ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Betsy Rosenberg had a sense of humor that cut through tension in a way nobody else in her family could.
Only after she was murdered — when her parents and siblings needed her wit more than ever — did her family come to fully understand the happiness she brought to their lives.
“She had the best sense of humor among us, so we were a little more somber and boring without her,” said Betsy’s sister, Jean Parks. “Our family gatherings and holidays were inevitably different.”
It’s little things like that, compounded by the sudden and violent nature of homicide, that make the grieving process especially difficult for those who have lost loved ones to homicide.
That’s why Parks, and a small team of victim advocates, have spent the last year putting together Asheville’s only support group for the friends and families of murder victims.
The Asheville-Buncombe Homicide Survivor Support Group will be the second such group in the state recognized by the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network, a nonprofit whose mission is to help the loved ones of homicide victims.
The group was to meet for the first time at the YWCA. Neither Parks nor any others involved with the group know how many people would attend, but they did know how important this resource can be for people whose lives have been derailed by the violent, often senseless acts of another.
Betsy Rosenberg was beaten to death late one night in 1975 while she was walking from the N.C. State University library, where she was studying for finals, to her car across the street.
Though it’s been more than 40 years, Parks said she still struggles at times with sadness, anger and a host of other emotions tied to the loss of her sister.
That doesn’t at all surprise Tamara Hanna, an Asheville-based therapist who specializes in grief counseling. Contrary to the saying, time doesn’t heal all wounds.
“If you’ve got a flat tire, you wouldn’t just sit there waiting for it to get fixed,” she said. “There is the hope that your situation can be changed, but it’s going to take getting help and addressing what’s happened.”
Hanna, along with Christians for a United Community Director Tyrone Greenlee, will be facilitating the homicide survivor support group meetings, where she hopes to help people address their grief.
It’s important that people begin unpacking their emotional baggage as soon as possible in the wake of trauma or tragedy, Hanna said, especially when trying to grapple with murder. Few people know that better than Parks, who also is a therapist.
“You can’t go back to the way things were before the death,” Parks said. “The hope is that you can arrive at a way of life where the loss is not the most prominent focus for you and you can start to enjoy life again.”
Hanna calls that “creating a new picture of life after loss.”
Freida MacDonald, a Raleigh resident, has been attending the Wake County homicide survivor support group meetings since the group began three years ago. She is one of about 18 people who regularly attend the meetings, and she will likely continue to participate “until the day I die,” she said.
Her son, Stephen Curtis Hoyle, was murdered by armed robbers in 2012 at the age of 24.
“It was the end of my innocence,” she said. “Having somebody who had to make take his vitamin every day when he was a kid get shot a couple of times, it really changed the way I looked at the world.”
The only people she found who could relate were the members of her support group who she has since formed lasting relationships with.
Bass, who facilitates the group meetings, said one woman in the Raleigh support group once told him “I feel like I can breathe again,” describing the sensation after a meeting. MacDonald knows that feeling, too.
Support groups for the families of murder victims are able to put grief in perspective, which is critical to the healing process, she said. Hanna agrees.
MacDonald at one support group meeting shared a story about walking out to her car only to realize she’d lost her keys.
“That can happen to anybody but it was happening to me all the time, and I felt like I was going crazy,” she said.
As it turns out, disorganization is a common symptom of grief associated with the loved ones of murder victims, according to Bass and Hanna. And the members of MacDonald’s support group let her know that. One woman told her that she’d found her keys in her refrigerator.
“Somehow that was very reassuring to me,” MacDonald said. “You look at them and you share a laugh and you realize that you’re not going crazy. You’re grieving and that’s huge. It’s the first step in making sense out of a senseless act.”
Hanna likened the healing process to escape from quicksand.
“You can’t just struggle against it to free yourself,” she said. “You need something outside, a helping hand, to get out. We all need that”
In the United States, justice is done in the courts and closure comes through justice. That’s at least how things are supposed to work, but the family members of murder victims rarely shed their grief through the legal system, Hanna said.
“Those systems aren’t set up to heal the wrongs that have happened,” she said. “Legal justice doesn’t always heal the pain that people have.”
Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams knows this well. His office is in charge of prosecuting murder and manslaughter cases, and is litigating more than two dozen such cases.
Williams said he meets with the family of murder victims at the outset of each case to address expectations and misconceptions about the legal process.
“Their grief and their trauma won’t be resolved in the legal process, and we have a very candid discussion about that,” Williams said. “We can’t make them whole, simply put.”
For that reason, Williams has been one of the driving forces behind the Asheville Buncombe Homicide Survivor Support Group. He and law enforcement representatives will be at the start of each monthly meeting to answer questions about the legal process, which can be frustrating and confusing for victims’ families.
Rosenberg’s murder went unsolved until 1983, when a man was convicted and imprisoned. Parks said she initially thought the court proceedings might lessen her grief, but they didn’t.
The man convicted of her sister’s killing has professed his innocence since the trial, and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, which works to overturn wrongful convictions, is now looking into his case.
Parks watched the trial and said that if she’d been on the jury, she doesn’t know whether she’d have convicted the man accused of killing her sister, showing how muddy these court cases can be and how little they can do for the healing process.
Parks was 20 when her 24-year-old sister was murdered. She was away at school when it happened and felt incredibly isolated. There were no support groups for people who’d lost loved ones to murder in the mid ’70s, Parks said, and she struggled to find her bearings after the crime.
“It was disorienting,” she said. “Things I thought I knew about the world — like the idea that being good protects you from harm — turned out not to be true.”
The feeling of isolation is normal for people who lose loved ones in murders, according to Hanna and Scott Bass, director of victim services for the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network.
Bass helps run the Wake County homicide survivors support group in Raleigh and helped start Asheville’s group. He said homicide survivors are an underserved population who need safe spaces to share their pain and heal together.
“Having someone to bear witness to pain and loss is a very valuable healing factor,” he said. “Homicide survivors have experiences that are similar enough that they get it better than the rest of the world.”
The problem is these support groups aren’t as common as they should be, Bass and Parks said.
By the ’80s, support groups called Parents of Murdered Children began cropping up around the country. Parks’ parents, who’d left Asheville and were living in Ohio at the time, joined a group there. Parks helped start a chapter in San Antonio, Texas, where she was living at the time.
Her parents moved back to Asheville and ran a chapter here during the ’90s, but it has since gone inactive. The only active chapter listed in North Carolina today is in Durham.
Though Parks found the support group helpful, she found it somewhat restrictive in its membership. As its name implied, it is for the parents of murdered children. The Asheville homicide survivors support group will be open to anybody who has a close personal tie to somebody who was murdered, she said.
“This group is needed and long overdue,” she said. “If somebody has been so impacted that they think this group might help, then they belong.”