Jeni Schmidt Cosgrove is a dear friend whom we met under some of the most tragic circumstances possible. In our book OBSESSION, we chronicled the story of the All-American Schmidt family of Leawood, Kansas, the horrific murder of older sister Stephanie, and how parents Gene and Peggy and younger sister Jeni turned their grief into action. They created “Speak Out For Stephanie,” a foundation dedicated to child safety and the effective response to sexual predators. Their activism led to Stephanie’s Law, a landmark Supreme Court decision that helped keep predators safely off the streets.
Jeni, a beautiful young woman whom we have known since she was a teen, is now a mom of two equally beautiful girls, beloved by their doting grandparents, Gene and Peggy. She is married to a wonderful and talented man, Jim Cosgrove, a children’s folksinger, whose career she manages. Jeni has been examining her feelings and insights for years in an effort to articulate the ordeal she has gone through since that horrible day in July 1993, just before Stephanie’s 20th birthday. The following was just published on Jeni’s website, “Speak Out For Siblings,” an extension to Speak Out For Stephanie.
We cannot imagine a more honest, heartfelt and truthful insight than what Jeni has written:
Today marks the 22nd anniversary of Stephanie’s murder.
By Jeni Schmidt Cosgrove
When a child is born, we celebrate the birth. Whether we are the family, or a friend we are filled with joy over this miracle. A baby is a sign of hope, faith, and new beginnings. We continue to celebrate this joy with each birthday. When someone dies, we mourn together. But, it is implied that we should get back to “normal” after the funeral. There is stigma attached to commemorating the anniversary of someone’s death. The bereaved are often asked why they would want to acknowledge such sadness every year.
Ignoring the anniversary of someone’s passing makes their life as incomplete as not acknowledging their birthday. Just as we cannot look at the birth of a child and deny the desire to celebrate, we should not deny the need to memorialize the end of one’s life.
Balancing these emotions is something I face every summer. As the heat of the season creeps in, time seems to stand still. I am taken back to a time when my world was turned upside down. July 1st is the anniversary of my sister’s murder. Her birthday falls three days away on July 4th. I am always overwhelmed by the mutual feelings of mourning and celebration during this time of year.
I try to tell myself these are only dates on the calendar. Besides, I miss my sister everyday, not just on her birthday. Occasionally, I have encountered people who are perplexed that I acknowledge this anniversary. I have heard well meaning people say, “I didn’t know that still bothers you.” Their lack of understanding is sometimes hurtful. However, I am grateful they have not experienced the same pain that I have. As I think about the last two decades, the most helpless, claustrophobic feeling surrounds me. Stephanie died at the hands of evil. She died scared, helpless and alone. I know my grief pales in comparison to the horror she must have experienced. The nightmare still haunts me. There are moments when I try to trick myself into thinking it never happened.
Traveling through life without my sister will always be foreign to me. I am not an only child. I was born into a family with one older sibling. The sibling relationship is the foundation of our identity. Siblings are our first best friends. We build hopes, dreams and a bond that cannot be filled by another human being. When a sibling is stolen from us, our future milestones are often tainted with sorrow knowing our sister, or brother should be there to celebrate with us. The void is always there. The greatest struggle is keeping this void from making us bitter and angry, keeping us from experiencing joy again.
Stephanie was always there for me during the first seventeen years of my life. I remember not wanting to celebrate my own birthday the first year without her. How can I celebrate when she cannot? It took me nearly a full decade of hiding behind the shadows of guilt, depression and self destruction until I finally heard Stephanie’s voice in my heart. I realized Stephanie would not want me to stop celebrating. Experiencing life was the best way to honor what she taught me in the short time we had together.
Ironically, months before she was killed, Stephanie wrote the following influential reflection for a college psychology class –
“Death makes me realize how much I value life, but more specifically, my parents, friends, family, and most of all – love. I try to treat everyone as if there is no tomorrow because you never know if there is.”
After figuring out how to truly live by her words, life has become more fulfilling. I am happily married with two daughters. Life has come full circle. Like Stephanie and I, my girls are two and half years apart. At the same time, Stephanie’s absence becomes more profound with every joyful milestone. I often find myself wanting to call her to tell her how much their relationship reminds me of our childhood.
The last two decades have taught me that we are not here to simply acknowledge dates on a grave – we are here to honor everything we learned from that person in between. It is challenging to embrace new experiences, while grieving for something that can never change. But, I believe our loved ones would want us to embrace life as joyfully as possible. This is one of the many ways we can pay tribute to their memory.
I still have many days when anger and anxiety consume me. It is then that I look at the world through the eyes of my children. They bring me back to a place of peace. I am redirected. Living by Stephanie’s philosophy, I have learned the only way to combat the violence that ended her life is to put love into everything I do, from living a healthy lifestyle, to being a more understanding parent. I strive to nurture the beautiful relationship my own daughters have together. I want to pass down her legacy of love and laughter to my own children and to those around me. Life It’s about leaving the world a little better than how we found it. I know that is how my sister lived her life and she would want me to do the same.