Something surprising happened a few weeks ago when Laci Peterson’s mother taped a segment in New York of the television talk show “Katie,” which airs Tuesday.
For the first time after a big interview concerning Modesto’s most notorious double murder, Sharon Rocha came away feeling strangely uplifted. And it had nothing to do with the conversation viewers will see on TV.
The balm, Rocha said, mostly was applied in the greenroom, a lounge where performers gather before and after going on camera. There, Rocha and her longtime companion, Ron Grantski, chatted with other parents of people who have gone missing in high-profile mysteries. They included Susan Levy, also of Modesto, whose daughter, Chandra, disappeared within two years of Laci Peterson.
Rocha said most of the greenroom conversation had little to do with the reasons that brought them there. It was not, she said, a group therapy session.
“It was not what I expected at all,” Rocha, 62, said Monday. “I had no idea I would feel that way.”
“It kind of validated my feelings,” she explained, searching for the right words, “to find that others feel the same. That there comes a time when you just have to let some of this go.”
Modesto was rocked by the murder just before Christmas 2002 of Laci, 27, who was eight months pregnant with a boy she planned to name Conner. Their bodies washed ashore in San Francisco Bay four months later. Her husband, Scott Peterson, was convicted and sent to death row after a blockbuster trial lasting much of 2004 that captivated people across the United States and beyond.
None grieved more than Rocha, whose unforgettable victim impact statement provided the trial’s emotional high point. Since then, she has written a best-seller about her daughter, used some proceeds to establish a grant fund for search-and-rescue outfits and lobbied for a federal fetal-protection law signed by President George W. Bush in 2004.
Knowing that her efforts make a difference has helped to deaden Rocha’s pain, she has said over and over, but nothing could silence it. In her 2005 book, “For Laci,” she likened her ordeal as a surviving parent to “a horrible sickness for which there’s no cure.”
In a 2007 interview with The Modesto Bee, Rocha said, “I don’t think the wound ever closes. The word ‘closure’ means nothing to me. It’s just a word because nothing closes, nothing ends because Laci’s gone.”
The pain is real and it remains, she said Monday, but her tone was different.
“I just can’t stay in that dark place,” Rocha said. “It’s not healthy.
“Not that I’m trying to forget it. I’ll never forget it, never get over it. But you have to start trying to live again, in the present day. And it was beneficial to hear other people, personally talking to them and not what was said on the show.”
That’s no reflection on host Katie Couric, who greeted the couple with hugs and is a skilled interviewer, Rocha said. She had done shows with Couric more than once, including in Modesto, and they met once for lunch in New York. Rocha doesn’t know what determined the guest appearance lineup when they taped Tuesday’s show in early October; she and Grantski went first.
Other segments feature Susan Levy, who appears with legal analyst Dan Abrams; Natalee Holloway’s mother, Beth; Samantha Runnion’s mother, Erin; and Megan Kanka’s parents, Maureen and Richard.
Levy’s daughter was romantically linked to then-Rep. Gary Condit before her disappearance, and her remains were recovered in a Washington, D.C., park seven months before Laci Peterson vanished. Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique hopes to overturn his conviction in Levy’s slaying.
Susan Levy, no stranger to media, said Monday that she uses exercise to cope with an ever-present sense of loss. Shows at her favorite venue, Modesto’s Gallo Center for the Arts, help take her mind off the pain, she said Monday, and she extended her “Katie” trip to take in two Broadway performances.
“You have to move on as best you can,” said Levy, 66, who also formed a support group for loved ones of missing people. “There is no such thing as closure. You’re never normal; you’re fractured. But you have to live life and try to find little things you enjoy, i.e., the Gallo.”
A few months ago, she attended The Compassionate Friends’ annual conference in Boston for survivors of children who have died. The experience was at once “very helpful, but also sad,” she said, “to hear how other people are coping. Not that it heals your loss; it doesn’t. But it gives you a different way of understanding.”
It’s weird, Rocha said, that two of Couric’s five sets of guests hailed from Modesto. She and Levy have talked at various events over the years. They share a poignant understanding of the other’s grief, somehow eased thanks to the greenroom chat in New York City.
“It takes a long time to get through all of this,” Rocha said. “You never get over it; that’s just not going to happen. But little things come up that make me think about Laci. Sometimes it makes me cry, but other times it makes me happy. And talking to the other parents, many feel the same way.”