That hole in your heart

I’ve felt it but it never occurred to me that someone else would use the same exact words to describe it. How could someone else know what my grief feels like?

I heard the words spoken by Dr. William Petit as he faced the media this week after a jury issued its “death penalty” verdict in the case of convicted killer Steven Hayes. 


While many people are caught up in the debate over capital punishment in this case, I am fixated on Petit’s grief and the way in which he is finding the words to express this emotion publically. 

Grief is a powerful feeling. It can control you, potentially destroy you if you allow it to. It can eat you alive. Dr. William Petit is one of those people who knows this all too well.


Petit lost his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, in one gigantic series of escalating evil acts on July 23, 2007. The three were terrorized by Hayes and his accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky, for a period that lasted overnight and ended with the Petit home in Cheshire, Connecticut, engulfed in flames, and three beautiful human beings dead. 

The criminal trial and subsequent penalty phase concluded this week with a jury unanimously deciding that Hayes deserves to be executed for his role in the Petit killings. Komisarjevsky is due to stand trial next year. 

After the decision, Petit faced a mob of media outside the Superior Courthouse in New Haven to respond to questions. The death penalty judgment changes nothing for Petit in terms of healing the wounds he has suffered. The “wounds” are deeper than any physical harm that can be inflicted. 

“I don’t think there’s ever closure,” Petit said. “There’s a hole with jagged edges, and over time the edges may smooth out a little bit but the hole in your heart and the hole in your soul is still there, so there’s never closure.” 

So true. Grief is an unimaginable experience. Sometimes, it is tied to horrific events such as murder. In the Petit case, we have seen and heard about the horrors that robbed Dr. Petit of his wife and daughters for the rest of his life. 

So far, the criminal justice system has spoken, meting out “part one” of its dose of justice. It remains to be seen what “part two” will bring with the second trial. In the meantime, Petit and the extended members of his family are left to carry on. 

So how does one do that? How does one “carry on” in this life when a loved one is taken from us? Really, when life serves up “hell,” how do you go on?

Thanatologists - that is, experts on death, dying and grief - say that grief is an individual experience. By that, I mean, for each of us the death of a loved one will mean something different than what that particular person’s death will mean to someone else. That’s because our lives are unique, so each connection, each experience, each relationship, contributes to a unique personal narrative that is our individual life story.

What’s needed is “meaning reconstruction.” Life as we know it changes irrevocably when someone we love dies. Noted grief expert Dr. Robert Neimeyer says that death changes our individual life stories so that the life that we might have had, would have had, perhaps were supposed to have, can never be. 

That in itself is devastating. As if that isn’t enough, we are expected to pick up the pieces and go on, to figure out what our life means and who we are after this particular death has transformed us.

I found an interesting interview of Neimeyer in my dissertation research, and it was more validation of other research I have come across that speaks about this “relearning” that we undergo through our grief. 

Neimeyer said, “We have to relearn who we are and relearn what the world is because both are changed by the subtraction of this person from our life.” (Taylor, J., “Healing Grief,” YouTube.)

While that may sound too sterile or clinical a view, it is nonetheless the challenge that we each face when we are battling our way through personal grief.

For William Petit, grief has generated a positive initiative that epitomizes the idea of meaning making. I’m sure he found his inspiration from all three of his loved ones, but it appears he took particular direction from his younger daughter, Michaela. It was Michaela who reportedly had been inspired by the words of Mohandas Ghandi to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” 

Those words grace the web site of the Petit Family Foundation, established by Petit and others who recognized that the lives of Jennifer, Hayley, and Michaela should never be forgotten. Their lives meant something when they graced this earth, and they mean something as their spirits live on. 

For Dr. William Petit, the life he had before July 23, 2007 is a memory. His home, his family, and his daily focus of career and family life as he knew it are a part of his past. As he rebuilds his life, his wife and daughters will be a part of it in a way he never would have imagined. 

The hole in his heart is a permanent condition, but as he adjusts to a life he never would have asked for, Dr. Petit is giving meaning to the tragedy. In doing so, he honors Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela, and shares them with the world. 

What an amazing gift of grief. 

For more information on the Petit Family Foundation, visit