for guidance and for at least a small measure of relief for these people I love so dearly, especially as we endure the holidays. And I pray for anyone else who is facing a similar situation, for nurse Gail Sandidge’s family in particular.

It is a hard season.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.