I don't know what it feels like to lose a child. I can only imagine. And what I image is the worst hurt life could deal.
That's why I felt sympathy for Larry and Chris Laulhere when Chris called to tell their story.
It's a story of how grief, compounded by insensitivity on the part of others, can be lightened when you make something good come of it.
The Laulhere's were once the perfect family: a grown son and daughter, a comfortable home in Long Beach, a successful business in Whittier.
Until the winter of 1996 when their 21-year-old daughter, Cherese, a Wilson High School graduate and UCLA geography major, was chosen for the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea program.
It was the trip of a lifetime for the shy young woman who wanted to make a difference in the world. An opportunity to travel and study abroad for three months with 550 other American students.
But she never got more than midway through.
On the night of March 27, 1996, a bus in which she and fellow students were traveling overturned and crashed on a narrow road in India. Cherese died, along with Jenna Druck of Del Mar, Sara Schewe of Massachusetts and Virginia Amato of Louisiana.
The Laulheres and the other families have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the Institute for Shipboard Education and the University of Pittsburgh, claiming the trip's organizers were negligent.
The students, who were supposed to fly to India according to their itinerary, were not told they would have to travel by bus instead because the guide couldn't get plane tickets, says the Laulheres' lawyer, Charles Evans of Pittsburgh.
Evans also contends the driver may not have slept for 30 hours before the trip.
University officials have argued that normal procedures were followed and that, at the time, there was no State Department warning against travel on the road, although that has changed as a result of the accident.
It could be years before the suit comes to trial.
Not an isolated incident.
In the meantime, other tragedies involving students have occurred. Last month in Guatemala, 16 students and teachers from St. Mary's College in Maryland were robbed, and five of them raped, when a band of gunmen overtook their tour bus in broad daylight.
The incident further pains the Laulheres, reminding them that steps need to be taken to make traveling abroad safer for U.S. students.
The family has tried to make sense of the event that changed their lives, lives they hoped would see their talented daughter achieve her dreams, marry and have children.
For Cherese's brother, Todd, it was the loss of his best friend. For her boyfriend, fellow UCLA student Brian Birkenstein, his future.
Cherese's death was made more difficult, Chris and Larry say, by what they feel was insensitivity by national newspaper and a network television show, which failed to mention her name in their handling of the tragedy.
A Jan. 21 segment of Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel at least showed Cherese's photo, says Chris, who understands how information often gets left on the cutting-room floor.
But a Page 1 story in USA Today's Sept. 12-14 issue, which prominently displayed the other three students photos and names, left out Cherese completely.
We did not have the picture when we went with the story, but we should have at least used her name, says Susan Goldberg, the paper's deputy managing editor, who later tried to make amends by running Cherese's photo with a letter to the editor from the Laulheres.
Preserving her memory
But it did little to amend their hurt. In a voice cracking with emotion, Chris explains:
"I'll probably have to prove my daughter wrong for the rest of my life", she says. But sensitive as she was about her shy nature, she always said: "If something ever happens to me, nobody will ever miss me. I'll just be forgotten."
I have to see that that never happens, Chris says. I have to fight for her name and her memory.
It's a sad legacy for a family, but the Laulheres are doing their best.
Brother Todd has set up e-mail and a World Wide Web page (http://www.cherese.org). And the family has
started the Cherese Mari Laulhere Foundation, a scholarship fund to help pay expenses for children who need organ transplants.
Cherese was born at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, so the first donation will go to its Children's Clinic. It's in keeping with her desire to make a difference in the lives of less fortunate children, such as the ones who touched her in the orphanages of Africa.
Surrounded by mementos of her daughter's trip, now hung throughout the Laulheres' Spinnaker Bay house, Chris says:
I know how much she means and how much she's missed, but it's this little voice in my heart that I keep hearing...