Frigid Waters: A Fleeting Balm for a Mother’s Unspeakable Grief
To shake up the tedium of quarantine, I started doing polar plunges with Stephanie Reece, who was driven by something else entirely.,
By January, we were 10 months into the pandemic and I couldn’t remember the last time I had left Long Island. My husband and I were raising two young children and working, cleaning and cooking, indefinitely, from home. It was hard to imagine a time when I had felt more claustrophobic.
But one frigid morning, when I was bundled up in a knee-length parka, walking the dog on the beach, it dawned on me that the sliver of a peninsula I lived on — surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the Long Island Sound to the north — offered an escape. What if I could muster the courage to leave the dry land and take a plunge? Would the shock to my system shake me out of this quarantine malaise?
There are several groups of dedicated cold-water swimmers on the East End, but I wanted a beginner — ideally, another woman — to accompany me. A local fitness instructor and cold-water enthusiast soon introduced me to Stephanie Reece.
Unbeknown to me, Ms. Reece and I had recently crossed paths. Last December, as the only two women in an outdoor exercise class, we made small talk as we stretched. She was a woman of few words, mostly choosing to keep her focus inward.
“So, do you have kids?” I asked her.
“Well, I used to,” she said.
A few weeks later, we “swam” together for the first time at Long Beach in Sag Harbor. While I shrieked and shouted expletives as soon as my feet touched the icy water, Ms. Reece glided into the bay, seemingly unfazed. Dressed in only our swimsuits, we lasted for two minutes, the water — a balmy 42 degrees — up to our chins. As the weeks passed, two minutes turned to three, and five minutes became seven. And as January became February and February became March, the temperature of the water kept dropping. Soon, others joined us.
Winter plunges, from start to finish, are an act of defiance. Stepping into the cold water is a shock to your system. One tip, which I often resist, is to submerge your shoulders beneath the water as quickly as possible. After about 30 seconds, your breath slowly returns to an even cadence. Your extremities start to tingle. You feel your heart beating outside your chest. And just like that, it’s over. Dopamine and serotonin flood your nervous system.
Afterward, standing beneath a steaming hot shower feels like salvation itself. But the real magic comes later on: It turns out that doing a resilient thing makes you feel more resilient.
The benefits of cold-water therapy include not only a possible reduction in muscle soreness and inflammation, but recent research suggests that it may help lessen feelings of anxiety and depression. In Britain, a mental health initiative run by the National Health Service is conducting a clinical trial on the effect of twice-weekly sea swims on mood and well-being.
But this isn’t your typical feature story about privileged white women doing polar plunges to free ourselves because Gwyneth Paltrow told us to try it. This is a survival story. It’s about how Ms. Reece, my first cold-water partner and a former professional athlete, is working through an unthinkable tragedy the only way she knows how. As our weekly meet-ups continued, I slowly learned more about her.
Ms. Reece is a former professional tennis player who has competed at the Australian Open, the French Open, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. At the peak of her career, she ranked 79th in the world in doubles tennis. At Indiana University, her alma mater, she is one of four female tennis players inducted into its Athletics Hall of Fame.
Growing up on the North Side of Indianapolis, Ms. Reece met her future husband, Michael Hunn, during high school. Though they briefly dated as teenagers and their sisters were close friends, it wasn’t until their late 20s that a full-fledged relationship began. Friends were pairing off and starting to have children, and after dating for five months, the two became engaged. The couple exchanged vows in 2000 and next relocated to Manhattan, where Mr. Hunn worked in sales for American Express. After living for a time in Westchester County, they eventually put down roots in East Hampton, where Ms. Reece had not only family nearby but also a job that she loved, working as a pro at a local tennis center.
From 2003 to 2009, they called the East Hampton area home. They had two blonde, blue-eyed children — Harrison and Shelby, born two years apart. But following a series of failed entrepreneurial ventures, the couple declared bankruptcy in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse and returned to a town in Indiana, Zionsville.
The marriage didn’t last. In 2017, the couple divorced, largely because of Mr. Hunn’s increasing alcoholism and financial instability, Ms. Reece said. While they parted on amicable terms, sharing custody of the children, Ms. Reece took Mr. Hunn to court after he fell behind on child support, and his drinking remained a constant source of worry. A court document from December 2017, a month after their divorce became final, showed that Mr. Hunn had already violated the agreement that he wouldn’t drink when he had the children. By April 2018, Ms. Reece had requested that on the days when he had primary custody, a device regularly measure his blood-alcohol levels.
On Friday morning, Sept. 21, 2018, Ms. Reece was driving when she received a call from an administrator at Zionsville Middle School. Her daughter, Shelby, hadn’t shown up for classes that morning, and neither parent had called in her absence. A quick call to the high school revealed that her son, Harrison, hadn’t shown up either.
Ms. Reece immediately texted her children. When they didn’t respond, she drove over to their father’s house. Strangely, the shades to their bedrooms were still drawn. The “Find My iPhone” tracking feature showed that both phones were right there, inside the home.
Although Ms. Reece knew where an extra key was, she instinctively knew better than to go in, so she called 911 and, a bit later, her brother, to wait with her on a patch of grass across from the house. “As a mother, my brain was protecting me,” she said.
A squad of deputies from the Boone County Sheriff’s Department arrived and eventually broke down the front door.
Inside, they found Harrison, 15, Shelby, 13, and Mr. Hunn, 50, all dead. The police believed that the children had been sleeping when their father shot them, placing pillows over their faces first. He then turned the gun on himself.
About an hour went by before an officer broke the news to Ms. Reece. “It was so surreal,” she said, reflecting on the precise moment when her world, as she had known it, came crashing down. “As a mother, it’s unimaginable,” she said. “We want to make sense of the senseless. But there’s no reason. There’s no excuse ever.”
An autopsy later showed trace amounts of alcohol in Mr. Hunn’s blood. As for the handgun, Mr. Hunn would go target shooting from time to time and kept one or two guns in a locked cabinet. The police report, which Ms. Reece eventually forced herself to read, revealed that investigators had found a pile of pillows in the garage pierced through with bullet holes. It appeared that Mr. Hunn, who left a suicide note behind, had been practicing for the tragedy he would inflict on his family.
A week later, more than 3,000 Zionsville residents crowded into Traders Point Christian Church, where the family had worshiped for nearly a decade, for a celebration of Harrison and Shelby’s lives. Two Sundays before, Ms. Reece and her children had sat in those same pews.
“When they call me, I know it’s bad,” said Rachel L. Hall, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in grief and trauma, and who raced to the scene of the crime on Sept. 21.
Ms. Hall, 45, works part time throughout Indiana as a consultant to law enforcement agencies. She’s also a full-time clinician. That day her assignment was to help emergency medical workers process the horror they had just seen. A chaplain who stayed tethered to Ms. Reece that day later suggested that she reach out to Ms. Hall when she was ready.
Three weeks after the killings, Ms. Hall received a call from Ms. Reece. It was, she said, the “freshest grief” she had helped a client process. For nearly two years, the women talked once a week. “What actually helps people is the acknowledgment of their pain,” Ms. Hall said of their sessions together. “You don’t need to fix it. You just need to listen.” Ms. Hall added that Ms. Reece’s case probably affected her the most intensely out of any in her career as a counselor. “Stephanie is an absolute testament to human resilience.”
A 2014 study in the journal Forensic Science International examined more than 30 years of data on filicide, the act of a parent killing a child. Filicide happens about 500 times every year in the United States, with fathers and mothers equally likely to murder their offspring. While the motivations behind filicide are complex, Ms. Reece believes it most likely involves a desire for spousal revenge.
In “Filicide in the United States,” a 2016 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Phillip J. Resnick, a forensic psychiatrist, broke down the crime by gender: “Men, as opposed to women, who kill their children are more likely to kill older children, are more likely to be unemployed, and are more likely to be facing separation from their spouse, and are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs.”
For residents of Zionsville, a small town about a 25-minute drive from Indianapolis, the tragedy became their version of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Nearly everyone in the close-knit community knew someone who had been personally affected: emergency medical workers, friends, teachers, classmates, teammates, the children who had Shelby as a babysitter.
For Ms. Reece, everywhere she went, she was the high school tennis coach whose ex-husband had murdered their children and then killed himself. Living under the glare of a microscope simply became too much. So, last August, she packed a U-Haul, drove for 15 hours and touched down in East Hampton.
Ms. Reece, now 51, had a very specific reason for returning to the East End: her aunt Dale. The women have long shared a deep, almost mother-daughter, connection.
Dale Leff, 73, welcomed her niece into her home. Together, they have begun the uncharted process of finding a way forward. They have also been each other’s company during the pandemic — whether sharing a meal in the evenings, binge-watching “The Durrells” on PBS or taking winter walks on the beach with their dogs.
The 21st of every month, as well as birthdays and holidays, are always painful. Some mornings, Ms. Reece wanders into her aunt’s bedroom for a hug. Other evenings, just knowing that someone else is in the house helps lessen Ms. Reece’s anxiety.
“We both need each other,” said Ms. Leff, who teaches etiquette to children, in addition to serving on the boards of several local nonprofits. “This is my purpose in life, to be here for her.”
It’s been more than a year of this strange coronavirus world, and it’s OK if you haven’t adjusted yet. We hope we can help:
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- We are all grieving right now about many things. And there is no singular way to respond to heartache or sorrow. Find the strategy that works best for you.
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- Looking to change your priorities? For a growing number of people with financial cushions and in-demand skills, the dread and anxiety of the past year are giving way to a new kind of professional fearlessness.
Both women often wear blue-beaded bracelets with the letters “H” and “S.” Ms. Leff wears two heart-shaped necklaces made of lapis lazuli, in addition to a matching pair of earrings to symbolize her great-niece and great-nephew. Ms. Reece has small tattoos on her torso to commemorate her children: On her left side are two interlocking hearts with their initials; on her right side is a small fish that Harrison had drawn next to a small turtle that Shelby had illustrated.
At a statuesque 5 feet 11 inches, Ms. Reece not only has the body of an elite athlete, but the endurance and willfulness of one. Her lifelong athleticism, her aunt thinks, has made all the difference in her continuing recovery.
“Athletes don’t give up,” said Ms. Reece who, during the course of our interviews, was always rather stoic and succinct.
As a girl, when she was first learning tennis and starting to compete, her work ethic helped make up for whatever she lacked in natural ability. In August, she returned to the gig she had years earlier at East Hampton Indoor Tennis, where she works as a tennis pro six days a week. Eventually, she would like to save up for a small house to call her own.
The sport — and the familiarity of the 78-foot rectangular clay court — has been her saving grace. Ms. Reece is not only a creature of habit and routine, but also loves the repetition and endless strategy of the game. Her early-morning lessons ensure that she gets out of bed, even when she’d rather pull the covers over her head. On her hardest days, she knows the endorphins will start kicking in after a few minutes of hitting the balls back and forth across the net. The Zen, the rhythm of tennis, helps quiet her racing mind.
Scott Rubenstein, 61, the managing partner of East Hampton Indoor Tennis, has known Ms. Reece since 2001. “Stephanie is one of the purest, nicest, brightest women that I’ve ever met,” he said. “She’s also not a quitter.”
For Ms. Reece, it’s helpful to have a boss who not only knows her traumatic back story but who also knew Harrison and Shelby. “They were outgoing, friendly, just wonderful, beautiful children,” Mr. Rubenstein said. He shared that she had recently confided that she would always have a giant hole in her heart.
“You don’t move on. You don’t get over it,” Ms. Reece said. “I’m relearning how to live.”
Grief is like wading in an endless ocean. She never knows when, exactly, the next wave will come and pull her down. Whether in Zionsville or East Hampton, the reminders of what she lost follow her. The triggers often surface at the most unexpected times.
In February, while grocery shopping, Ms. Reece looked down at her cart — carrots, hummus, spinach, avocados — and realized it no longer contained Cheerios, Eggo waffles, peanut butter and jelly, bananas for Harrison, blueberries for Shelby.
She abandoned the cart and raced back to her car, where she sat inside and wept.
Lately, Ms. Leff sees the cold water as but another step forward in Ms. Reece’s healing process. Like tennis, it’s an activity where Ms. Reece can push past her limitations. “That drive to keep going is what has helped with her grief,” Ms. Leff said. “She will never get over the loss of her children, but she will learn to live with it.”
During our Tuesday morning plunges, Ms. Reece is always the first one in the water.
In early March, 17-mile-per-hour winds made the bay look like the ocean. The temperature of the water was 37 degrees. It was our coldest, windiest plunge yet. A white layer of snow covered the pebble-strewn shore. A deer, standing perfectly still, kept watch.
We waded into the water. Around the three-minute mark, I gave up. The cold felt intolerable. Meanwhile, Ms. Reece stayed out, bobbing and weaving between the waves, her head bowed, her eyes sealed shut and her arms wrapped tightly around her torso. As is often the case, she didn’t say a word.
Amanda M. Fairbanks is a journalist based in Sag Harbor, N.Y. Her first book, “The Lost Boys of Montauk: The True Story of the Wind Blown, Four Men Who Vanished at Sea, and the Survivors They Left Behind,” will be published next month by Gallery Books.