I met Sonya Reed several months after I'd met and written about Khristian Oliver. She sent me a lovely letter to thank me for being there for Khristian on the day of his death. A friendship blossomed. We send each other letters, I visit her when I can and I adopted Violet, the cat she saved from being euthanized by the prison.
DW: Who was the person that died?
SR: The person I lost was my husband, Khristian Oliver.
DW: How old were you at the time?
SR: I was thirty-seven.
DW: How old was the person?
SR: He was thirty-two. He'd been on death row for almost twelve years.
DW: Was it a sudden death or did you know it was going to happen?
SR: We knew it was going to happen. We hoped it wouldn't, but there's a certain inevitability for people with a death sentence. The only thing I can remotely compare it to is that it felt similar to having a loved one die of a terminal illness.
DW:Did you and Khristian talk about death?
SR: We communicated several times a week via letters and the prison wardens allowed us a one hour phone conversation on his last day. It was immeasurably precious and far too short. I cannot possibly describe what it feels like to be someone's last wish. It was surreal. I cried through the entire conversation. Bless his heart; he tried to be stoic, to comfort me, but I could hear the fear in his voice. He said, "I think they're going to get me, baby." I could hear the surrender too. He wanted to live, but he also bore an enormous burden of guilt. He told me, "nothing they could ever do to me is worse that what I've already done to myself."
DW: Had you experienced any other deaths in your personal life before this person died?
SR: I experienced death early on when my grandfather, whom I was close to, passed away. My older brother was killed in a car accident when I was six. That's when I first started having panic attacks. Also, being from a rural area, I experienced the deaths of pets and other animals more than I care to remember. I always took the deaths personally, as if there was something I could have done to prevent them.
DW: Were people supportive of your grief or did they shy away when you were grieving?
SR: I experienced such a wide variety of reactions from others when Khristian was executed, it's hard to classify them as either supportive or shying away. An execution is not a normal death and given that it was on the news, most people here at the prison were curious, at best. I felt like I couldn't get away from all the voyeuristic type questions; "what were his last words?" and "what was his last meal," etc. So many people were incredibly insensitive to my grief while trying to satisfy their curiosity, but there were some who were genuinely supportive and just let me be. It's impossible to find private time in a women's prison, but that's all I wanted to do--to grieve alone. It seemed everyone felt that their words of comfort or advice were the very ones I needed to make it through, but nothing anyone said or did could have ever made it better.
DW: Is there anything you wish you'd done differently with this person?
SR: I have so much regret concerning Khristian, it would take a book to write it all down. I wish I could have saved him. I wish I had been more assertive with him and saved someone else, too. I wish I had shown him more that I loved him as much as he loved me. I wish my love could have healed his emotional damage. I wish I'd take him to the beach. He never got to go. After he was sentenced to death, and the subsequent appeals were lost, one by one, it became increasingly important to me that he know that he was loved and cherished. That his life had merit and value. That he meant something important to someone--that if he died, his life would not have been in vain. I can only hope that I did that for him.
DW: Was he buried or cremated?
SR: He was buried, but I was not allowed to attend the funeral and have not seen the grave site. I hear he has a beautiful Celtic cross headstone, but my only concern is that there's a place for me next to him. I wrote a memorial, a eulogy of sorts, which his sister read at the funeral. It helped me to feel a part of it.
DW: Did you learn anything about the grieving process that you'd like to share?
SR: Knowing beforehand that there are psychological steps to the grieving process helped me to an extent. I'd recognize my thoughts or behavior and think, "ohhhh, that's where this anger is coming from." Being there for Khristian's mother helped a great deal, even though I didn't recognize it at the time. She'd been through what no mother should have to endure. I just listened and gave her love. In those first few months, I think being there for her gave me the strength to keep going. When depression finally hit me, it was being there and caring for a little cat that saved me. Violet gave me a purpose when I felt I had absolutely no reason to keep going. Even now, almost four years later, I am still committed to saving these helpless prison cats.
You can read about these cats on Sonya's blog, here.
DW: Last but not least, were any songs played at the memorial that were important to the person?
SR: I so badly wanted Khristian's favorite song played at his funeral Sophie B Hawkins' "As I Lay Me Down." It's ironic that his favorite song is one of goodbye. His sister was unable to find it and they played something else.