The five-year-old sometimes talks to a painting of his mother, who he may never really remember, since he was only two when his father murdered her. He spent the week in court at his father’s sentencing, just one of many nauseating experiences the kindergartner should never have had to go through.
His father is Mohammed Shamji, who was sentenced to life in prison this week after earlier pleading guilty to the November, 2016, murder of his wife, Elana Fric-Shamji. They had three children and had been married for 12 years when he choked her to death just days after she filed for divorce. He won’t be eligible for parole for 14 years.
By then, their two oldest children will be in their 20s and the little one still a teenager. Their mother must have spent hours imagining their lives full of love and adventure, but such hopes have been tragically diminished. Outside the court on Thursday, their grandmother, Ana Fric, said her goal is simply to give them “a normal and happy life, to the extent that this will ever be possible.”
Ms. Fric and her husband, Joseph, have taken care of the children since the day after their mother died. Recalling that awful time, Ms. Fric noted that the children were all acting “strange” even before the death was confirmed.
“It was clear to me … that they knew something about what had happened, but they had been afraid to tell me anything with their father hovering over them,” she said. It’s unbearable to comprehend, but the oldest, a girl, heard the killing: then 11 years old, she awoke in the middle of the night to banging and her mother’s scream.
When she went into her parent’s bedroom to investigate, her father ordered her back to bed. According to her grandmother, the girl then heard a heavy object thumping down the stairs.
In the morning, the girl’s mother was gone, her body later found forced into a suitcase and thrown in a river.
When Dr. Fric-Shamji told her mother she was divorcing her husband, she apparently included that the children wanted her to. Their suffering began even before the murder. By Ms. Fric’s account, the couple’s entire marriage had been marred by Dr. Shamji belittling his wife, spending her money while refusing to share his own and assaulting her.
The effects of domestic violence on children are well known: Even those who witness it but aren’t direct victims themselves can develop behavioural problems or post-traumatic stress disorder.
That can manifest physically – from bed-wetting to high blood pressure – or mentally, including depression and substance abuse. Perhaps worst of all, children who grow up in violent households can later have relationship troubles themselves, as either the perpetrators or victims of partner abuse.
All that, plus being put into a terrible spotlight – the children still spent days surrounded by cameras and microphones, one television station even airing an interview with the two older girls, showing all three of their little faces.
Dr. Shamji is the author of this tragedy, but his children must cope with losing him, too. Their growing up will involve deciding what kind of relationship they want with him, if any. Right now, they don’t believe he was sincere when he turned to them in court while making his own statement.
“I have devastated your lives. I have hurt you immeasurably,” he said. “I hope that the memory of your mother will help you be brave and supportive of each other as you navigate the terrible circumstances that I have created for you.”
The road ahead seems treacherous, but it’s not impossible for the children to become healthy again, some day. Many of the friends who submitted statements about the tragedy of Dr. Fric-Shamji’s death are also doctors, so the children do have people around them that can guide them towards treatments that can hopefully heal their wounds.
Before that, though, the 14-, 11- and five-year-old have to get through this weekend.
“At this time of year, everywhere they turn, they see mentions of Mother’s Day and it only makes their pain worse,” Ms. Fric said on Thursday. “Instead of making cards and trinkets for their mother, they lay flowers on her grave.”
Follow Denise Balkissoon on Twitter @Balkissoon