Grechen Casey: In an instant: One life lost, another is changed forever

Published: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 9:00 p.m.

It's the phone call that every parent prays they will be spared: from a law enforcement officer notifying you that your daughter or son has been severely injured and is en route to the hospital.

Life changes in an instant.

Last year the Harris family received that phone call. With that call came a tsunami of anguish, pain and prayers. Becca, their daughter and a 20-year-old UF student, was struck while crossing a street on her bike.

It changed each of them to sit by her bedside until July 11, when, unable to recover from the blunt-force injuries, they said goodbye. The world lost a beautifully unique young woman that day.

The awfulness lies in how everything is changed: there's a hole. Nothing can prepare a parent, a sister, a twin, for the hole that is left in the wake.

The hole is person-shaped and it follows you everywhere; to bed, to the dinner table, as you consider what to do next. Sometimes you no longer recognize the shape of your days.

Two families lost a precious daughter and sister. It's a little easier to ignore the other fact: It also changed the life of Jessica Becerra, the 23-year-old UF student who was charged with, and ultimately pled to leaving the scene of an accident involving death.

It changed everything for her family, too. On the day the sentence for Jessica was announced in court, I saw in two sets of parents' eyes the perpetual sadness, hurt and regret that will be a part of the rest of their lives. I listened as Becca's two sisters struggle with the desperately unanswerable question, “Why her”?

What makes pain so frustrating and bittersweet is knowing that the sweetest and most potent gifts in life involve loving human beings and trusting that they will always be a part of your life, even when their lives end. But Becca's life cannot be defined by the painful circumstances of her ending: a chance encounter with an impaired driver.

This letter doesn't try to capture the hopes, dreams and life that Becca did not get to fulfill. My words cannot convey the tears, which still come in waves, nor the sadness endured by her extended family and friends over the past year. I am not writing this for Becca; because as her family has said many times, they believe she is safe in God's arms.

I submit this simply as a victim service provider who meets with families and survivors after a crime is committed. When I do my job well, I offer guidance and hope, and try to explain a judicial system that too often seems slow and unresponsive. I have learned that nothing prepares a family for the extraordinary trauma and crisis that follows. And yet, life does go on.

“Death is voracious, it swallows all the living.

Life is voracious, it swallows all the dead.

The grip of life is as strong as the grip of death.”

— Jane Hirshfield

Instead, I write this for Becca's sisters Catherine and Anna, and James and Shelly Harris, Becca's parents. In honor of Becca, and out of their desire to make something good and lasting result from this case, they want to create awareness about the dangers of driving while impaired; how it wreaks havoc and changes the lives of so many.

One day, alongside Jessica Becerra, they hope to reach and impart a heartfelt message to every student who attends UF Preview, begins unpacking boxes in a dorm or apartment, or who is celebrating a milestone.

It is simply this:

In one moment you can do something that will affect you, and someone else, for the rest of your life. The very freedoms, life and family you take for granted can be taken instantly.

We, as Becca's parents, know this firsthand. The carnage and sadness your choices create for others is immense. As you arrive in this community to attend school and live in Gainesville, never ignore the pain and suffering caused by a decision to drink and drive. May self-control, gratitude and awareness both guide and inspire you to realize that one moment of impulsiveness or recklessness can create a lifetime of grief for someone else.

Gretchen Casey is director of Victim Services, Project Payback & Witness Management for the State Attorney's Office of the 8th Judicial Circuit.

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