A Grief Like No Other

Surviving the Violent Death of Someone You Love


By Kathleen O’Hara

Foreword by Dr. Dan Gottlieb

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A Grief Like No Other is the book no one wants to ever have to buy; sadly, many people continue to need it. From 9/11 to Cindy Sheehan’s son – from mass tragedies like the recent London bombings to Law and Order type crimes that make the news only to be replaced by another name. As such, more people are left with the aftermath of dealing with the violent death of a loved one. It brings its own special brand of grieving since victim’s families can spend years dealing with legal ramifications, guilt, and a myriad of other circumstances that don’t accompany “normal” deaths. Kathleen O’Hara knows both sides of this coin. As a therapist, she has counseled hundreds of people dealing with grief. As a mother, she saw her worst fears realized when her college-aged son was brutally murdered in 1999. In the aftermath of Aaron’s murder, O’Hara developed the seven stage journey that is at the heart of A Grief Like No Other. Although this is a book for those left behind in the aftermath of violence, it offers concrete and practical steps and stages, allowing family and friends safe passage through this incredibly harrowing journey.


Praise for A Grief Like No Other

A Grief like No Other is a landmark contribution to the field and should be read by all therapists and those touched by the violent loss of someone in their lives, This remarkable, beautifully written, yet practical guide evolved out of Kathleen’s own horrendous loss of her son and her unremitting quest for knowledge, spirituality and transformation. She has transformed the unbearable pain in her life to understanding and peace and offers it to us who are searching for answers—and healing.”

—DR. BONNIE KELLEN, PHD, clinical psychologist

“A book of comfort for losses that seem unfathomable, a hug of hope along a journey that seems impossible, a map of what lies ahead from a kindred spirit who knows every twist in the path.”

—RACHEL SIMON, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister

Kathleen O’Hara, MA, is a therapist who received her BA from Antioch University and her graduate degree in psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. O’Hara lives in Philadelphia, where she maintains a private practice.

A Grief Like No Other

A Grief Like No Other


Kathleen O’Hara, MA


Author’s Note

IN ORDER TO protect the privacy of individuals and families, I have changed the names of the people in the stories you will read—although in some cases, where the person agreed, I have used real names.

Some of the stories are composites of different experiences, which when combined, present powerful examples of what happens when violence strikes.

I gave you to the world and it took you
I give you again and you will live


by Dan Gottlieb, PhD, host of NPR’s Voices in the Family

AGRIEF LIKE NO Other begins when Kathleen O’Hara picked up the telephone to find out that Aaron, the son she had recently sent to college, was missing. When I first heard Kathleen’s story, I could only begin to imagine her frantic worry, the passionate wishes and prayers, and the inevitable nightmares that raced through her mind. I could try to imagine her terror because, as a parent, I have experienced fear bordering on terror when my children were not where they should be. But when I heard about the next call—the one that confirmed her worst nightmare that Aaron was murdered—I was no longer able to imagine her reaction.

Almost all of us will experience trauma at some point in our lives. Sometimes trauma begins with a doctor saying, “We have to talk or a spouse telling us they want a divorce. Whatever form it takes, all trauma causes suffering. Some trauma we can identify with. Some trauma is unimaginable. All trauma isolates and alienates, but when no one dare imagine what you are experiencing, you are exquisitely alone with your pain.

That’s why I was so surprised to hear Kathleen O’Hara was willing and able to talk about her tragedy on the radio. Four years ago I invited her to be a guest on my Voices in the Family radio show aired on WHYY in Philadelphia. When I went down the elevator to meet her in the lobby of the studio, I expected to see a woman in acute grief—pale complexion, rounded shoulders, and poor eye contact. I was prepared to be gentle and caring even though I was afraid to imagine what she was feeling.

Yet despite everything I imagined, I was greeted by a woman with clear eyes and a warm engaging smile that seemed to say, “It’s okay, we can talk about this.”; In that moment, I realized that I was the one afraid to make eye contact. I felt both ashamed of my temer-ity and care for this amazing woman. All in one smile. Immediately, I wanted to get to know her better, to understand how she could survive this nightmare. I wanted to know where this agony lives in her head and heart and how she is able to function. I wanted to know all these things only partly because I thought it would be a painful but important radio show. On a deeper level, I wanted to know these things because I felt Kathleen O’Hara could add to my understanding of what it means to be human.

I was right. The show was powerful, as she told her horrible story in a way that was open, honest, and painful. In the years that followed, I have discovered I was also right about what she has to teach. I have come to know Kathleen as neither hero nor victim—just a woman who has endured tragedy and has been able to use the tools of her counseling training and her own spiritual background to cast a clear eye on the nature of trauma and recovery.

Research tells us that many people recover from trauma, depending on its severity. Those who make meaning out of their suffering are more likely to be resilient. The book you hold in your hand clearly represents Kathleens insightful effort to make meaning out of her suffering. But because of her training, wisdom, and clear thinking, this book helps us understand the human response to tragedy.

Using her own story as background, Kathleen guides us through seven clear steps that begin with telling the story and slowly guide us through finding resources, facing pain, generating creativity, and discovering the “New World”—the place where survivors will find themselves after experiencing the seven stages found here. For those left behind in the wake of violence, the New World is a necessary destination—a place that allows survivors to live with the trauma and celebrate life in the face of extraordinary pain.

This nightmare broke Kathleens heart. It broke her heart wide open. In reading this book, you will learn how trauma opens your heart. Following Kathleen’s insightful guidance, you will also learn about the courage it takes to keep it opened.


THERE ARE SO many people who helped in the genesis of this book. First, I want to thank those of you who told me your stories, and compelled me to reach inside my own personal and professional experience and find ways of making sense of it all and helping us endure this grief like no other.

I did not make this journey alone, and could not have. It has been this collective grief that has revealed a way to travel. I am grateful to everyone for sharing these most personal experiences generously and openly.

The idea for this book came out of our communal grief. Rachel Simon, a friend and mentor, helped me see that the book indeed could have a life and breath of its own and encouraged me to “write the book.”

John Timpane’s keen editorial skills helped to bring the idea out of the dark and into an early form and structure. His sense of humor made me laugh—at myself, and made the whole process so much more bearable!

Dan Gottlieb, my wise and wonderful friend, believed in me and the book and was kind enough to introduce me to Ed Claflin, who became my agent. Ed told me I did indeed have a book, and gave me hope that “my baby” would be born in the world.

He found Renée Sedliar, my editor at Marlowe & Company— and she became my midwife, teacher, and friend and helped me birth this book. She and I have shared laughter, grief, hope, and the belief that this book will help those who have lost someone they love to violence.

Renée, along with copy editor Iris Bass, showed me how to craft the book and stay true to its vision. I am deeply grateful to them and everyone who helped make something good come out of such a terrible experience.

I also want to thank Eric Schlosser, from whom I borrowed the title, from his article of the same name.

I thank my two children, Anna and Michael, for their love and support and examples of how to live life—no matter what. They are my greatest joy.

And to all of Aaron’s friends, from Franciscan University, those in California and Colorado, and many other parts of the world: Thank you for being here with me—it is your spirit that reminds me of Aaron and how much he continues to be loved.


Aaron’s Story

DO YOU KNOW where your son is?”

It was a police detective calling from Steubenville, Ohio.

I clenched the phone, tried to speak. Finally, I heard my voice saying that I had just spoken to Aaron the previous day. When I had talked to him, I told the detective, Aaron was in Steubenville, safe in the house he was renting for the summer with two friends and classmates.

The officer already knew a few details—Aaron’s address, the fact that he had just finished his sophomore year at Franciscan University, and, obviously, my telephone number. When it came my turn to ask some questions, the detective s replies were brief. Aaron was missing. Missing? How could he be missing?

I put down the phone. I felt tears running down my face; I couldn’t speak; everything was moving and changing. Terror gripped me. My world had changed. It felt as if my life was shattering into a thousand pieces. As I was to learn, this is the nature of violence: Often, it is unexpected, unpredictable, chaotic, and above all, horrifying. It can strike at any time, any place. And, of course, it can happen to anyone. It could be the death of someone we love or a friend or colleague. It can be a violent act of murder, robbery, rape, suicide, drug overdose, hate crime, domestic violence, terrorist attack, or vehicular homicide. Violence causes not only that person s death, but a catastrophic loss in our own lives. The world we once knew changes in a matter of moments into a new place: shocking, terrifying, uncharted. For me, it began with that phone call. This was the first step on a journey I did not want to take but, like all of us who are left behind in the wake of violence, I was forced to set out in a small boat in a turbulent ocean I had never even known existed.

The day was Monday, Memorial Day 1999. People were getting ready for barbecues. On streets all over America, there were parades for fallen heroes. We gathered in my living room: my friend Robert; my daughter Anna, then eighteen; and my youngest son Michael, who was fourteen. Years before, I had been divorced from my children’s father, Howard. Howard and I had remained close even after the divorce, but in 1992 he had died suddenly from a heart attack, a loss that profoundly affected my children and me.

Now we were being plunged into another world of trauma. A new story had begun—a story of unutterable grief, transformation, death, and life. It was a story I would tell many times in the coming years. In fact, this very experience of telling my story would become the foundation for the first stage in the Seven-Stage Journey you will find in this book.

Stage 1: The Journey Begins—Telling Your Story. Our stories are the container for all the events, emotions, details, and consequences of what happened when we lose a loved one to violence. Our stories tell about a special kind of grief, one we can never be prepared for. Hie element of violence makes our stories that much more difficult to tell and presents many challenges we must learn to live with. Speaking out helps us gain mastery over our emotions and eventually provides us with a way of measuring how far we have come in our journey, how well we are handling the enormous changes we have encountered.

Outside, the sun glared. In the shaded living room, Robert, Anna, Michael, and I sat together, trying to make sense of what little we knew: Aaron and his housemate Brian were both missing. Andrew, the third student in their rental, was now with the police. Perhaps even as we sat there, wondering, he was telling the police that all was well. But if so, wouldn’t they call us at once? It was gut-wrenching to be in the dark. When would we know what was going on?

I’d talked to Aaron the day before. It was a normal conversation, like the ones we always had. “Hi, mom,” he had said. “I got an A in statistics!” I’d laughed, knowing that although Aaron was very intelligent, he didn’t always apply himself to academics, “That’s great, son—I wish you had come home for Memorial Day.” He’d then promised me he would come home as soon as the summer session was over. As I tried to make sense of what the detective had told me, I found myself going over and over in my head, that last conversation with Aaron. There had been nothing unusual about it at all. He’d said that he was going to go to Mass and would be meeting up with Brian later on. I remember saying, “Okay, son, I’ll see you soon, love you,” and hanging up the phone. Was there something I had missed in that conversation? Something he wasn’t telling me? No, I knew there wasn’t—I knew my son.

Now, sitting in my living room, I questioned his siblings to get more information, but there was precious little that any of us knew. Where were Aaron and Brian’s friends? What did they know about his disappearance? How could I get in touch with them, as most of them had gone home for the summer? Franciscan University, a small, tightly knit community of faculty and young people, is a Catholic college. The kids that go there want to live “the life,” as they call it. What they mean by that—what drew Aaron there—is a commitment to helping others. Faith is a crucial part of that community. So is the fellowship and close interrelationship of people committed to a common faith and principles. Aaron belonged to a close network of friends there.

Finally, late in the afternoon, the calls started coming in. Now the network was buzzing. Everyone was trying to figure out what had happened to Brian and my son. As the phone calls continued and became more prolonged, we began to piece together a chronology. Aaron’s friends had seen him 6:00 p.m. at Mass the evening before. We learned that Brian had driven from his home in Columbus, Ohio, in his mother’s black Chevy Blazer, meeting up with Aaron sometime in the evening.

As the day drew to a close, I began making calls to the police. Detective John Lelliss was in charge of the case. It was he who had called to ask where Aaron was. Now he let me know what the police had learned from Aaron and Brian’s housemate.

Andrew had stayed up late the previous night, sitting on the porch, talking to a friend. Sometime after midnight, he went to his room. As he passed through the living room and headed upstairs, he saw Brian asleep on the couch. Andrew noticed that the door to Aaron’s room was closed, and assumed that he was asleep. He didn’t know, however, whether Aaron was actually in the room.

Lelliss now told me that the police had found blood on the wall and bed of Aaron’s room.

“How much blood?” I wanted to know. My detached voice did not match what I was feeling. I told myself, maybe it’s not Aaron’s blood, maybe he wasn’t there. After all, Andrew only thought Aaron had been in his room.

Lelliss had no way of knowing at that time how much blood there was or whether the blood was Aaron’s. The investigation would continue. That was all he could tell me.

With every detail, my shock increased. I was shutting down. Terror was forcing my old life out of me, and I felt like I was suspended in the middle, between the world I had known and a shattered, out-of-control universe. I was trying to hold on to anything I could. I watched the rational, reasonable side of me answer questions, make assumptions, calculate options, but my emotional self was swirling down a drain into a dark hole.

Already, I wondered whether I would be able to survive this. Was it something I could endure or would it destroy me? Would my inner resources serve me as they had in the past or would they just not work? And the worst question of all: if Aaron was gone, could I live?

Stage 2: Life Preservers—Discovering the Eight Qualities. Having talked to many people who have endured violent trauma, I have found that this is the way we get through it. In the beginning, we go into shock, which protects us from the terrible event. We split off into compartments so we can cope. One compartment might be trying to figure out what’s going on; another might be trying to control emotions; yet another is surely entering the hellish world of fear and terror. Finally, as the shock wears off, we have to locate and gather whatever strength and inner resources we have in order to go on. These inner resources can be described as the eight qualities of courage, hope, faith / spirituality, optimism, humor, patience, joy, and compassion— qualities that I would have to discover and learn how to use.

At that time, my immediate inner resources were prayer and meditation, faith, courage, hope, fortitude, and an unshakable belief that no matter what happens, life goes on.

We suffer because we are human, I told myself. We hope for the grace to shoulder our burdens. We face what life gives to us, whether it is unfair or not. We struggle to go on, when everything inside screams that we cannot. I know all that, I could say to myself. But would that be enough? Surely, this would be my greatest test.

The Franciscan network yielded bits and pieces of information, mostly about Aaron and Brian’s whereabouts the night before. Still, I couldn’t get the information I desperately wanted. The police knew more than they were telling me—I was certain of that. Why wouldn’t they tell me everything?

At the same time, my denial was insistent. I told myself that Aaron would call any minute to explain the mixup. He had gotten up early and gone to a friend s house. Any moment, he would call to say, “Mom, geez, I only went out to visit a friend. Why all the drama?” I could almost convince myself this would happen shortly and there was nothing to worry about.

Stage 3: Lighthouses in the Harbor—Finding Guidance and Resources. When a violent trauma occurs, we need people to support and guide us through the tremendous struggles we will encounter in our journey through grief and loss. We cannot do it alone. We need to find outer resources which, like lighthouses in the harbor, will help us find our way. At first, these outer resources will come from the immediate group of people surrounding the event.

During this period of uncertainty, my children and I stuck close to one another and tried to support each other as much as we were able. I had the strong support of my family, close and extended, and the wonderful friends I had made through the years, especially my friend Judy, who lived nearby.

In addition, many people came to Franciscan from all over the country to be with us and offer whatever they could to support us. Rachel Muha, Brian’s mother, and her family arrived in Steubenville and were remarkable people of faith and strength.

Franciscan University conducted three prayer services a day. I met many of Aaron’s college friends, who were to become close friends of mine through the years. I was surrounded by many, many people who held vigil with us. They searched, prayed, and struggled; we became united in one effort.

EARLY TUESDAY MORNING, Robert came to pick up Anna, Michael, and me. He was driving us to Steubenville; we were going to look for Aaron. As we drove up the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I looked out on the beauty of the rolling green hills. I found it hard to reconcile this tranquil scene with what I was about to face.

Detective Lelliss was a tall, earnest man who tried his best to help us understand what was going on. He told me that the house Aaron, Brian, and Andrew shared had been broken into early the previous morning. Andrew had woken up, hearing a commotion downstairs. He’d known something was wrong. Jumping out his bedroom window, he had dropped to the ground outside, calling for Aaron and Brian. Peering in the living-room window, he had seen a man with a white handkerchief around his face. Upon hearing Andrew, the man had whirled around.

“Oh, fuck, there’s another one!” Andrew had heard the man yell.

Andrew had raced to the nearest neighbor he knew, to call the police. By the time he’d returned, the house was empty. Brian’s Chevy Blazer was gone.

Later, the police had spotted two men driving the Blazer in downtown Steubenville. When officers stopped the car, two men fled. One got away. The young man the police apprehended called himself Michael Poole. His real name was Terrell Yarbrough.

The Blazer was being searched. There was blood in the car.

Detective Lelliss held up a plastic bag. In the bright fluorescent light, against the background of yellow walls, I saw a blue plastic rosary, its crucifix broken. “Do you recognize this?”

I felt sick. Why was he showing me the rosary? Why was the cross broken? It was the kind of rosary given out at any service. Was it Aaron’s? I had no way of knowing. My son had one, but so did practically everyone on campus.

Back at our hotel, I felt as though the world was closing in on me. Fear and anxiety gripped me; I wasn’t going to be able to do this. I wanted to run away and pretend nothing had happened. Waves of hysteria started to overwhelm me. I went into the bathroom and took a long, hot shower. I wanted to rinse all this off me. I was trying to get some kind of grip. What could I hold on to?

Afterward, I went out to the courtyard outside my room. It was a still, warm evening. There was a lovely big tree in the center of the courtyard. Suddenly, two tiny birds flew out of the tree around and around my head. They were chattering, singing, and weaving through the air. I stopped and listened to them, I felt it was a message from Aaron and Brian. I watched as they flew high in the sky, singing. I looked up and saw the evening star at twilight. Is that where they were? I knew it would be all right, that they were all right, no matter where they were. I felt peace, which I hadn t felt since the awful phone call. I turned to go inside the room, calm and ready.

Stage 4: The Ocean of Grief—Learning to Ride the Waves


On Sale
Mar 25, 2009
Page Count
256 pages

Kathleen O’Hara

About the Author

Kathleen O’Hara, MA is a therapist who received her BA in Psychology from Antioch University and her graduate degree in Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. O’Hara lives in Philadelphia.

Learn more about this author