In 2007, Joan Sepp asked if I would help her get a speech together for an upcoming conference of social workers in Sudbury. We sat in my den and talked as I ticked away on my laptop. Joan had received many invitations to speak but had refused them all. She was a one-on-one person she said. But in 2007 she changed her mind and accepted three speaking engagements. This was the first. She felt exhilarated after she gave this speech and intended to do more speaking but on September 23, 2008 Joan moved to her heavenly home. Here is Joan . . .
I would like to thank Bob Heeney for inviting me to speak at this conference. It’s because of his sincere powers of persuasion that I’m here. My habit for years has been to decline all invitations to speaking engagements but I’m honoured to join you today for this special conference.
I was an ordinary woman, living an ordinary life until two tragic events changed my life forever. The first tragedy involved our son, Marty.
My husband , Toivo, and I thought our oldest son, Marty, was destined for national leadership. An A student, he was also a gifted speaker and musician. In high school he was chosen to emcee the Miss Teen Pageant. After high school graduation he entered university. Because of his past performance, our expectations of him were very high. But, at age 19 Marty fell in love with marijuana which lead to using harder drugs. Ultimately, drugs destroyed his personality and his potential. He only needed six credits to obtain his degree in psychology when he dropped out of school
Years of psychiatric treatment, rehabilitation centers and counseling followed, all to no avail. I did everything within my power to help my son. Marty was only beginning to make some right choices when he was tragically murdered on September 30, 1983 at age thirty-one.
The twelve years prior to Marty’s death were hell for me. Like all mothers my happiness was connected to my children. Marty’s self-destruction affected my mental health and my marriage.
Through Alanon I received help to cope with Marty’s drug addiction. Their program helped me gain a different perspective and my self-esteem improved immensely. I also read “Happiness is a Choice,” and other books on how to cope with life. All of these helped me to change my way of thinking.
Some special people came into my life during the time before and after Marty’s death. One of these was Pastor Ken Ostler who was the first person who showed love and kindness for both Marty and I and concern for our mental and spiritual health. He went beyond the call of duty.
During Marty’s struggle I often felt overwhelmed with guilt because my priority had always been my children. I wanted to be the best mother ever. Part of my mental struggle was guilt. I wondered, “Where did I go wrong?”
I was able to handle the grief of Marty’s death by focusing on the needs of my youngest child, Krista, who was fifteen. Krista, being much younger than her brothers, was the light of my life and I gave all my love, affection and attention to her. My second son, Jan, who was 28 was living on his own.
To know Krista was to love her. She brought fun and enthusiasm to our household. She grew up with a heart for the disadvantaged and when it came time for college she chose the Child and Youth Worker program at Sault College. She wanted to make a difference in the lives of adolescent children.
Krista was barely 5’1” and weighed no more than 105 pounds but she had the courage of a lion.
The summer after Krista’s graduation from college, she went with my husband Toivo and I on a two month camping trip through the western mountains. Having her with us every day was a precious experience.
In January, 1989, Toivo and I drove Krista to Midland, Ontario where she started her new career with Kinark. She was under the impression she would be working with pre-adolescents. However, her first assignment was with older juveniles. As her parents, we had concerns for her safety.
Not long ago, I found a paper Krista wrote near the end of her college program. In it, she said:
“I want to express some fears I have about this area of work. I think one of the biggest fears I have is being in a potentially dangerous situation with no backup. I realize these fears are somewhat irrational and with time and experience they will possibly diminish but I feel it is good practice to be aware of such fears and learn ways to overcome them.”
Krista had plans to obtain a degree so that she could be more helpful to her profession. Her career with Kinark was a stepping stone for her. But nine days after beginning her career with Kinark, on February 3, 1989, Krista was murdered by the very people she was trying to help. A fifteen year-old female invited her boyfriend into the facility one night. They plotted together to kill Krista. The male is still in prison but the female was released after six years.
We receive regular letters from the prison keeping us up to date with parole hearings. We want to be kept informed but getting the reports opens our wounds. Even when the guilty parties are sent to prison, a loss like ours is never over. The pain is still there.
After Krista’s Death
Shortly after Krista’s murder, two RCMP officers flew to Sault Ste. Marie to spend the day with us. Together we came up with almost 200 recommendations to improve job safety for youth workers. Some of these have been incorporated and some have not.
I believe that every possible measure should be taken to ensure the safety of child and youth workers. I have received many, many letters from workers who decided to leave the profession after Krista’s murder because of safety issues.
One conclusion I have come to is this: All the focus is put on the perpetrator. How they can be helped and rehabilitated. None of the focus is put on the victims who must pick up their shattered lives and make the best of it alone. Krista’s shocking death brought us a lot of unwanted attention. People descended on our home. For six weeks our house was deluged by caring friends, curiosity seekers, crisis intervention workers and of course, the media and police.
One of the most devastating things was watching the evening news and seeing Krista’s picture. My tearful face appeared on the front page of the newspaper. We were hounded for interviews. For many months I was grief-stricken. I couldn’t eat and was fearful of losing my mind.
I became what I call a negative celebrity. When I entered a restaurant, I heard someone whisper, “There’s Mrs. Sepp. You know, the woman who had 2 children murdered.” People I knew would cross the street to avoid meeting me face to face. They didn’t know what to say to me.
Toivo, my husband, collected and delivered 7,000 signatures to Premier Davis, then the premier of Ontario. The loss of his precious little girl set Toivo on a mission to change the Young Offenders Act.
One of the saddest results of these tragedies is that I lost several friends. They didn’t know how to handle my emotions or respond to my grief.
I made a conscious decision not to talk about my grief or burden others with it. I chose not to let my losses consume me. They don’t define who I am.
Choices are important to everyone and they are especially important to me.
- I chose not to live just to remember my children.
- I chose not to fall apart although I know people would have given me permission to fall apart. My greatest fear was losing my sanity.
- I chose not to live in my grief but above it.
- I chose to squeeze every ounce of good out of a horrific situation.
Choosing to find good in our tragedy has led to several things being done in Krista’s name.
- Many scholarships being given in Krista’s memory to students at Georgian and Sault Colleges. A lot of money has been invested in the education of child and youth workers. My brother has generously provided thousands and thousands of dollars for scholarships.
- Kinark also has a remembrance day for Krista.
- Aside from the public donations in Krista’s memory, for my personal mental health, I choose to donate my paintings, crafts and time to many charitable organizations. Thinking of others first is therapy for me.
Choices like choosing to think of others first have helped me. This is the route to mental and spiritual health. Self-pity is the road to destruction.
My Last Words to Krista
When we arrived home after taking Krista to Kinark, I phoned her. She was at work so I left a message. My last words to her were, “I love you.” So often we don’t tell the people we love that we really do love them. I’m so glad that my last words were words of love.
By the grace of God I’ve been able to see the positives that have come from Krista’s life. Her memory continues forever and ever and I know that I will see her again in Heaven.
I’m glad I’ve had this opportunity to speak to you from my heart.
God bless all of you.
After this speech, several attendees at the conference clung to Joan and said she had been a great source of inspiration to them. She came home thanking God for the courage He gave her to stand up and tell her story.
Read this article, Out of Her Comfort Zone, about Joan’s decision to step up the podium and tell her story. I wrote this after Joan gave the above speech. It was published shortly after her death.
Rose McCormick Brandon’s books are available at Writing from the Heart.