For most families, healing following the death of a loved one in a drunken-driving accident takes years.
And even after the trial is over and the drunken driver is sitting behind bars, an overwhelming sense of loss lingers, according to victim services specialist for the Hillsborough County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Becky Gage.
Gage speaks from experience.
In 1993, her 17 year-old son, Dennis, was injured and his girlfriend killed in a drunken-driving accident. Then, three years later, at the age of 20, her son once again was struck by drunk driver. This time he died.
At the time of her son's death, Gage worked full time for a certified public accounting firm.
"I wasn't sure how I'd get through it," she recalled. "You never expect to be in this position. You learn an awful lot about things you never wanted to know."
Fortunately, she said, she found sympathetic and dedicated people at MADD who helped her through the process.
"A year later, the board of directors of MADD decided to hire someone on a part-time basis to coordinate awareness events, victim services and school presentations," said Gage. "I just felt I had to follow my heart so I took the position in 1997. Then, in 2000, it turned into a full-time position."
Today, Gage manages a weighty caseload, helping families of drunken-driving victims navigate the court system.
"Right now, I have over 50 open cases in Hillsborough County that I monitor and assist through the court system," said Gage. Depending on the case, Gage may work with families from 18 months to two years.
"I have one case that's been open for four years," she said. "And even after the case is closed, I still maintain a relationship with the victims' families."
Many of those families will be present Thursday, Dec. 6 when MADD hosts its 29th annual candlelight vigil for the Tampa Bay area, honoring the lives lost and changed forever as a result of impaired-driving crashes.
The vigil will take place at 7 p.m. at First Baptist Church Temple Terrace. The GFWC Temple Terrace Junior Woman's Club will provide refreshments.
"The event is intended not only to remember those who died but to rejoice in the recovery of the survivors," said Gage. "It also communicates community awareness about the devastating results of driving while impaired."
The Hillsborough County MADD chapter was founded in 1984 and it now has a list of more than 1,200 victims, said Gage.
"I have a Power Point tribute with 200 photos of victims that I present," she said. "There should be well over 400 people at the vigil Thursday night along with 100 law enforcement officers."
Despite all of the awareness campaigns and education on drunken driving, Gage said it still happens much too often.
"Hillsborough County has stayed No. 2 or 3 in the state for most drunk-driving injuries and deaths," she said.
And, for those left behind, particularly during the approaching holidays, it's always a struggle to work through the anger, guilt and sorrow.
"It's something that you never forget," said Gage. "You don't get over it. You get through it."
And helping families through the tragedy is now something Gage does in honor of her son.
"The memories I have of him are good memories. My son was an awesome person. And I feel I’m able to keep his memory alive by helping others," she said. "I feel blessed to be able to work with these families."
Florida ranks 13th in the nation for the most drunken- or impaired-driving deaths. Last year, there were 660 DUI fatalities.
For more information, call Gage at 813-273-6233 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you making the drive from Lutz to attend tonight's vigil?