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Grieving Murdered Children During A Pandemic

Renetta Shaw holds a resolution about her son A’mon Shaw at a vigil to honor him. He was shot and killed in Durham, North Carolina, in August.
Renetta Shaw holds a resolution about her son A’mon Shaw at a vigil to honor him. He was shot and killed in Durham, North Carolina, in August.

Marion Bailey lost her grandson Javaun D. Graves five years ago. He was murdered in Durham, North Carolina.

“I felt like I had a hole in my stomach,” Bailey said. “And that I didn’t think it would ever be sealed again. I just felt like part of me was missing, it was gone.”

She says her faith was the only thing that pulled her through after Graves was shot while standing next to a vehicle and talking to his girlfriend.

“And I said that night I wasn’t even sure I was going to live, I thought I was just going to die. That’s how I felt,” she said. “But when I woke in the morning, I knew that the God that I serve had a better plan for me.”

Part of that plan: hosting grief sessions with parents and grandparents of other murdered children. While friends and family can offer empathy to a mother who loses a child, only the women in this group know exactly what she has suffered. And that’s powerful.

The group, which they call a grief circle, has been meeting monthly for years. But they’ve had to adapt new ways of reaching out during the pandemic. They send cards in the mail with small blessings on them. Group leaders reach out by telephone, and Bailey makes herself available at all times.

“And the other thing is our Zoom calls, where they have some way to see the faces and to get together even though we can’t touch,” said Bailey.

Marion Bailey, who co-leads grief sessions, at the vigil to honor A’mon Shaw.

Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Finding new ways to grieve lives lost to gun violence is needed now more than ever. A recent study of 27 cities by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found that homicide rates were 50% higher this summer compared with last year.

In Durham alone, 226 people have been shot so far this year, a 40% increase.

Other organizations that help grieving families have also shifted online. Bereaved Parents of the USA has hosted virtual gatherings. Some schools are training teachers on how to help their students deal with grief.

But COVID-19 makes it hard to find the solace that can come from human connection.

“You have to overcome more internal barriers in order to reach out,” said the Rev. Susan Dunlap, who leads the grief sessions with Bailey.

Still, Dunlap says it’s important to keep going in order to help mothers with the grieving process.

“Grief is healthy,” she said. “We want people to feel their feelings and to be able to move ahead in their life at some point, but depression and anxiety are not health, and they get in the way of that kind of healthy grieving.”

There are the obvious drawbacks, like not being able to hug. But less obvious hardships as well.

The group has a “court accompaniment” program — supporting victims’ families by attending their court dates. But getting timely information from the courts has been hard during the pandemic, and even when they get information, occupancy limits restrict how many people are allowed inside.

A mother recently missed a hearing and didn’t even know the person accused of shooting her son was free on bail. Bailey said she saw him at a Walmart.

“He recognized her, and she said he literally stopped and smirked. Gave her this weird look as if to say, ‘I hope you know I’m out,’ ” Bailey said.

“I was on the phone with her for a couple of hours. And I just felt so bad,” continued Bailey. “She was just devastated. She said, ‘I go to the cemetery to be with my child. But he’s with his family. And he’s out shopping at Walmart. He’s out shopping with no care or concern at all, but he has taken a life.’ And it really, really upset her.”

Even with the extra hurdles, Bailey and Dunlap do what they can. Their grief circle is part of a larger group called the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, which hosts vigils after a killing. Bailey and others helped organize a recent vigil for A’mon Shaw, a 20-year-old who was fatally shot in August.

Shaw’s mother, Renetta Shaw, pleaded directly to the larger Durham community.

“Stop playing with people’s lives. This is not GTA, this ain’t Call of Duty,” she said with emotion rising in her voice. “Because once it’s taken, it’s gone. Yes, you can go to prison, but you can breathe every day. Yes, you can say, ‘Oh I’m sorry. Once I realized what I did is wrong.’ But that life will never return.”

Renetta Shaw, second from left, mother of A’mon Shaw, with family and friends at the vigil to honor her son A’mon Shaw.

Jason deBruyn / WUNC

At the memorial, A’mon Shaw’s grandmother told reporters that he was expecting a child and had planned to become a truck driver.

The Rev. Annette Love coordinates the vigils and said this one was different, and they might be different for a while.

“This may be the new norm,” she said. “So we can’t not do it.”

Fewer people attended than normal, and people maintained social distance.

“Personally, I’m a hugger. And it’s hard for me not to hug and to see the families crying because they lost their loved ones,” Love said. “That’s hurtful.”

The small grief counseling group isn’t exclusively for women, though men attend less often. Dunlap, who co-leads it, said she asked some of the members how grieving has changed in the era of coronavirus.

“The face to face is really missed since we have a lot more time alone to do a lot of thinking,” one woman told her.

But there have been unexpected blessings as well. As the virus closed schools, families had more time together. Dunlap recalled a conversation with one woman who found that comforting.

“Having the other children around,” she said, “really helped her to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

So often in this pandemic, it’s those most vulnerable who are hit hardest. In grief circles, that means those who suffer what experts call a stigmatized grief, family members of people who have died by drug overdose, murder or other ways that are often seen as taboo. And it’s exactly those people that this grief circle wants to help.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Copyright 2021 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.

Jason deBruyn

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