LAWRIE WILMOT (72) was born in Cape Town, educated at Michaelhouse School and Wits University and worked in the business world until he felt a call to full-time service in the Anglican church. At 36 he became an ordained minister, serving in various parishes in the Eastern Cape, during which time he was detained for taking part in the anti-apartheid struggle. He married Isobel 43 years ago, and they had two children, James and Kate. On 1 January 1999, James (20) and Kate (18) were murdered when walking back to their aunt’s home from a New Year’s Eve party. Now living with Isobel in retirement in Port Elizabeth, Lawrie talks to JILL BADER about how they processed the loss of their children, the reality of forgiveness and the importance of listening to bereaved people.
‘Wounded healers’: Lawrie and Isobel Wilmot walking near their home, a favourite pastime. | PHOTO: Joubert Loots
‘Let me give a bit of background about the children. Both had a great sense of humour. James was quiet but full of the joy of living. Kate was an extrovert who chatted to absolutely anyone, while James usually just sat and did his Lego! We never had a bad moment with him. He was an average sportsman but academically exceptional, the dux of his school, Muir College in Uitenhage. He qualified as a private pilot at the age of 17 and as a commercial pilot at 19. When he died, he’d just finished his first year of mechanical engineering at UCT, where he was in residence at Smuts Hall and had been put on the Dean’s Merit List.
Kate was musical and her English teacher said she could one day make her mark as a writer, though she would probably have gone on to study law at university. She died before she ever knew her matric results, which were very good. In December 1998, Kate set off by bus on her own to stay with Isobel’s family in Pietermaritzburg, a great step of independence for her. James joined her once he got home from UCT. Back in Uitenhage, Isobel and I were moving house and planned to motor up and join them just after New Year.
The last time I ever saw Kate was when we embraced briefly before Isobel drove her to catch the bus to Pietermaritzburg. My last view of James was as he boarded the plane at Port Elizabeth airport. I’ll keep his boarding pass in my wallet forever.
On the morning of January 1st 1999, we got a call that the children hadn’t returned home from their New Year’s Eve party. Friends and family were combing the area for them. We managed to get on a flight to Pietermaritzburg. Isobel’s brother picked us up from the airport and as we were driving, he got a call from Jane, his and Isobel’s sister, saying that the police had just arrived at her house. The children had been found in the grounds of a school where they’d taken a shortcut on their way home from the party. Later, it emerged that they’d been forced to take off their clothes, fold them in a pile and were then shot in the back of the head. They had not been sexually molested.
I went into complete and utter shock. We were asked to go and identify the children at the mortuary. There was a glass screen between us and them. We weren’t allowed to touch them because the post-mortems still had to be done. Their heads had been covered up at the side to hide the gunshot wounds, so we just saw their faces. James was wheeled in first. He looked peaceful, with his eyes closed, and I prayed and asked the Lord to raise him back to life. Nothing happened. When Kate was brought in, I saw that she had a lock of hair falling over her face, one that I always gently brushed aside for her when she fell asleep at night. I had to fight an overwhelming urge to smash through the glass screen and do it for my precious child for the last time. I almost broke down. I prayed for her to be raised from death. Again, nothing happened. People might ask why. The only honest answer is, ‘I don’t know.’
I’ll keep James’ boarding pass in my wallet forever
But while I don’t know that answer, I believe I do know that God asks us to trust him. Isobel and I decided that night that we would continue to trust God, if for no other reason than the alternative being unthinkable: if we turned our backs on God, we’d have no hope at all. Placing my trust in God, come what may, in no way prevented me from being extremely angry with Him. I was angry with Him for a full year after the children died. I didn’t even pray, and eventually had to go onto antidepressants.
Grieving parents can only help each other up to a point, because they have the same problem. Men and women have to go to different counsellors and have spaces in their grieving because they grieve differently. For two weeks every year I go up to the Karoo alone, where a farming friend has built a three-roomed hut on a mountain slope. Such times really help me to process my grief. Isobel spends a lot of time walking with a prayer friend, talking it all through, and that helps her.
I knew the very next day after the children were found that I had to forgive their murderer. Forgiveness has nothing to do with emotion, it’s an act of the will. It’s like marriage: one day you may love your spouse, the next you have a tiff with him or her, but no thought of divorce comes into the picture because you instinctively recognise the relationship is greater than your differences. That’s how it is with forgiving: in my mind I’ve crucified the children’s murderer many times over, but we’ve both forgiven this person. As Christians we believe that God tells us to forgive others, just as we too need ongoing forgiveness. Forgiving is essential to maintaining mental health. Unforgiving people end up resentful and bitter and slowly die inside.
Fish Hoek holiday, 1995.
What’s helpful when you’re with someone bereaved? There are three steps to follow, and they are the same for any trauma. The first is listen, the second is listen and the third is listen! Let the person tell his or her story over and over again. If he or she doesn’t want to tell it, don’t push it. Just leave them. Don’t give texts from the Bible during the early days of grieving. At this stage, bereaved people are probably bewildered or angry with God and not in the mood for scripture. They can do this if/when they feel ready. If they have an understanding employer, encourage them to stay away from work until they feel they can concentrate on it again. Some weeks may be necessary for this process. Urge them to keep to the basic routines of exercise, sleeping and eating, it’s essential.
Medical research has established that the grieving process has four definite stages. They are shock and denial, then anger, depression and finally acceptance. They can occur in any order, or together. It’s all very bewildering. Isobel and I have found that anger is our main problem, and it usually manifests as irritability with each other. We squabble about things, then we stop and realise what’s happening. Other pastors and many friends have ministered to us, and we have always attended meetings of the Compassionate Friends, a society that ministers specifically to parents who have lost children.
As I look back, I can say that over the past 17 years since the children were murdered, we’ve both attained a degree of equilibrium. We’ve reached the stage of acceptance. Grief still ambushes us, but we cope with it better each time.’
Family holiday in KZN: James was 9 and Kate was 6.
ISOBEL WILMOT (73) grew up in Pietermaritzburg and graduated as a teacher at Natal University, teaching at Fish Hoek High School before supporting Lawrie in his busy church ministry. Here, she reveals how the murder of their children affected Lawrie and herself, how the kindness of other people made a difference, and offers some ways to cope with the loss of someone loved.
‘I don’t feel our story is anything special, it’s just part of a much bigger one. We’re all part of a bereaved nation. Apart from the horrific levels of violence currently witnessed in Cape Town, there are so many tragic deaths through road accidents, cancer and AIDS, as well as all the other ‘normal’ deaths and, of course, those going right back to the dark days of apartheid. There are also the ‘silent’ griefs of childlessness, singleness, or divorce which are seldom acknowledged. But I will tell a little of our story if it can help anyone to get through their own pain, or understand and support someone else.
When James and Kate died, we felt that our own lives had also come to an end. Losing the children was like being thrown into a new world, an Alice-in-Wonderland experience where everything was upside down and the wrong way round. To bury a child, whether that child is stillborn or 40, is the reversal of life’s natural order. We’ve battled with grief and depression, anger and denial, confusion and loss of confidence. We think about James and Kate every day and rotate photos of them all around the house.
I have an ongoing sense of loss, including the loss of my identity as a mother. We both grieve not only for James and Kate themselves, but for the grandchildren we might have had. I also still struggle with the fact that despite both children being organ donors, their bodies weren’t released for a week so none of their organs could be used. This would have been a huge consolation to us. As Kate went off on that holiday, she even reminded me she was an organ donor.
Six years after the children died, a man the prosecution claimed was a psychopath was put on trial for their murders, but was acquitted as the evidence was only circumstantial: the murder weapon, the gun that killed them, was never found. We had to be state witnesses as the accused had phoned us anonymously.
But out of even the most evil, good can come. God’s love just poured out to us. We were just helped to such an extent it’s almost a blur. You can’t believe how kind people can be. My sister Jane said she had no idea where all the meals came from that we ate following the murder. Grief and gratitude may seem odd bedfellows, but they make up the fabric of our lives. There are friends who’ve never forgotten the children’s birthdays and our birthdays, friends who emigrated to England literally days before the children died and still keep in constant touch with us. We’ve been overwhelmed by the ongoing kindness of countless people, both those close to us and many unknown. At the time, because of wide media coverage, we received mail from far and wide, so the evil we encountered was counterbalanced by an outpouring of love and compassion. One of the most touching was a bereavement card which simply said, ‘From a mother in Woodlands’, a so-called coloured area outside Pietermaritzburg.
I can understand the children died because God has given us free will, and one person chose to use free will in an evil way. But the other side of the coin is there are so many wonderful people. We wouldn’t be sitting here were it not for the incredible kindness we received, and because friends and family have prayed for us.
Some days the pain is like a tsunami
Two great blessings are that I have masses of Kate’s essays and James kept a wonderful, humorous diary at UCT. There isn’t one thing we read that we thought, ‘We shouldn’t be reading this.’ Another positive is that when I’m not jolly company to be with, Lawrie will lift the day with humour. It’s kept us going. He’s never bottled up his grief though he has stopped musical expression: he and Kate used to play the piano and guitar together and he hasn’t picked up his guitar since the children died.
There are things we call cold comforts. If one child had survived, the effect on the other would have been devastating. If they had to go, I’m glad they went together. We have since counselled a girl who said: ‘I lost my parents when my sibling died.’ The parents are so busy grieving they forget there is also a sibling suffering.
But our main consolation is that we believe we know where James and Kate are. The same day that the children were killed, I found amongst their things the letter I’d written to Kate as she went away. Part of it quoted Jesus, who said: ‘My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me; I give them eternal life and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.’ To come across this letter was an incredible comfort to us, and we do believe that while they’ve been cruelly snatched out of our hands, they haven’t been snatched out of God’s.
This promise is a huge comfort to us, but it does not take away the emotions which I believe are God-given, human reactions. Jesus also wept. There are days when the pain washes over us like a tsunami, as all those who are bereaved would understand. I think those who deny these feelings are not being real with themselves.
The challenge, as time goes on, is how to deal with the pain. Research shows that the loss of a child leads to the break-up of about 70% of marriages. Lawrie knew this as a pastor, and when we went to bed on the day the children were murdered, he said, ‘We’ve got to take a vow now that we’ll face this together.’ It really helped that he was aware of how hard it is to comfort each other when you’re each battling your own grief. I’m afraid we do get irritable with each other still, but somehow God gives us the ability to cope.
My advice for when someone you love is grieving? Don’t ask: ‘How are you?’ Rather ask: ‘How are you feeling today?’ Some days are worse than others, so expect a rollercoaster of emotions. When people say, ‘I think I’m going mad, I can’t concentrate anymore, I have huge loss of confidence, things I could always do well, I can no longer do,’ they’re on that roller coaster. It’s never helpful to be asked, ‘Have you got over it?’
Sibling connection: James and Kate at their uncle’s house, five days before they were murdered. Lawrie and Isobel found this photograph in Kate’s camera after their deaths. ‘We never, ever heard them having a squabble. We see this photo as their farewell gift to us,’ says Lawrie.
We’ve been greatly encouraged in our journey through grief by self-support group The Compassionate Friends. We continue to go, to support the newcomers in the way we were supported when James and Kate died. We also attended an excellent church course called Griefshare, which caters for anyone bereaved. This we found so helpful that we ran the course ourselves, six or seven times. We have become wounded healers.
Of all the excellent books available on bereavement, the one that’s given us a more balanced perspective is A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, by Gerald L. Sittser, who lost three family members in a car accident. While in no way denying his pain, he’s able to see the blessings he still has. Other highly recommended books by South Africans are So I Will Comfort You by Jenny Kandar and Aan die Dood van My Kind by Letitia Slabber.
Coming from a western culture, we somehow expect life to be good, so we ask, ‘Why us?’ when tragedy strikes. People whose lives are tough anyway are possibly more realistic about death as a part of life. The question should perhaps be, ‘Why not us?’ In the year the children died, the murder rate was 26 000. I doubt many of those families had as much support as we did, and am not sure they all knew how to call on God for help.
‘I’m taking part in life again’
On reflection, I remember that when the children died, I felt I’d retreated to the top corner of a stadium and was watching the game of life being played down on the field. I could no longer connect. Slowly, however, I came down, step by step. We’ll always be emotionally amputated, even if we look normal from the outside, because no-one can fill the gaps left by our children. But now I’m fully involved and taking part in life again. We’re constantly phoned by bereaved people and are doing what we can for them. That’s the only way for me to make meaning of what’s happened to us.
For two years, sleep was my only escape from the pain. Seventeen years later, in spite of all the trauma, I realise we have survived and can honestly say life is still meaningful. We believe we are being carried through by God, our friends and our family, and everyone who shows us kindness or prays for us.’