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Missing Morgan: The Family's Pain

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As a mother, I cannot even begin to imagine coping with the horror that the Harrington family now lives with.

Morgan Harrington

Robin Sax
Morgan Harrington was a 20-year-old Virginia Tech education major who wanted to be a teacher. She spent time working with children and victims of domestic violence. She loved Harry Potter and the Twilight series. Morgan disappeared on Saturday, October 17, 2009, after being shut out of a Metallica concert at the John Paul Jones Arena at the University of Virginia. Morgan's remains were found in a field last week.

I had the privilege of being on the "Dr. Phil" show with Morgan's family about six weeks ago. I was impressed with their strength and fortitude. When they appeared on the show, the circumstances behind her disappearance were a mystery, and Morgan was still a missing person, and therefore they were hopeful. They had so much grace, and were tremendously strong in the face of such a difficult situation. Most of all, they still had hope.

The worst-case scenario -- a hellish reality for any parent -- unfolded last week when the Virginia State Police said they were "fairly confident" that skeletal remains found in a hay field were those of Morgan Harrington. Dan Harrington, Morgan's father, posted these words on the family's missing person site:

Morgan's mother, Gil, and I are overwhelmingly saddened by yesterday's discovery, but we are also relieved because our questions can now be answered and we can give our daughter a proper burial. We know that because of the good life Morgan led and the love she created for everyone around her, she is now in a safer, better place. We appreciate everyone's respect for our privacy at this difficult time and we thank everyone who has helped us through this tragedy and helped us find Morgan.

While searching through the family's site, I came across a post by her mother, Gil, that was uploaded just two days before her daughter's body was found:

3 months! Despite the length of time Morgan has been gone I remain hopeful. Part of me is waiting to be surprised. Waiting for God to pull the rabbit out of the hat and bring Morgan home. I remember that the light always returns, it cannot help but return. Will the light of my life return soon? I cannot imagine that all the water of Morgan's potential is to run down the drain and be wasted. Can it really play out like that?

As a mother, I cannot even begin to imagine coping with the horror that the Harrington family now lives with. In cases of murdered children, there will be a range of issues that affect the family: feelings of helplessness, guilt, grief, listlessness, anger, rage, horror, pain (both physical and emotional), and so many more. Many marriages will break up after the death of a child. Unanswered questions haunt the family until the trial of the murderer (if he is ever found). And even then, not all the details will ever be known -- nor would they really want to know them.

In the case of the Harringtons, I do believe that Gil and Dan will be able, somehow, to weather the hurricane of grief. From what I have seen of them, this couple has an inner strength that will help them to cope. Still, life will never be the same.

At least when a child is still missing, you can share in the hope that they will be found alive. When remains have been found, there is no longer hope. The only solace is a sort of closure, and a chance for healing. As Dan Harrington said, they will now be able to give Morgan a proper burial.

Sometimes the ones that suffer the most are not just the parents, but the siblings who are left behind. These children have to live with the absent parent syndrome (their parents are missing in their own way while dealing with the tremendous anxiety and stress of a missing child), and then the trauma of the death.

In addition to the horrific losses that the siblings face -- especially as they go back into society and try to be strong and brave -- they also are shouldering their parents' grief. It can be a huge burden. Dan Harrington said that his son Alex and Morgan were close, and that he is having the most difficult time of anyone. Alex has been in New York City during many of the past weeks and has compartmentalized the situation -- being "busy" with work has been a good distraction. But now that his sister has been found, he will travel back home and face the tragedy (and the new reality of his parents' grief).

I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with many families who have had to endure the various stages and aspects of dealing with this kind of tragic loss, an abduction, or other crime committed against their child. In some ways, it is so much easier to connect to a family that is still searching, still clinging to the hope that somehow, somewhere, their beloved child is simply "missing" and will return home. Cases like Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart -- as tragic as they are -- are still considered "happy endings."

There are survivors who have done incredible things after the loss of their child. Mark Klaas is such an example. After the murder of his daughter, Polly Hannah Klaas, in 1994, Mark established the Klaas Kids Foundation. Mark has fingerprinted over a quarter of a million children in the last decade, has had tremendous success with his public awareness campaigns, is involved in legislative efforts to strengthen sentences for violent and recidivist offenders, and so much more. I am constantly amazed at what Mark, and many other parents, are able to do following such a tragedy. We can all learn from their strengths.

The Harringtons already have been involved in the legislative process during the time they were searching for Morgan. They asked lawmakers to reauthorize Kristen's Act, which creates a national database to search for missing adults. The 2002 federal law was named for Kristen Modafferi, an 18-year-old woman from Charlotte, N.C., who vanished in June 1997. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children could not help the search at the time because Modafferi was an adult. The House voted to reauthorize the law in February, and it is pending before the Senate. It is activism like this that helps to reaffirm that Morgan Harrington did not die in vain.

Though I cannot say I fully understand the grief or pain the Harringtons feel -- or any family of missing or murdered children, for that matter -- I do know that it is our obligation as a society to unite together to demand that justice prevail: that those who are responsible for these crimes are found, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced for the heinous acts they have committed.

We cannot make sense of a senseless crime. We can only mourn the loss of such a lovely young woman, whose life was tragically ended far too soon. We send our prayers to Morgan's family. And we pray also that something so unthinkable will never happen in our family.

To learn more about keeping your children safe, read Predators and Child Molesters:
A Sex Crimes D.A. Answers 100 of the Most Asked Questions

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