Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Missing Morgan: The Family’s Pain

By Robin Sax

Morgan Harrington was a 20-year-old Virginia Tech education major who wanted to be a teacher.  She spent time working with children and victims of domestic violence. She loved Harry Potter and the Twilight series. Morgan disappeared Saturday October 17, 2009, after being shut out of a Metallica Concert at the University of Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena. Her remains were found in a field Wednesday, January 26, 2010. 

I had the privilege of being on the Dr. Phil show with Morgan’s family about six weeks ago. I was impressed by their strength and fortitude. The circumstances behind her disappearance were still a mystery; Morgan was still a missing person. And so her parents, showing so much grace and strength in the face of such difficulty, still had hope. 

The worst-case scenario -- a hellish reality for any parent -- unfolded that late January day when the Virginia State police said they were “fairly confident” that skeletal remains found in a hayfield on the Anchorage Farm in Albemarle County were those of Morgan Harrington. Dan Harrington, Morgan’s father, posted these words on the family’s missing person site:

Morgan's mother, Gil, and I are overwhelmingly saddened by yesterday's discovery, but we are also relieved because our questions can now be answered and we can give our daughter a proper burial. We know that because of the good life Morgan led and the love she created for everyone around her, she is now in a safer, better place. We appreciate everyone's respect for our privacy at this difficult time and we thank everyone who has helped us through this tragedy and helped us find Morgan.

While searching through the family’s “Find Morgan” site, I came across a post by her mother, Gil, uploaded just two days before her daughter’s body was found:

Despite the length of time Morgan has been gone I remain hopeful. Part of me is waiting to be surprised. Waiting for God to pull the rabbit out of the hat and bring Morgan home. I remember that the light always returns, it cannot help but return. Will the light of my life return soon? I cannot imagine that all the water of Morgan's potential is to run down the drain and be wasted. Can it really play out like that?

As a mother, I cannot begin to imagine coping with the horror the Harrington family now lives with. In cases of murdered children, there will be a range of emotions affecting the family: feelings of helplessness, guilt, grief, listlessness, anger, rage, horror, pain (both physical and emotional), and more. Many marriages break up after the death of a child. Unanswered questions haunt the family until the trial of the murderer (if ever found). And even then, not all the details will ever be known – nor would many families really want to know them. 

In the case of the Harringtons, I believe that Gil and Dan will be able, somehow, to weather the hurricane of grief. From what I have seen of them, this couple has an inner strength that will help them to cope. Still, life will never be the same.

At least when a child is still missing, you can share in the hope that they will be found alive. When you reach the point that remains have been found, there is no longer hope. The only solace is a sort of closure and a chance for healing. As Dan Harrington said, they will now be able to give Morgan a proper burial. 

Sometimes the ones who suffer the most aren't just the parents but the siblings left behind. These children have to live with the absent-parent syndrome (parents who are missing in their own way while dealing with the tremendous anxiety and stress of a missing child and then the trauma of the child's death).

Besides the ghastly circumstances the siblings face – going back into society and trying to be strong and brave – they also shoulder their parents' grief. It can be a huge burden. Dan Harrington said that his son Alex and Morgan were close, and that Alex is having the most difficult time of anyone. Alex has been in New York City during many of the past weeks and compartmentalized the limbo of waiting for news of Morgan. Keeping busy with work was a good distraction. But now that his sister has been found, he will travel back home and face the tragedy (and the new reality of his parents' grief).

I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with many families who endured the various stages and aspects of dealing with such a monstrous loss, an abduction, or other crime committed against their children. In some ways, it's so much easier to connect to a family that is still searching, still clinging to the hope that somehow, somewhere their beloved child is simply missing and will return home. Cases like Jaycee Duggard and Elizabeth Smart -- as tragic as they were -- still are considered “happy endings.

There are examples of survivors who have done incredible things after the homicide of a child. Mark Klaas is such an example. After the murder of his daughter, Polly Hannah Klaas, in 1994, Mark established the Klaas Kids Foundation. Mark has fingerprinted over a quarter of a million children in the last decade, had tremendous success with his public awareness campaigns, and is involved in legislative efforts to strengthen sentences for violent and recidivist offenders -- to name a few of his activities. I'm constantly amazed at what Mark, and many other parents, are able to do following such a tragedy. We can all learn from their strengths.

The Harringtons involved themselves in the legislative process while they were searching for Morgan. They asked lawmakers to reauthorize Kristen’s Act, which creates a national database to search for missing adults. The 2002 federal law was named for Kristen Modafferi, an 18-year-old Charlotte, N.C., woman who vanished in June 1997. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children could not help the search at the time because Modafferi was an adult. The House voted to reauthorize the law in February, and it is pending before the Senate. It is activism like this that helps to reaffirm that Morgan Harrington did not die in vain.

Though I cannot say I fully understand the grief or pain the Harringtons feel -- or any family of missing or murdered children for that matter -- I know it's our obligation as a society to unite and demand that justice prevail. Those responsible for these crimes must be found, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced for the heinous acts they committed.

We cannot make sense of a senseless crime. We can only mourn the loss of such a lovely young woman, whose life tragically ended far too soon. We send our prayers to Morgan’s family. And we pray that something so unthinkable will never happen in our family. 


Carol said...

It breaks my heart that Morgan would still be with us if the jerk at the concert would have let her back through the gate.

MA Moore said...

My love, thoughts and prayers go out to Morgan's family. You now have an angel watching over you in Heaven. May God Bless you today and always and may justice be served swiftly. xo MA

Leah said...

Does anyone know why it was so important to not let Morgan back in the concert and why she had to leave the arena to use the bathroom. That is just a strange thing to me. The arena was on campus so what was the big deal?

The parents have been together a long time and their grace and dignity are overwhelming.