Tell us about your story.
Our daughter, Maggie, graduated from Plainwell (MI) High School in 1998. She was a strong, independent thinker, with excellent grades. She was known as a good friend and listener, helping many of her friends with problems they were having with schoolwork or friendships. She was confident but not arrogant or showy about her abilities. Basketball and golf were sports she played on her high school women’s teams. After visiting colleges far from home, she decided to attend Kalamazoo College, a prestigious liberal arts college within ten miles of her home. As her parents, we were happy with this decision as she would be safe and close to home.
After adjusting to college life, she started to excel in her classes and could hold her own and more among other talented students. After breaking up with her high school boyfriend in late 1998, she met a young man in January, 1999 and started a dating relationship with him. Due to the closeness of the campus, their relationship proceeded quickly even though she told others, including Martha and Rick, her parents in Plainwell, that she did not want a serious relationship yet. But he insisted on commitment and she relented. Within two months, Maggie told Martha that he was immature and she was ending the relationship. But that was not as easy to do as saying it.
Maggie was not physically hurt by him, but he was, in subtle ways, emotionally controlling her and isolating her from her friends and later her family. She went on spring break with her high school girlfriend, and returned to his controlling oversight. He complained to her about time she spent with her friends instead of him and checked to make sure that she went home for the weekend as she said she was doing. He started to call her friends names in front of her and complain that she wanted to party with them. They tended to argue when they were together and others overheard but dismissed it as typical interaction that people in relationships all had. No one reported any physical or verbal threats and did not think Maggie was in any danger. But others did feel that the relationship was not good for Maggie, and that she should end it.
We thought she was doing that by the end of the semester in May 1999. We knew the young man and had him over a few times into the summer. We thought she was doing the right thing when she said she was ending the relationship, and respected how she chose to do that by trying to stay his friend. He stayed in the area until the end of July, taking make-up classes that Maggie helped him to pass. He had no car so Maggie gave him rides. She spent summer days working with her uncle and stayed at home every night.
Despite his struggles, he returned to college in September, expecting to rescue his relationship with Maggie. She had ended the relationship finally and had started to date others. Their rooms were in neighboring buildings so he saw her and complained that she ignored him. On October 16, at the Homecoming Dance, he saw her dancing with a new boyfriend. He left in anger and raised concerns about hurting himself among his dorm mates but no one reported concern for him to dorm advisors. Late on Sunday evening, October 17, he lured Maggie to his room on the pretext of helping him one last time with a paper. They argued loudly in the room but no one interrupted. At some point in the argument, he pulled out a shotgun he had bought two weekends previous, on the pretext of being a deer hunter. Despite rules against guns on campus, he was able to buy it legally with a school address on his license and bring it on campus and hide it without detection. He used it to shoot Maggie twice before killing himself with it. Maggie was pronounced dead early in the morning on Monday October 18, 1999.
How did you overcome this tragedy?
This is still an ongoing work-in-progress. We find ourselves moving past the time that our loss of Maggie happened but it has led to a lifelong change for us, our son and the rest our family. We have progressed from acute pain and anger to a blunter, chronic pain and acceptance that wakes with us every morning. But now we are able to get through it daily, and yearly, in steps. We decided after initial shock that we weren’t going to let it take over our lives. We frame our lives now in times with Maggie and then the time after Maggie died. We feel that no one can really overcome this type of grief but we accept it and continue to work through it over time as best we can. Our commitment to work on social and relationship issues in Maggie’s memory powers our growth past October 18, 1999.
We were fortunate that strong individuals and organizations stepped forward to help us at the outset of our loss and some continue to help us now. We keep meeting incredible people dedicated to helping others, much to our benefit. Our visit this past week to Washington DC and the 2nd World Conference of Women’s Shelters is an example of this type of assistance. Karin Alfredsson, Linda Forsell and Kerstin Weigl, supported by the Swedish Association of Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s Empowerment Centres (SKR), came to the US and visited us to learn about Maggie and what happened to her. They have now retold her story around the world, helping us to spread our message about the warning signs of dating abuse. Maggie’s story was included by Karin, Linda and Kerstin in their collection of reports about victims of violence against women globally. (www.causeofdeathwoman.com). We attended their presentation at the conference and were able to meet representatives from SKR and other international women’s groups.
Directly after Maggie’s death, the Kalamazoo YWCA with its Domestic Violence shelter programs, under the directorship of Barbara Mills, reached out to us to help us understand more about what happened to her. This organization also helped us frame our subsequent work against relationship violence. The Kalamazoo YWCA, now under the directorship of Jennifer Shoub, continues to help us in those efforts as trusted partners in the cause.
At the same time, Rick’s sister, Susan, stayed with us during all of 2000, helping us to communicate with Kalamazoo College as we attempted to make some changes after her death. She had a background in women’s issues, particularly in areas of sexual assault and domestic violence as an attorney in Hartford, Connecticut. Kalamazoo College used her expertise to present information on relationship violence and Maggie’s story each October on campus until 2007. She also helped the family have input on the College Task Force on Violence Against Women which made recommendations for campus changes to fight relationship and gender violence. Since she returned to Hartford, Susan has established a thriver program for victims of domestic violence with inspiration from Maggie (thethriverworkbook.com).
Did you attend rehabilitation training?
We both started to see a therapist who had specific training with trauma victims She was referred to us by the local police because of her expertise with victims of crime. In our state, in our county, there is a victims services program that all survivors of traumatic crime are sent to as a required service of the county government. Actual survivors of the incidents and family members are eligible. There are also small amounts of money available for burial expenses, etc. We did not need financial help, but the assignment to the trauma therapist was essential to our healing. The tragedy of Maggie’s death was unlike any we had suffered to this point in our lives. Martha and I had both lost our fathers to illness in the past, but nothing compared to the jolt from the knock on door by the police in 1999.
The therapist we consulted, on the referral from the police department in Kalamazoo, Michigan, worked with Rick in that capacity for about a year. Martha, who was seeing her own therapist before Maggie’s death, started with the same therapist after Rick finished contact with her. Martha received specific counseling interventions for trauma. This therapist is particularly skilled and trusted and Martha continues to see her now after the victim services program has lapsed. Her private insurance covers these services that have moved beyond trauma therapy related to Maggie’s death, although that remains a topic at times. Our son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, has seen a therapist of his own since Maggie’s death. He has difficulty discussing aspects of his feelings of grief, also a work-in-progress to this point for him.
Who helped you?
Besides this therapist who has become trusted, we were helped by friends who had also lost children before us. They took us under wing and led us to support meetings. talked to us at any time about our feelings and checked on Martha every day. One friend lost her daughter in a drowning incident at age 2. This close friend of Martha started to take us to monthly meetings of The Compassionate Friends. This group is a gathering of parents who have lost children. Each meeting is a time of sharing of feelings and emotions about losing a child. Everyone at the meeting has a lost a child and is understanding and supportive of anything said at these meetings. All discussion is confidential. Attending these meetings for over three years helped Martha and me tremendously and we are forever grateful for this support from other parents.
Rick was able to talk to another school employee at his work who had lost a still-born son, and also a fellow teacher whose wife who had been murdered a few years before Maggie’s death. In fact, he had been Maggie’s journalism teacher when his wife passed away. Working in the same school as Rick, he helped by letting him know that grieving was all right and that taking a break away when needed was okay as others would cover for him. Martha worked as a nurse in a state psychiatric hospital in Kalamazoo and was reassigned to a position away from patients to help her. Both workplaces were understanding in giving us time and space to process our initial grief. Over time, it becomes more difficult for most to understand the ongoing and changing face of grief after a child is lost. Those who do understand are those who also have had this loss. It is harder to talk to others who don’t understand those feelings of loss over time. They seem less tolerant of bringing up memories of your lost child. Martha and I ,over time with the help of Compassionate Friends, came to understand this reluctance to discuss our lost child could be the result of facing their own fears of losing one of their own children, as had happened to us.
Which people have been fundamental for your “back-to-life” trip?
The people we mentioned have helped us and some continue to do so now. Facebook has been a way to keep in touch and share news. Close friends we had before Maggie’s death stood with us through the public grief and well after. The group, Compassionate Friends, was a particular help as we attended their support meetings for over 3 years. We found a group of friends who accepted our grief and its manifestations of it no matter how it came out, or how pervasive or how hard it was to understand. Those who had lost children too, always understand our feelings and moods. We help them too, without question or reservation. Martha’s therapist has been instrumental through the past 12 years.
Our dedication to preventing relationship violence has also helped to focus back on living. Even though we still are concerned about suicide prevention and gun use and violence as factors in what happened to Maggie, we now feel the key to stopping further tragedies like this, is to promote healthy relationships. We particularly feel that the recognition of the warning signs of dating abuse is paramount to the purpose of eradicating relationship violence.
What are you doing to remember Maggie and end domestic violence? Tell us about the Remembering Maggie Fund.
When Maggie died, we felt the suffocation of grief intensely. The loss of Maggie was unbearable and we felt a need to continue her legacy. There was unfinished promise to her life that we felt we had to acknowledge. We set off on a string of projects that has progressively morphed and grown over the past 12 years. When we recall and list all of them, we surprise ourselves with all that has happened. And we are dedicated to more in her memory
First, with money from donations, in her memory, we donated purchased golf jackets for Maggie’s high school team which she helped start as a club team. We donated to the Kalamazoo Nature Center near our home and installed a memorial garden for Maggie in the courtyard at Plainwell High School, Maggie’s alma mater. With Maggie’s love of golf in mind, our family, under the guidance of Maggie’s Aunt Elaine, held five annual golf outings in her memory. The money raised was used for grants to local domestic violence shelters. We started to support the Kalamazoo YWCA Domestic Violence Shelter Program with these funds, a strong bond to Maggie’s memory which continues today. We have donated money, time and goods to the YWCA Domestic Violence Shelter to help women and children in crisis.
With the help of the YWCA and other Michigan women’s groups already involved in stopping violence against women, we strove to give our testimony to ensure that dating violence would be acknowledged in state law as a form of domestic violence. This would extend legal protections for victims of dating violence and equalize penalties for perpetrators of dating violence with those of domestic (married/co-habitative) violence. In 2001, we testified in front of the forum for the Domestic Violence Homicide Task Force, led by the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic Violence and chaired by the Michigan Lieutenant Governor at the time. The Kalamazoo County Assistant Prosecutor said of our testimony:
“The parents of that young lady spoke very openly and very poignantly about how domestic violence should be extended to dating relationships…”
As a result of this Task Force these changes in the law took effect on April 1, 2002.
We also have strong feelings about the presence and prevalence of guns in America, made even more acute due to the local purchase of the gun used to kill Maggie. Martha and I attended the Million Moms March in Washington DC in 2004 to promote common sense gun laws such as the Assault Weapons Ban (since lifted), and lobbied senators in Washington with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in efforts to promote more sensible gun laws and enforcement. These efforts have been frustrating since 9/11 as citizen fears of terrorism have grown. Coupled with the growth of the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and related gun lobbyist organizations and their obsession with Second Amendment rights, any discussions and judicial rulings related to guns in the US since 9/11 have been decisive and divisive. Civil discourse on sensible gun laws and their enforcement has become impossible in our opinion.
Immediately after Maggie’s death, there was much concern from the college about her family’s reaction and legal course of action. We worked with the the college vice president in particular to get more information about what happened and why it happened. It appeared that no one specifically knew Maggie was in danger or threat of her life. We were more concerned about what the college could do to improve relationship violence concerns and responses on campus and help female students in the future. The college dedicated some money to establish a student development position, a newly created half-time Women’s Resources Coordinator to support women and women’s groups on the campus. In addition, the college opened a Task Force on Violence Against Women in January 2000, resulting in recommendations to improve sensitivity to gender issues by education and security staff. Students, especially first year students, would have information about dating relationships and warning signs of abuse. Classes discussing violence against women and self defense classes for females would be introduced. Funding for these efforts, classes and the continuation of the Women’s Resource Coordinator position would be established. The recommendations of the Task Force, comprised of students, staff and Maggie’s Aunt Susan, were given to the President of the College in June 2001. The Coordinator position was funded for about 4 years, but funding or grants for the other recommendations was not found. First- year seminars on relationship violence have been held some of the last 12 years with Susan holding some through 2007. Since 2008, Gail Griffin from K College has led those discussions every first Friday in October as part of a memorial presentation about Maggie and what happened on campus in October, 1999.
We have attended these memorial presentations about Maggie set up by staff at K College annually around the anniversary of her death. We have asked the College to more actively promote healthy relationships and discussions of warning signs of dating abuse and suicide intentions among students. Specific professors and staff persons there continue to try to keep Maggie’s story alive each year for incoming students. One of these professors is Gail Griffin, who has worked in the Women’s Study program at K College and has written a book, with input from us, about what happened to Maggie, The Events of October: Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus, published by Terrapin Press/WSU.(http://wsupress.wayne.edu/books/1175/The-Events-of-October) Her book and efforts since it was published, have resulted in more focus on Maggie and dating relationship issues on campus. New efforts to make students aware of the warning signs of dating violence include posters on campus dedicated to Maggie. Other colleges invite Dr. Griffin to present and talk about her book and tell Maggie’s story. We hope it continues to keep the topic of dating violence current on the K College campus. We do have concerns that as college staff who were on campus in 1999, retire and move on, that Maggie’s story will be lost on campus.
Which leads us to the story of Maggie’s Hat and the Remembering Maggie Fund at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.
The Remembering Maggie Fund arose from our desire to use money we raised through donations and our own savings to fund programs which fight relationship violence. Up to this point, we had been donating funds in small chunks to local programs. We wanted to set up a family fund in order to give grants to local schools and clubs that teach young people about the components of healthy relationships and the warning signs of dating abuse. Rick was aware of the need for these programs in schools and community programs with many existing curricular mandates and no time or funds to pay anyone to hold programs or create materials to teach about relationships. We knew that this instruction could be done with materials such as the Love is Not Abuse curriculum from Liz Claiborne and other local programs. We wanted to set up our fund to give grants in the future to fund these efforts for young people. In 2010, we approached the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, which we were familiar with locally, with the idea of setting up a donor-advised fund under their foundation umbrella. We researched programs in the Western Michigan area offering information about relationships and found them to be relatively non-existent. We presented our ideas and case to the Foundation and they agreed to the need and allowed us to raise $25,000 in two years to show our good intentions in following through to establish our Remembering Maggie Fund. We started with $15,000 of our own savings set aside for this cause since Maggie died. We needed to raise $10,000 in the next two years, by September 1, 2012. Martha had an idea how to do this.
In 2008, Martha had started an interest in knitting and approached a local yarn store about an idea to design a unique knitted hat dedicated to Maggie and the issues of dating violence. The HandWeavers store in Kalamazoo, MI, (now liveknitlove.com) designed a Maggie’s Hat pattern for Martha. She started to knit and sell them, along with a few other knitters in the family. All proceeds from these hats, and a couple of other knitted items she sells, go to the Remembering Maggie Fund to fight relationship violence. It is a dedicated labor of love for Maggie and other young people, in her honor. As of March 1, 2012, we have $23,384 toward our September 1 goal of $25,000. We will sell more hats this spring and summer. Our family plan is to reach this goal and keep striving to grow the fund and perhaps the scope of its target to include more grants in more places. We are not sure if it will stop in Western Michigan or grow beyond that. The Foundation has left that possibility open.
In your opinion, how can security forces, social workers or anyone else help people to avoid these terrible situations?
We would like to see security people and police be more aware of gun possession on campuses and require that gun owners have to store guns away from the campus areas. This should be backed by legal penalties for failure to report the presence of guns on campus. Unfortunately, the powerful American gun lobby has taken the exact opposite direction and wants to pass legislation in all states allowing more legal weapon possession on campus by licensed owners. We feel that statistics show the possession or presence of guns is more likely to result in gun accidents, suicides, assaults or accidental discharges and injuries.
We would like counselors, dorm advisors, houseparents, student counselors and social workers to be more aware and reactive to suicidal signs and intentions in young persons. Several of the recent gun incidents on school campuses have been prefaced by suicidal concerns or ideations by the perpetrators. These incidents have not been reported or not led to help for the affected student before it was too late. We strongly feel that in Maggie’s case, reporting and preventing his suicide would have saved her life.
Thank you for your interest and help in what we are trying to do to honor Maggie.
Rick and Martha Omilian