WORLD OF PAIN
Years dull the grief, but not the Farrell family’s memories of Donnie
By Ashley Super
The Donnie Project
“Don. Don Juan. The Donald.”
These are just a few of the ways Donald Farrell Sr. remembers his son.
The rest of the Farrells — wife Kathy, daughters Aimee and Caitlin, and youngest son Luke — sit alongside him in a Rowan classroom a few days before the fourth anniversary of Donnie’s death. It’s taken a long time for them to be able to talk publicly about Donnie, who was fatally attacked a short walk away from where they now gather.
“I remember the ride down. I remember Donnie sleeping the whole way,” said Don of his first trip to Rowan, when his son was still in Mountain Lakes High School, deciding on a college.
As for Donnie’s sister Caitlin, 21, the campus is a reminder of of how her own life might have been different: Before his death, Donnie had helped Caitlin complete her Rowan application. She’s now a senior at a school in North Carolina, joined by the youngest sibling, Luke, 19.
Throughout the investigation of Donnie’s killing, people have questioned what sparked the altercation, why a single blow to the neck ended in death, and whether or not the attackers actually meant to kill Donnie in the first place.
To the family, those things don’t matter so much. Answers won’t bring Donnie back to them. Answers won’t fill the void his death has left in their lives.
Even the big question, the one question many would assume the family desperately longs to answer, brings complicated feelings. The lack of an arrest is, itself, a kind of mercy. Because what happens then?
“I would say for me, the hardest thing would be if they caught somebody and we went through a trial and then that person was let go. So right now, as it is now, I don’t have to think about that or deal with it,” said Kathy.
Ultimately, the family has concentrated on dealing with the grief associated with losing a member that held such a special place in the hearts of each and every one of them.
Don remembers a quote someone once told him, one that summarizes the despair he has been burdened with since the phone rang that awful Saturday night.
“When you lose your parents, you lose your past. When you lose your children, you lose your future.”
He’s not entirely correct, of course.
Sitting next to Don and Kathy are their three other children, each face a variation on their parents’, with broad smiles and thick, wavy hair. Though Kathy admits she found it nearly impossible to help the other children deal with their own grief immediately after Donnie’s death, they are without question the reason she was able to survive the unimaginable.
“That’s why we’re still here,” said Kathy as Don nods his head in agreement.
Their oldest, Aimee Farrell Rogoff, said the family survived the worst of the grief by holding together. Slowly, the pain becomes less acute.
“It still hurts, but it’s not as crushing as it was in the past couple of years,” said Aimee.
This school year held a particular poignancy for Luke, now at the the very point in his life Donnie was when he was taken from them.
“It’s definitely weird to see that our paths are finally coming together and to realize in about a week, I will have gone farther in school than he did. I feel like I’m almost following his path but while going on a totally separate one,” said Luke.
Luke would have understood, he said, if his parents had become super-protective after Donnie’s death. But they haven’t, instead letting him become independent, even to get a motorcycle when he turned 17.
As the family discusses their grief and the progress they have all made, they often mention the young woman who had been Donnie’s high school sweetheart and was with him at the time of the attack.
She spoke to the Donnie Project exclusively for this story, but asked her name not be used. She still can’t talk about the incident or its immediate aftermath, but shared her thoughts and memories of Donnie.
“I met Donnie when I was 13 and was smitten the first time I met him,” she said. He always just knew how to make her laugh.
“We dated for over four years and became each other’s first love and best friend,” she said. As they grew up, and shared each others’ lives, Donnie’s girlfriend became a part of the Farrell family. That relationship has continued over the years. She even served as a bridesmaid in Aimee’s wedding after Donnie’s passing, a natural presence in family pictures of that day.
Just like the rest of the Farrells, she has had a difficult time.
“It’s been over four years, and I still miss being able to call him at any moment to tell him about my day or the things I’m involved in,” she said.
The family has made some strides in dealing with the grief of losing its shining star, the one who converted them all from die-hard Mets fans to Yankees boosters simply because he made it look like so much fun.
Nevertheless, they all still find it exceedingly difficult to discuss the actual altercation that tore a hole through them.
“We just don’t think about it because it’s very painful and you’ll stop breathing. You’ll physically stop breathing. I stop breathing when I do think about it,” said Don.
As a step in their grieving process, the Farrells joined a support group with three other families who lost family members to murder. Their grief counselor, Meg Kallman, established the group when working with the Farrells shortly after Donnie’s death.
Kallman, who specializes in traumatic event and disaster crisis counseling, initially recommended a support group to the Farrells because in her experience, dealing with the death of a loved one as the result of murder brings a special kind of grief.
“When anyone dies suddenly or unexpectedly, and certainly when it is at the hand of another person, it’s even more complicated because it is impossible to believe that some other person can take another human being’s life,” said Kallman.
Through their journey to overcome the crushing grief they’ve all experienced, it’s impossible not to think of all of the decisions that lead to Donnie’s death and which of those, had they been different, might have created an entirely different reality today. Don says they do their best not to dwell on the ‘what if’s.’
“My mother always says, the road you take is where you end up, so don’t think about it,” he said.
Don and Kathy found solace in their Roman Catholic faith, which they say has grown stronger since Donnie’s death. The family feels his presence in their lives, not just as a grinning face in photos but in tangible ways they don’t always understand. They just know.
“I still don’t understand it but as the priest said at Donnie’s funeral, we’ll only understand it one day,” said Don.
Ashley Super is a Rowan junior majoring in journalism and political science and the news editor of The Whit. Julia Gentek contributed to this report.