Circle of Love

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last weekend on TV, we watched some of the Kennedys walk on the Cape Cod shore. We saw them gathered at night, silhouettes in the windows of their Hyannisport homes as they waited for news of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s downed plane. We heard the endless drone of TV's talkers, asking somberly what it must be like for them--such a large family, cloistered together again to endure yet another loss?

Is a family's grief more manageable if there are more family members to share it? Is a family's solace more potent if there are relatives to empathize?

Pamela Klein doesn't have to wonder. Her own tragedy has lent answers she'd rather not have.

Her family--the Coles, of Ladera Heights--had none of the Kennedys' fame or power. But she believes those are irrelevant assets in times of grief. What counts is the closeness of a large family, the indescribable bond that can cement together parents, siblings and a whole array of relatives, no matter how devastating the trials.

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In 1991, Pamela's father Robert Cole was a practicing orthopedic surgeon. He and his wife, Barbara, were the parents of three grown daughters and a son.

Two of the daughters, Pamela Klein, 34, and Stephanie Content, 32, were married but as yet had no children. Kathy Simpkin, 29, had three--all babies at the time.

Robert Cole Jr., 27, had finished medical school in Washington, D.C., and won a prestigious internship with an AIDS specialist in Australia.

It was a golden time in the Cole family, Pamela Klein recalls, especially for Robert Jr.

"He was so excited about becoming a doctor, getting this job, changing the world. We were all so happy--and so happy for each other."

On Feb. 1, 1991, Stephanie drove to LAX for dinner with her brother, who was due to change planes there on his way to Australia.

He never appeared. His arriving US Air flight slammed into a departing commuter jet while Stephanie waited in the terminal. She phoned her sisters, who called various other relatives, all of whom converged on the airport. Her parents, away for a wedding, heard the news on TV and headed back.

Klein remembers that all relatives and friends of passengers were ushered into an airport VIP room staffed with Red Cross trauma experts to await news of possible survivors. In retrospect, Klein says, it was there that she first understood the difference between people sharing grief with their families and those dependent upon strangers for hope and for help.

"The Red Cross was great with people. But I had my sisters, parents, aunts, uncles. I got such great support from that. I remember crying in the arms of my sister, who was feeling the exact same agony.

"When you grieve with family, strength is not necessary. You don't have to act any particular way, because they are grieving too. You don't have to worry about your body language, words, the expression in your eyes. You can't say or do anything wrong when you're with family--you don't have to 'hold up.' You can completely let go. You don't have to feel guilty about maybe making someone feel sorry for you. . . . They feel sorry for themselves, just as you do.

"Outsiders feel pity for someone in pain. But family members don't--because they share the same raw, deep agony."

Hilary Cohen, director of Our House in Los Angeles, which offers grief support groups for adults and children, says that big families indeed offer "more people who can be supportive. But the flip side is you have more personalities to deal with."

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The Cole family waited at the airport all night. The next day, after being told that Robert had "probably died" in the crash, they gathered at their parents' home. They fell into each other's arms and howled; they sat in a circle, held hands and prayed.

The sisters' husbands took care of all the details of death: obtaining the dental records to help identify the body, going to the morgue, the coroner's office, whatever needed to be done.

"They took care of it all," Klein recalls, "so that we, the most grieving, could do nothing but grieve." Members of Barbara Cole's bridge club, women who'd practically become part of the family after hanging out together for 25 years, came in to cook and clean.

All this time, Klein says, the family presumed that the worst had happened.

"But much like the Kennedys, we held something out in our gut. Just held it open, in case the phone should ring and somebody told us our brother had turned up in a hospital and wasn't really dead. You know in your heart he's dead, but it's too painful. You can't let go of hope just yet."

Later in the day, the coroner's office called to say that Robert's body had been identified.

Even now, eight years later, Klein starts to sob as she recounts "the indescribable, shocking pain." For weeks afterward, she says, she barely slept. When she did, she dreamed of specific ways in which he might have died without pain. "You want so much for the end of their life not to be painful. . . . You try and re-create a painless death in your dreams."

For weeks, the family stayed at the Coles' house, "trying to survive this as a family. It's an interesting thing--a sort of cocoon that develops and shelters you from reality, and from pressure in the outside world."

Klein's mother, Barbara, recalls feeling the same way.

"I had 50 people here every day for weeks, most of them close family. My sister, my mother, my husband's sister and her husband, their children, my children and their spouses, the children's children--a whole extended family. The church minister was here for us every day . . . and, of course, some wonderful friends coming in and out.

"I remember thinking, no one can know what I'm feeling except my family. Others are trying to help, but they say things like, 'At least you had him for 27 years,' or, 'He's better off in heaven now.' Family members didn't say things like that. We just all cried together."

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Four months later, Klein was starting back to her normal routine, starting to feel "a tiny bit human again." She was having dinner with her husband when her mother phoned.

Her sister Kathy's recent stomachaches were not due to stress or an ulcer, as they'd all assumed. The doctor said it was cancer.

Surgery was scheduled for the following day.

"Surgeons found cancer intimately tied to all her internal organs," Klein remembers. "They couldn't remove it all. So they closed her up, put her on chemotherapy--and we all waited and watched as the cancer spread to her brain. We chased that cancer for about 16 months. She was scheduled for a bone marrow transplant at City of Hope when she died, only 18 months after my brother. Her children were 2, 5 and 7 years old."

The family came together again, this time at sister Stephanie's house.

"This death was different," Klein says, "because at least we were prepared. We had time to say goodbye. There were about 30 family members in the room when she died in her husband's arms. We had fought for her life every inch of the way, up until the end."

Barbara Cole shares her daughter's feelings: "At least we were prepared, we got to say goodbye. But after the first death, your nervous system just shuts down. You can't feel anything emotionally or physically."

And Hilary Cohen of Our House notes that "every person grieves differently. Some need to be close; others withdraw. And whatever family dynamics were there before the loss will play themselves out afterward."

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In the Cole family, everyone tended to draw together, to want to be closer--except for Dr. Robert Cole Sr., who retired after the second tragedy and moved out of the family's Los Angeles home to their weekend home in Carpinteria. His wife says she now spends a few days each week in each place.

Klein believes she understands why her father "lives basically by himself and doesn't really want much to do with his family nowadays. It's because he doesn't want to lose anybody else. He was a doctor. And doctors have to be able to help, to make things better. In this case, he couldn't assist his own children or make anything better. Somehow, he's turned away from what's left of his family because he can't bear the thought of more loss."

How did she come to this conclusion?

"Because I'm in therapy, and the therapist tells me that. My father's in therapy, our whole family is in therapy."

But the closeness of the Coles will survive, Klein says with certainty. "My sister and I are incredibly close. If it weren't for her, I couldn't have gone on."

And some things are permanently changed. "I married eight years ago, just before my brother was killed. His death made me realize how easy it is to lose somebody you love, how I should be prepared for the next loss that comes. I changed the way I act, the way I depend on people, especially my husband. Part of me remains separate, because I know that tomorrow I may not have him.

"Every day is really a gift. And no one promises you any more than one day."

Times staff writer Mary McNamara contributed to this report.

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