Finding her voice: Elizabeth Rice perseveres despite mother’s death
Elizabeth Rice can’t speak to the one person whom she would like to talk to the most.
When Rice receives her master’s degree in speech-language pathology May 10, her mother won’t be there. Five years ago, Melissa Rice died at the age of 42, a victim of domestic violence. Her only daughter was 19, barely two months into her freshman year in college.
For a couple of weeks, Elizabeth stayed on her grandmother’s couch, but she never missed a semester. Sometimes she had to leave class, like the day in English when she couldn’t stop scrolling through her mother’s obituary.
She transferred to Illinois State her junior year. It was the only campus she ever visited with her mom. She holds a sweet memory of that day. When she stepped out of the car, her boot broke, and she couldn’t imagine herself hobbling across campus. Her mother quickly fixed it.
It’s the little things moms do.
In 2017 Elizabeth graduated summa cum laude, with only a single B. She had her choice of graduate schools but decided to stay at Illinois State because her friends and faculty were like another family. “I didn’t want to leave them,” Elizabeth said. “They knew my story and they knew who I was as a person and they’ve done everything to support me.”
During her first year in graduate school, she struggled around the October anniversary of her mother’s death. A professor suggested she take some time off, but she refused. “I was afraid I’d never come back.”
Elizabeth often speaks of her mom in the present tense, because that’s where she wants to keep her. She doesn’t mind telling her story, especially if it can change someone else. She has spoken at a domestic violence shelter, painting alongside the women and telling them she understands that they believe their abusers will change. And then she tells them all that her mother has missed.
Melissa Rice’s 23-year marriage ended Elizabeth’s senior year. That summer Melissa started dating a man who became abusive, Elizabeth said. When he threatened Melissa with a gun, she reported it to police in her small town of Henry. Although her mom quickly ended the relationship, the man returned to her home October 11, 2013, and killed her before turning the gun on himself. He died while being airlifted to the hospital. Elizabeth is grateful he didn’t die alongside her mom.
It’s a small thing, but it mattered, she said.
Elizabeth was sleeping at her dad’s home the night of her mother’s killing. She awoke to his screams. She thought her grandfather might have had another stroke. All her dad could say was, “It’s bad. It’s bad.”
An aunt had to step in.
“OK, what happened?” Elizabeth asked. “Did she fall?”
And the words that followed ended her childhood.
Her mother was dead.
“I fell to the floor saying, ‘Not my mommy, not my mommy,’” Elizabeth said. “And then my brother fell to the floor in my dad’s arms.”
She is more than familiar with the stages of grief. She has studied and lived them, but that doesn’t help. “It’s never going to be done,” she said. “I have not hit acceptance, and I don’t know when or if I will.”
What has helped is her field of speech pathology, especially working with children. “I was dealing with my loss, but they were dealing with theirs,” she said. “I lost my mom, and they lost their voice. I felt like they helped me find mine and I helped them find theirs.”
On the days she needs to feel close to her mom, Elizabeth may slip on her sundress or a pair of boots. Alike in so many ways, they also wore the same size. Elizabeth feels like she’s becoming more like her mother, and it is the greatest feeling, she said.
The last time she spoke to her mom was the day before she died. She had invited her three children over for homemade potato soup. It was a normal night, one that ended with their arms around each other.
If she could speak to her mom today, Elizabeth would tell her everything. “And that I’m not a brat anymore.” She laughed. “I hate the fact I was 19 when she passed away. Now everyone who’s my age, their moms are their best friends.”
Last fall, Elizabeth’s life stopped again. Her boyfriend of four years, Brad Passini, was diagnosed with a debilitating neurological condition that affected his speech and mobility. He couldn’t hold a pencil or close his eyes. During the day, she worked with nursing home residents who couldn’t speak. At night she went home to a partner whose words she couldn’t understand. It was almost too much.
However, she was committed to his care and treatments. Some of his speech has returned, and he can walk with braces as his therapy continues. Life is moving again. In August, she’ll start working as a speech pathologist in the Bureau Valley Community Unit School District in Northern Illinois.
At 24, she’s already lived through a lifetime of loss. What gets her through is by succeeding. “I keep pushing myself until I get where I want to go. I’m not only doing it for myself, I’m doing it for my mom too.”
On her phone there’s a voicemail from her mom, one of those quick messages moms leave. “I love you. I miss you.” Elizabeth sent it to the cloud so it’ll never be lost.
Commencement always falls on Mother’s Day weekend. During Elizabeth’s last graduation, the mothers in the audience were asked to stand. If that happens again, she’ll do what she did then.
Look up, point to the sky, and smile.
And that’s no small thing.
Student Counseling Services offers confidential support and advocacy services for survivors of dating violence, stalking, domestic bullying, abuse, and sexual assault. Counselors also help students connect with local resources, including accompanying them to the police to file for an order of protection. Visit the website or call (309) 438-3655.
The National Domestic Abuse hotline is another confidential and anonymous resource for survivors and concerned family and friends. Visit the website or call (800) 799-7233.
Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.