What does it take to survive the brutal death of one’s children? How can a parent endure?
After a funeral unlike any witnessed at the century-old St. Thomas Church in Manhattan, mourners stood on Fifth Avenue early this month and wondered aloud how Madonna Badger had managed to function at all, much less step up to the lectern and speak so eloquently of the three young daughters who lay in coffins before her.
She had not been able to rescue her children from the Christmas-morning fire that swept through their Connecticut home, killing the three girls along with her parents. She had only been able to cry out “My babies! My babies!” as the firefighters tried to reach them.
But even in tragedy, she found a way to save her girls—by keeping them alive in the hearts of those who came to say goodbye. “This is going to be really hard,” she told the mourners when she stepped up to the oak lectern carved with a likeness of Job. “But I feel very strongly, and the reason why I wanted to speak to you today is to let you know who my girls were ... I want you to remember my girls out loud to fight for them to never be forgotten.”
Hers was a story of love for Lily, Sarah, and Grace. But there had to be more than love alone. “We can talk all day long about love, but love without service is not enough. Please keep our little girls in your hearts by showing your love with acts of pure kindness, by loving each other and finding a way to help each other every day.”
She spoke these words fours days after Dr. William Petit told his late wife’s family that he had gotten engaged—a remarkable symbol of his resilience four and a half years after he endured a loss as unimaginable as Badger’s. In 2007, two monsters invaded the Connecticut doctor’s home, bludgeoning and binding him before raping and strangling his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and sexually assaulting his 11-year-old daughter Michaela, then setting her and his 17-year-old daughter Hayley afire. Like Badger, he had been unable to save them, crying out “My girls! My girls!” as they died. Also like Badger, he had felt compelled to speak at their public memorial. And, like Badger, he began that memorial speaking of them individually, then ended by calling for the mourners to join in keeping his loved ones’ spirits alive through their good acts.
“I guess if there’s anything to be gained from the senseless deaths of my beautiful family, it’s for us to go forward with the inclination to live with a faith that embodies action,” Petit said. “Help a neighbor, fight for a cause, love your family. I’m really expecting all of you to go out and do some of these things.”
In the aftermath of the murders, Petit has said that he contemplated suicide. But he also started the Petit Family Foundation, whose guiding principle is summarized by words from Gandhi that Michaela posted on her Facebook page: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Badger herself has now started an organization to keep her girls’ spirits alive, the Other 364 Foundation, with the mission “to champion compassion every day of the year.”
“I have been asked a million times,” she told the grieving crowd in New York, “ ‘How can you do this, how are you talking, how are you surviving?’ Because when I used to hear about people losing a child, or if a child got very, very sick, I would say, ‘I could never survive that. I could never live through that. I could never, ever, ever live through losing my babies.’?”
“But here I am. Here all of us are.” Amen.