04.22.11

Grief and Strife at La'Shanda Armstrong's Funeral

Nine days after she drove her minivan into the Hudson River, killing herself and three of her children, La'Shanda Armstrong's family is grieving—and battling. They say that even in death, the father of her kids is controlling her by burying her separate from them.

Nine days after she drove her minivan into the Hudson River, killing herself and three of her children, La'Shanda Armstrong's family is grieving—and battling. They say that even in death, the father of her kids is controlling her by burying her separately from them.

Hundreds of mourners filed into the First Baptist Church on Hoyt Street in Spring Valley, New York, on Thursday, while family members remained stoic and silent as La’Shanda Armstrong was laid to rest. It was nine days after she drove her minivan into the Hudson River, killing three of her children. But what should have brought closure only opened new wounds for a family that has been grieving and battling simultaneously, evident from the funeral's tense faces and terse conversation.

That’s because "Harry" Jean Pierre, the three children's biological father, refused at the last minute to permit Armstrong to be buried alongside her children, as was originally planned. Pierre's attorney, Stephen J. Powers, said his client changed his mind because of Pierre's own distress over not being included in the original funeral arrangements that Armstrong’s family had made for the mother and her three youngsters.

Armstrong's aunt, Angela Gilliam, said the funeral home director informed the family of the change on Tuesday, saying the father didn’t want the mother buried with their children. They held out hope he might change his mind after he agreed to a family meeting on Wednesday. But then they learned Pierre had canceled the meeting and the separate funerals would go ahead as planned.

I drove 400 miles through the night from my home in Morgantown, West Virginia, to be at Armstrong’s funeral, because, in death, I wanted to let her family know I understood her actions. There was a point in my life during which I, too, came close to killing myself and my children, a terrifying experience I wrote about last week on this website. I wanted to meet Armstrong's loved ones in person, to personally extend my condolences, and also to see how a family holds together in the aftermath of such an unspeakable incident.

At the funeral, I saw how the battle that was waged during Armstrong's life still rages, even after her death, compounding the heartbreak of the original tragedy. One child survived the tragedy: La’Shaun Armstrong, who swam from the minivan to get help. “What’s this going to do to La’Shaun?” asked Angela Gilliam, Armstrong's aunt, after her niece was interred. Gilliam said La’Shaun will have to attend “another circus on Monday —two funerals in four days, the second one for his three siblings, who will be buried in a cemetery in another town.

"They left here together, they perished together, they should be buried together."

Ever since the April 12 tragedy, Armstrong's family had remained mostly silent, refusing to comment about Pierre's role in the lives of Armstrong and their children. Even after the media turned up court documents indicating overdue child support, an arrest for child endangerment, and a restraining order that had been granted the day of the murder-suicide, the family merely said the couple separated in February, when Armstrong became a single parent.

Nor did they talk about the incident that occurred just before Armstrong's death, when Pierre violated the restraining order by going to her home, where he stood screaming and swearing, banging on her door and demanding to see his children.

The family finally broke its silence this week. “He’s never been there before and now we just want to bury them," Diamond Gilliam, who is Armstrong's cousin, told The Daily Beast. "It’s like he’s still controlling her. Like he’s still controlling what happens to her, because he knows she would want her kids to be with her."

The family finally admitted that Pierre was abusive to Armstrong—and they believe his abuse led to the tragedy. “There was a lot of . . . abuse. He was mentally abusive. I’ve never seen anything physically on her … but he was very emotionally abusive and mentally. It’s worse than physical,” said Diamond.

Citing Pierre's 30-minute tirade that La'Shaun related to family members, Diamond said it involved a lot of screaming that left Armstrong in tears.

Armstrong's actions came about because "of him not helping her with four kids. It’s about him not being the man that he needed to be . . . the father he needed to be," said Diamond. "Whatever happened on that day is what it was . . . that was the final straw."

Pierre, who has thus far refused to speak publicly, denied through a statement that he had anything to do with the deaths. "I have been inaccurately portrayed as being directly responsible for the tragedy," the statement read. "If I could, I would have changed some things in my past. I loved Landen, Lance, Laianna, Lashanda and still love La'Shaun with all my heart, and am shocked and distraught by what happened."

After Thursday's funeral, Angela Gilliam also said the family didn't begin making arrangements until they were able to contact Pierre. "We kept saying, 'When is he going to call?'" Gilliam recalled. But when he didn't, they tracked him down. "His sister said he was too upset to talk, so she made the decision for him," Gilliam said. The family couldn't contact him directly because Pierre was never known to have a phone. "We always called Shanda's cell," she added.

Indeed, Diamond said Pierre hadn't been there in life for his children, so why should he be permitted to make decisions for them in death? “Anyone who knows Shanda knows that she took care of her kids alone, or with her family, and he was nowhere to be found," said Diamond. "And now what he’s doing is out of spite and just being nasty about it.”

The Armstrong family took this stance because “none of my family . . . have ever said anything negative about him to the press because we just wanted to have him come to the funeral and have it be all together and not be any issues . . . but (he) didn’t want that to happen," said Diamond.

“This is what he did to the family. He’s being very mean to us by taking the babies away from my niece,” said Gilliam. "I mean, I know what my niece did was wrong. But this is her family. We loved her. They left here together, they perished together, they should just be buried together."

The Rev. Weldon McWilliams tried to comfort Thursday's mourners, saying he was convinced “the children and the mother are together, no matter how much you try to separate them.” He also encouraged them to offer solace to the family, and said "none of us know what we would do" in La'Shanda's shoes.

Among the mourners were Armstrong's former schoolteachers and coworkers, and even strangers. "She was doing what she was supposed to. She worked hard, and she never brought her problems on the job," said Isaac Jackson, her colleague at the Polo factory where she worked. He was one of a dozen workers, including three of Armstrong's supervisors, who attended the funeral. "She came in with a smile. She did her job, joked around with her coworkers a little and went home. We never knew there were problems at home." Looking at the program filled with family photos, Jackson pointed to one where Armstrong is smiling as she holds one of her children, their cheeks touching. "I'll always remember that smile," he said.

Her smile was something many people in attendance commented on. One teacher Armstrong knew as “Mr. Francois,” who only had her while working as a substitute, remembered her as "fun and loving," a student who was always smiling.

On Wednesday, Diamond said that in spite of everything, she was proud of Armstrong. “I couldn’t even imagine doing it (going to college while working) with having kids. To be honest, I don’t know how she was doing it."

After the service ended, a line of men in black stood around the 10 year old, trying to shield him from the prying eyes of the media, as they led him from the limousine to his mother’s grave site at Brick Church Cemetery in New Hempstead, New York. Vulnerable and trying to comprehend what's happened, family members say La'Shaun has been through more than people can know. Gilliam said during the family's last minutes together, Armstrong tried instead "to save her children's lives and her life."

This came because of La'Shaun's police statement, in which he reported that Armstrong said: "Oh God, what am I doing? Why am I doing this?"

Gilliam confirmed that when Armstrong's vehicle was towed from the water, the gear shift was in reverse, indicating Armstrong changed her mind.

But it was too late. For in the ensuing tragedy, Gilliam found the voicemail left by Armstrong's cell phone several days later. "All you hear is water, rushing water . . . coming in really hard," Gilliam said.

Daleen Berry, a writer living in Morgantown, West Virginia, is the recent author of Sister of Silence, a memoir chronicling her life as a survivor of domestic violence, after she became a teen mother who had four children by age 21. Visit her at daleenberry.com.