Let’s talk about supporting the women and children left behind when a man goes to prison, shall we? Today seems like a good day to do it. I didn’t sleep much last night, and I woke from my fitful rest with a heavy heart and a mind full of memories. Yesterday two families experienced a tragedy – one man’s life lost and another man’s life forever altered as the result of a deadly fight. I read about it here, and was so sad to see that the man taken into custody for suspicion of murder was Heneli Kaufusi, an old high school buddy of mine. We weren’t particularly close, but I always respected him and admired the kindness he exuded and his easy smile. Of late, I’ve followed his success as an artist and clothing designer – an urban clothing line called LOA clothing (an acronym for Law of Attraction) that focused on the theme of love and bringing the Polynesian community together. I think now, more than ever, it’s obvious why we need to focus on love and oneness as a community: because this event proves that even those with a deep commitment to that theme can fall victim to the longstanding history of violence that plagues us.
My heart hurts this morning. This hits close to home, both because of my association with those involved and also because of my own experience with this type of violence and loss. I mourn for both men – Sione Mangisi who lost his life, and Heneli Kaufusi who allegedly took that life and has to live with the consequences of that decision for the rest of his. Such a tragedy. I’m overwhelmed with sadness for both of them. And, perhaps even more so, I’m overcome with grief for the families of these men. My heart is particularly softened towards the women who have lost a husband, son, and brother, and towards the children who have lost not one, but two fathers in one horrifically tragic event.
Over the past decade and a half, there have been many times when, in bewilderment, anger, or grief, I have looked to God and wondered why he saw fit to bless me with the particular experiences I’ve lived through. I was pregnant with our oldest when Finau went to prison for homicide by assault, and pregnant with our fifth and youngest when he went back to Utah and was incarcerated again, where he remains today. My children have spent the majority of their lives fatherless as a result of the Polynesian on Polynesian violence that Heneli Kaufusi’s clothing line sought to mitigate, and now it would appear that Heneli, too, has fallen victim to that violence. I’ve wondered more than once what lesson I could possibly need to learn from the sad, hard circumstances I’ve endured, what good could come of the tragedies I’ve encountered. And, while I don’t always find the answers when I seek them, I’ve often thought that maybe these experiences will help me help others. I’ve thought about writing this post many times, but each time I talked myself out of it for one reason or another. But, in light of the tragedy before us, on behalf of the women and children left behind, today I want to share some experiences that I hope will help those that ever have the misfortune of being left behind in the wake of this type of tragedy, and maybe give those inclined to be supportive a starting place for showing that support.
To the women and children left behind: You are loved. You are loved and remembered. You are loved and remembered and I pray you will be supported. This post is for you.
And to those who would offer their support to women and children in these kinds of circumstances: I would like to share a little bit of my life with you in the hopes that you are able to ease the burdens of the collateral victims of such tragedies.
Please remember the children, and, when you do, let them know you are thinking about them.
I have been so grateful for the many father figures that have wandered in and out of my kids’ lives as their biological father has been unavailable to them. I’m thinking right now of the bishop who took time out of his very busy schedule to come to our house the night before school started to give my kids a beginning of the school year father’s blessing. As a father himself, it would have been easy for him to feel like he had enough on his plate the night before the first day of school. But, as the father of our ward, he could never know how much it meant to me that my kids were remembered and cared for and ministered to in that way. It meant so much to me, and it meant so much to them.
I also think about the time my friend’s husband went out of his way to allow an excitable – and undoubtedly annoying – little 3 year old boy tag along and follow him around all night, asking him questions, asking to sit on his lap. He probably didn’t realize that this 3 year old was desperately missing his dad, and will never understand how much it meant to us that he made my son feel loved and welcome and like he was a part of their family, if only for a moment.
My own brothers, dad, stepdad, and cousins have stepped in time and time and time again to make sure that while my children don’t have their biological father in their everyday lives, they never lack for father figures. I am so grateful for their love and for the positive role models my kids have to look up to.
So, please, remember the children on holidays, on important milestone days, and also “just because.”
Please remember the children’s mother, and, when you do, let her know you’re thinking about her.
For all intents and purposes, losing a spouse to long-term incarceration is much like becoming a widow, but the women left behind are not usually given the same support that a widow might receive. I don’t think this is intentional, it’s just that people don’t realize exactly what a woman whose companion is incarcerated experiences. When Finau went to prison, I lost my physical and emotional companion and my sole financial support. There have been so many times when I felt like I was absolutely at the end of my rope, but there was no one there to catch my children if I let go of that rope. I had to figure out a way to support a family of six by finding a job that would allow me the flexibility I needed to be the mom of a newborn, medically fragile 1 year old twins, a 2 year old with special needs, and an 8 year old with severe ADHD, all of whom got sick easily, had frequent doctors appointments, and needed a parent that could be available at a moment’s notice. I had to find daycare, and spent hours on the phone getting medical insurance and daycare financial assistance and the like, and it was HARD. Really hard. I am forever grateful for the friends I’ve had along the way who have picked up the pieces when I’ve fallen apart and given me a safe and warm place to land. I’m grateful for my mom and stepdad for taking my little family in when we needed a roof over our head, even though it was – and continues to be – a huge, noisy, messy disruption to their otherwise quiet, organized life. I’m grateful for the friends I’ve had that saw me drowning and said, “Here, let me help. We’re going to get you a sitter once a week so that you have some time for yourself that you can count on and use to regroup and center yourself when things get hard.”
Remember the children’s mother. She has physical, emotional, and financial needs. She needs a break. She needs a friend. She needs a nap. She will need your support, and probably won’t ask for it.
Please remember the family members of both parties, and, if appropriate, let them know.
I’ve witnessed firsthand what violence and incarceration do to the family members of those involved in the violence and its aftermath. It is soul crushing and incredibly sad and stressful, and we often don’t think of the collateral damage that occurs when a person goes to prison. Those left behind need your love and understanding. And they do not need for you to speculate about what happened or why. Let the facts come out. Remember that there are real people on both sides of every tragedy who love and care about those involved. Give them space to mourn and process with dignity and peace. I felt a lot of guilt and shame over what happened with Finau, and I appreciated the love and support of kind, non-judgmental people at that time in my life. The extended families of those who are involved in a tragedy like this deserve your kindness, your love, and your well-wishes. They do not need your condemnation, your nosiness, or your disdain.
Remember the family members, and if you have an established relationship with them, express that love in ways you know they would appreciate; if you do not have an established relationship, offer prayers or send positive thoughts out into the world on their behalf, but don’t be pushy with your support, as you will likely come across as merely curious and insincere.
If you are called to walk the path I’ve already been down, I mourn with you. I wish you didn’t have to walk that road. It’s hard and sad and it hurts like hell. But, you can do it. I’m sending you love and strength, and I hope this inspires those who will be put in your path to help you in the ways you need and in the times that you need it. Praying for healing and peace for those involved and for the community at large. Love is always the answer.