It was New Years Day 2008 when Patricia Hung’s daughter, 14-year-old Stefanie Rengel, was brutally murdered outside their home in Toronto. She was stabbed multiple times and left to die by a teenaged acquaintance, pressured to commit this murder by a girl who was jealous of Stefanie. It was cold, it was callous, and it left Patricia and her family broken.
The pain of losing a loved one is overwhelming – the pain of losing a child is beyond comprehension. Patricia and her husband, both long-time police officers with the Toronto Police Service, struggled to keep going after the tragedy.
“We were in shock and had a hard time accepting what had happened,” says Patricia. “But our lives couldn’t stop. We had three young children who needed their parents. Their wellness became our focus.”
In the days, weeks and months following Stefanie’s death, Patricia managed to function enough to keep herself and her family going. She had support from her family and friends, which was crucial in the dark moments that arose, but she also found herself in unfamiliar territory – she was a victim.
Patricia was a police officer. She had worked countless cases, some of them homicides, and had sat with victims in their most vulnerable and devastated states. And while she prided herself on being a comforting presence for them, she couldn’t fully understand what they had experienced or were feeling. After Stefanie’s death, however, Patricia found herself on the other side of that experience and knew exactly what the pain and suffering felt like.
“Until you have walked in someone’s shoes, you just don’t get it,” she says. “I didn’t understand the pain victims feel. I didn’t understand the isolation victims feel. I didn’t understand how the littlest things – like not knowing where the washrooms are in the courthouse – can impact you. It’s horrible.”
Shortly after the tragedy, Patricia was walking her five-year-old son to school. When they arrived, the parents who were just moments before chatting and mingling, scattered. This didn’t go unnoticed by Patricia’s son, who mentioned it right away.
“He said to me, ‘Why did everyone go away when I tried to get in line first?’ I said, ‘Because people feel uncomfortable with me because they don’t know what to do. They want to help but they don’t know how.’ His response was that I should teach people how to act because he hated that this had happened to me.”
That’s when Patricia realized that she could help victims and educate people about what it’s like to be a victim of a tragic crime. She went on to complete a course on grief counselling, and wrote a book called Seven Simple Ways to Support Those who Grieve – The Personal Account of a Bereaved Mother. She later founded Joy in the Aftermath, a support available to those who are grieving or those who want to support people who are. She also worked as the victim support coordinator for the Toronto Police Service before retiring. Today, she continues her work as a volunteer with various committees including the Victims Advisory Committee for Corrections and Parole. She also appears at various events, telling her own story and educating others about victims. When asked what the number one most important thing is that someone can do to help a victim, her answer is immediate: just listen.
“There is nothing you can say to make it better. Just listen,” she says. “Sometimes that means sitting in silence. Even if nothing is said, you’re there and that’s what matters.”
It’s been eight years since Stefanie was tragically taken from her family. Patricia’s personal journey as a grieving mother continues, and always will she says. But she has taken her experience and turned it into something that can help others. Her message, she says, is this:
“Take one day at a time. You can make plans, but in a moment life can change. Live in the present, don’t worry about the small stuff, and be grateful for what you have.”