LaWanda Sterling could not leave the apartment for months after her son, Jeremiah, was shot just down the street in July 2010.
“My friends didn’t know what to do. It was like everybody just sat around and looked at me,” she said.
One day soon after the shooting, “You’re the One” by RB singer Dondria was playing on the radio. Sterling listened to the first three lines of the lyrics on repeat and cried, she said, thinking of her 16-year-old’s dimpled smile.
“It was like a vicious cycle,” she said. “I ached and I hurt and I didn’t know how to express it, who to express it to, or how to get away from that pain.”
This cycle of rewind and repeat finally prompted Sterling to seek formal assistance, but it was eventually support groups in her community that really helped her, she said.
For mothers like Sterling, there is no coordinated system to cope with the trauma of losing a child to gun violence, said Dr. Carl Bell, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois Chicago, an expert in traumatized communities. The various safety nets — state, city, church — are all doing something different, he said.
Bell noted that government officials and academics alike need to figure out a model that can be placed in communities with high rates of gun violence, so that community and family safety nets are strengthened.
“If all that fails, then you can do the professional stuff,” he said.
In terms of government safety nets, the city of Chicago consolidated its 12 mental health clinics to six despite considerable criticism.
“It made very good sense,” said Bell, who is on the board of health, adding that some clinics were closed in areas where the resources were not properly used. The health commissioner, he said, provided statistics that no patients were lost in the transition and that, in fact, they were able to provide services for more people.
The Illinois Department of Human Services also funds several facilities. Bell himself ran a comprehensive mental health clinic on the South Side that offered trauma-counseling services, but the Community Mental Health Council closed down in 2012, after the state declined to renew their contract, citing “mismanagement of funds.” Bell said the problem was that the state was broke, so staff was being paid very slowly. “It’s not the city, it’s the state that’s removing services from people,” Bell said.
The Illinois Department of Human Services declined comment.
Despite this, Bell said, there are mental resources available from the government. But according to Sterling, who sees a state psychiatrist once every three months, the type of services the clinics provided didn’t help her.
“[The state psychiatrist] wants to dispense medication and he’ll say, that’s hard, that’s tough, it’s going to take a long time,” Sterling said, adding that the medication just provides superficial relief and doesn’t get to the root of her problems.
Although medication is necessary in some cases, Bell said, this approach precludes the importance of community, spiritual and cultural factors in providing support for traumatized mothers.
“It’s easier to dish meds to try to help people get some relief than it is to do other things, and I think that’s unfortunate,” said Bell.
Support groups composed of parents who have suffered a similar loss provide psychological support on a sociological, individual and perhaps cultural level, Bell said.
For Sterling, nobody could help her except the people who were in the same position before and after her, she said.
“We all suffer from the same illness,” she said. “We have the same tears; we walking the same walk.”
Groups like Parents of Murdered Children advocate against gun violence, reach out to new parents who’ve lost children, and provide a network of support.
“They turn their traumatic helplessness into learned helpfulness, which is sort of a psychological level [of coping with trauma],” Bell said.
Dawn Valenti, a community organizer, works with Chicago Citizens for Change, an organization against gun violence. She has been working with these mothers since 2007 and believes support comes from each other, more than from state or city facilities.
“It helps them realize they’re not alone,” she said, adding that oftentimes after media attention dissipates, no one thinks of how the parents are coping.
Another important part of being in a support group is that no one dictates what to do or how these mothers should feel, said Justine Schrimsher, a life coach, who works with the Helping Parents Heal organization, based in Arizona, which has 18 chapters across the nation.
“We don’t tell people what to do or how to grieve,” said Schrimsher, who lost her son in 2007, noting that the online resources they provide are sometimes easier for grieving parents to use than in-person support meetings.
“We don’t pressure anyone to do it a certain way,” she said.
Rita Sallie, whose 13-year-old daughter Schanna Gayden was shot in a park behind her school on the West Side, belongs to the Facebook group started by Schrimsher’s organization. Sallie’s daughter had gone to buy fruit from her favorite fruit stall in July 2007, and Sallie said her wound is still too raw.
“Did she hear me when I came to that park? Did she feel it when they shot at her? Did she know I was there? Those things go through my mind every day,” Sallie said.
Sallie said she buries the pain so deep that the mention of her daughter’s name brings everything flooding back and she begins to cry. Since her daughter’s death, she has lost jobs and dealt with eviction. “It takes forever to make the simplest decision,” she said. “Sometimes, I can’t get up, I just lie there. My body refuses to obey me.”
For Sallie, going to the support group meetings and events is too painful. “I feel like I’m a part of a group I don’t want to be a part of.”
She knows she has to stop running, but she just isn’t ready, she said. Despite this, she said the women in the group support her and remain patient with her.
Sallie cries as she remembers her daughter’s wit and humor, she folds in half the napkin she has been using to wipe her tears, and then again in clean soggy quarters. She lays it out neatly in front of her.
“As long as I have that support system out there, floating around in the ether, if I need them, then that kind of helps me,” she said.