A police officer pulled the sheet back from the body, and Margaret McAbee took a long look.
Her husband, Bill, lay on the hospital gurney, a stab wound in his chest. Police had asked her to identify his body, and after she nodded, the officer pulled the sheet up again.
But Margaret needed a longer look: "I want to see," she told them. She needed to understand exactly what had happened to her 37-year-old husband.
So began her navigation through the painful and complicated process of grieving for a loved one lost to an act of violence. Nobody told McAbee until later, for instance, that her husband had been stabbed more than once. Nobody alerted her when it had been arranged that the defendant would plead no contest.
Two decades later, the justice system is more sensitive to victims' families. But police investigating a crime are still sometimes apt to keep details secret. Court trials and news reports can raise questions about the victim's role. Through it all, families can be left feeling excluded and isolated.
McAbee has made it her life's work to help others who have lost loved ones violently and suddenly. As executive director of Survivor Resources, a nonprofit with offices in the St. Paul and Minneapolis police departments, McAbee reaches out to grieving metro-area families. She helps them get information from police, connects them with financial resources and provides support groups with those who have been through similar situations. Last year, she started groups for survivors of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
"She's got that calming effect. ... She just mainly listens to you," said Leigh Olson, who got to know McAbee soon after her ex-husband killed their 5-year-old daughter and then committed suicide four years ago. McAbee put her in touch with police and helped her through her grief. "To be honest, I don't think I would have reached out. I wouldn't have known who to call," she said.
Piecing together a tragedy
McAbee's husband had been giving a friend with a stalled snowmobile a ride home from a bar that December night in 1985. The friend wanted to stop at a housewarming party in rural Wisconsin. Bill didn't know the people, but he agreed to stop. There had been a lot of drinking, and there was a scuffle. Bill was stabbed to death.
McAbee was left to raise their five children alone. She pieced together the story of how her husband died through conversations with a sheriff's deputy and police reports. Still, there were gaps.
Bill had been stabbed nine times, McAbee said. In the emergency room the night he died, she was shown only one deep wound in his chest.
For four years, she imagined what the other wounds looked like. She asked police to see photos of the autopsy, but they didn't think it was a good idea.
"Since you don't know, your mind goes everywhere," she said. "Usually it takes you to places that are far worse than reality."
Four years after her husband died, a civil attorney let her see the autopsy photos. "The night I looked at those pictures was the first night I really slept in four years," she said. "Questions were answered."
McAbee was attending grief support groups and started taking her two youngest sons to a support group at a nonprofit in the Twin Cities. When she heard they were training facilitators, she asked to sign up.
Birth of a nonprofit
Soon, she was leading grief groups herself. "Whenever someone's spouse was murdered, they got put in my group," she said.
It became clear that there were different issues for those who'd lost someone to homicide vs. those who'd lost someone to cancer, she said.
McAbee earned a college degree in psychology. She pleaded with supervisors at the nonprofit to let her do a homicide group. Eventually, with the help of St. Paul police Cmdr. Joe Corcoran, a separate nonprofit group now called Survivor Resources was born.
Corcoran agreed to start the group after sitting in on a session with families. He realized then, he said, how police sometimes revictimized them by not sharing information.
"Margaret was a blessing," Corcoran, now retired, said recently. "She's been there and she's done that, and she can see where the people are going [emotionally], where they're headed, and she changes that direction for them."
McAbee set up shop in the St. Paul department and worked mostly on her own at first. She would contact families within 24 hours of a murder and be there to answer questions. That often meant going to houses where police suspected drug dealing or speaking to families who'd just lost a son to gang violence. Soft-spoken and calm, she is careful not to overwhelm people with information, but tells them things they need to know.
She acts as a diplomat between law enforcement and families. If they have questions about what happened, she talks with investigators and tries to get answers. If police can't release information, she explains why to families. If families want to see the loved one's body, she prepares them for what they might see.
She gives her cell phone number to grieving families.
"I'm there for them whenever. They can call me anytime of the day or night," she said. "If somebody's really struggling at 2 a.m., there aren't very many people or places that you can call where you're going to get understanding and help."
Telling the story
The program has since been expanded into Minneapolis and has two other paid staffers, but McAbee still handles all the administrative tasks -- paying bills, raising money. Last year, the program served more than 800 people, she said.
St. Paul police Senior Cmdr. Tim Lynch said Survivor Resources helps families understand the system and helps police remain objective on the investigation. "They keep the families on a good footing with the police department," Lynch said, which sometimes yields information that helps an investigation.
Every Monday night, facilitators gather for dinner in the St. Paul Police Department lunch room. They lead separate groups for families of homicide victims, suicide victims and accidental deaths. There are other groups for children.
"If you don't walk in our shoes, you can't do it," said Vickie Bjorkman, a group facilitator who lost her husband to suicide. "It would be fake."
Groups allow people to grieve among others who understand, facilitators said.
Ruth Melges, whose son died in a gun accident, said therapists "a lot of time want to fix what's wrong," and while that's good, support groups "will let you be where you are" while still guiding the healing.
Part of that healing comes from speaking to those who understand, McAbee said. People need someone to witness their anger and frustration. "People need to be able to tell their story over and over and over and over again," she said. "Because it's in telling the story that they begin to understand and accept it."
Another terrible loss
McAbee became reacquainted with profound grief herself almost three years ago, when a son died in a snowmobiling accident. Once again, she needed the help she'd been providing to others for so long.
Helping people, she said, fulfills her.
"I meet them in their darkest hour, but I get to watch them change and transform their lives," she said. "I kind of see them when they start to bloom again. And that's a very fulfilling thing, to be able to see someone when they can smile again and mean it."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102