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Family members will learn to cope with trauma of loss

Denna Cohen holds a photo of her daughter

Denna Cohen holds a photo of her daughter Jodi Cohen, who died 20 years ago. / Newsday Photo - Ana P. Gutierrez / July 28, 2009

More than 20 years have passed since Denna Cohen's only daughter, Jodi, was killed by a drunken driver, yet she still cries for her.

"You never get over it," said Cohen, of Coram. "It becomes part of your life and you learn to live with the emptiness and the loss."

The surviving family members of those killed in the Taconic State Parkway crash Sunday face an incredibly painful and intense process as they cope with the sudden and unexpected trauma, grief experts said.

"There are many, many families who have experienced tremendous tragedies," said Susan Thomas, director of the Center for HOPE at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, which offers counseling for parents who have lost children. "They go through that grief to the inner core of their resiliency and bring that to the surface, and use that to integrate the grief into their other life and move forward.

" . . . And this family who was a family will now have to go on and function in a different way."


A family relates

Keith Rabinowitz finds inspiration in his son, Stanley, now 27 months old and named after his father, who died in July 2005 when Martin Heidgen, driving while intoxicated and traveling the wrong way on the Meadowbrook Parkway, slammed into the limousine Rabinowitz was driving after a wedding. The crash also killed Katie Flynn, 7, a limo passenger. Heidgen was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.

The case drew media attention similar to the reports on the Taconic crash. For Rabinowitz, 35, the attention forced him to face that his father was gone, he said.

"You learn to live with the pain every day," he said. "You keep crying until you don't have any tears left to cry."

Now, Rabinowitz, of Rocky Point, said he would like to see vehicles equipped with technology that can detect when a car is traveling in the wrong direction.

Often people will find a way to highlight their loved ones' legacies and draw strength from that, said Jason Kornrich, chief psychologist at Nassau University Medical Center.

Cohen has become active in MADD Long Island, serving as president for 10 years. Her daughter was 21 when she died in 1989.

"I remember there was a point very early on, I couldn't hear my daughter's name or speak it without crying," she said. "It gets different. Easier is not the word, and you get accustomed to living with this loss."


A difficult first year

Survivors experience shock, numbness, disbelief and denial, and the first year is the toughest, said Marilyn Vallejo, supervisor of the mental health component for the Nassau County Red Cross. She has responded to such disasters as the Buffalo commuter-plane crash, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept 11. attacks.

"The best thing to do is to have support groups and encourage them to go out and have people with specialties work with them," she said.

Barbara Connelly's son, James, was 15 when he was murdered in 1979 in Plainview. "We live with it every day," said Connelly, now executive director of Long Island Parents of Murdered Victims Outreach. "We live with the fact things can happen no matter what you do."

-Click here to see the latest photos of mourners remembering the victims and the crash investigation

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