Interview With Former Mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan
Interview With Dr. Jack Jordan
March 8, 2018
Interview With Shana Feste, Producer/Director
November 14, 2017

Richard Riordan

Interviewed by Susan Whitmore

My name is Dick Riordan , and my former wife, Genie, and I had five children—four daughters and a son. My son was killed in a scuba diving accident picking up shellfish to cook for his friends 21 years ago, and my daughter died of a heart attack when she was 19 about 19 years ago. My daughter's name is Carol, and my son's name is Billy.

Billy loved to cook. So he would go out in the early mornings in a shallow bay and pick up shellfish to take home and cook for his friends. One morning 21 years ago, he went out in this bay, in about 15 or 20 feet of water, and he died there. Even so, we buried Billy at sea because he wanted to have his body recycled if anything ever happened to him. Of course, we never thought we would have to truly make that decision.

In the beginning, how did you deal with the terrible loss of your children?

In the beginning, I found a way to deal with the pain, and it was don’t stop yourself from crying. For a year or two, I would be in meetings with important people, and I would just start crying. I got myself to the point where I wasn't embarrassed, and I would cry and then get on with whatever I was doing. But don’t fight the grief.

Your memory of your children will be with you always—every day—but the grief becomes more manageable over time, particularly if you have people who need your help. As mayor of Los Angeles, I attended many funerals. One I attended, the child had been murdered, and I remember telling the parents to think also of the children left behind. Then I think of people like you, Susan, who had only one child, and that makes it a lot tougher. I still have three children—three beautiful daughters—and I still think about Carol and Billy all of the time. Not easy.

What initial support did you receive that you found helpful?

It’s hard to remember. It was sort of just letting myself go and grieve. People brought food and took walks with me. We had an open house and wonderful people came in and out, but I felt almost separated from everyone and everything, like I wasn’t really there.

Can you describe what the beginning of your grief was like?

It's like having a sledgehammer hit you over your head. At first, many times, you'll panic and be in such high grief that you don't think you can stand it for another second—that you are going to die if you have another second of grief. And I found that the best thing is to just let yourself go, let yourself cry, and don't be embarrassed about it, because you’re really not crying for yourself—you are crying for your children you lost, and there is nothing wrong with that.

I still, now and then—but rarely now—wake up from a dream where I've totally lost control, and I don't think I can live another second, and then I wake up. But again, you have to keep going. You have no right to give up.

People grieve very differently, and I am a person who keeps my emotions to myself. But when I lost my children, I let my emotions go. Genie handled her emotions differently than I did. She kept more control through all of this, and I know she felt the same grief I did.

What were some of the things you did that helped you get through?

Besides letting myself go and grieve, I think that my faith and belief in God helped. The loss also brought me closer to all of my daughters. I was close to them before Billy and Carol died, but I think the grief helped them to help me and me to help them—it brought them into my life in a different way.

Also, humor is good. There’s nothing wrong with having a laugh between your moments of grief. Just be yourself, don't be hard on yourself, and let yourself go.

Between crying, do the positive things in life that need to be done. Maybe go out and shop or play a little tennis. I’m a lawyer, so I would do some legal work or take my other children to the movies. You can enjoy something in between cries. You don’t have to be sad 100% of the time, and you are not disrespectful to your children who passed if you have fun parts to your life.

You have never before spoken publicly about Carol and Billy and your losses. What would you say to people watching and listening to this video now?

The only times I have ever alluded publicly to the loss of my children is when talking with a parent who had lost a child. I would say, “You have to think about the people left behind, you can't give up—you have to keep going.”

What about the birthdays and other major holidays?

Don’t be afraid to be sad. You come up to your child’s first birthday after he or she has died, and it’s best if you don’t fight your sadness. Let it be there and be a part of you. Of course, at the same time, think about your other children and your spouse and the people who are also left behind. My son’s first birthday after he passed was a few days after he died. But the next birthday and Christmas, I was still feeling tremendous grief, crying at the drop of a hat, and it’s pretty tough to get through. But then, again, you just let yourself go.

What are some things you did in memory of Carol and Billy?

The school Carol attended wanted to name a library after her, but we were not comfortable with her name being out there like that, so there is a little flag outside the library with her picture on it. We also donated to the new Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown for the choir loft, and we have a little plaque there that says In Memory of Billy and Carol, but we don’t mention last names. Everyone does it differently, and that was our way because we thought that was more respectful of them.

If someone had just lost a child, what advice would you give them?

During this first period of time, you have to accept your grief. Let it go. It will be uncontrollable for a while—but every week, every month, every year that goes by, it will be a little more and more controllable. Not that you will ever forget your children, not that you will not cry—but you will be able to live with your loss more and more. Then, think about their memory, think about how they are in a great spot now, how they love you. And also think about the children, spouses and others who have been left behind and need your love and help.

What final message would you share with others?

Well, I will say a prayer to any of your children who have died, as I do to my own. They are in a great spot now, they are looking down, they are loving you, they are laughing at you, they are supporting you. And I am sorry for your loss.