By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
This is another installment in The Birmingham Times/AL.com/CBS42 joint series “Beyond the Violence: What can be done to address Birmingham’s rising homicide rate.” Sign up for the newsletter here.
Janice Williams, who lost her son 21-year-old son Adrian to gun violence in Birmingham, is the first to say she needed therapy after his death.
“I wish I would have gotten counseling because years ago I contemplated suicide,” said Williams. “I just felt alone, and I questioned what my purpose was. … I missed him so much until I didn’t feel of use. It was a thought, but I didn’t pursue it. I felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I walked alone.”
Williams lost her son in 2002, and there is still not a day that goes by that she doesn’t think about her child.
“I see young men that look like him. … Sometimes I see people with social media profiles that look like him,” she said. “I’m not going crazy or going around looking for him, but he’s part of my heart. The hardest part for me is during the holidays when it comes time to eat. His presence would show up, and it chokes me up. People say it gets better, but people cope with it differently. … I ask God to help me with my emotions and feelings because anything can trigger me, and I’ll start crying.”
“Careful to Listen”
The Rev. Dr. Cecelia Ann Walker, executive director of chaplaincy and clinical pastoral education for Brookwood Baptist Health System, understands the emotions and feelings of individuals who lose loved ones. As a chaplain working in a hospital setting, Walker is often the first person who will speak with families grieving the loss of a loved one.
“When I work with families who have lost their child to gun violence, I’m careful to listen because … some feel guilty, like maybe there’s something they could have done differently,” she said. “Because it is a hospital setting, we [may not] see them again, so I have to wait for the right moment to ask the right questions.”
The hospital setting means Walker doesn’t work from an office location like most counselors, so she must make the most of her time.
“I give those parents space … to be open and honest about their feelings,” said Walker. “I ask questions like, ‘How can I help?’ ‘Can I get you a meal?’ I just want to be present, so I ask, ‘Is it OK that I come over?’ ‘Is there anything I can do that is practical?’ … [Often], in practical ways, people don’t have the energy to do much.”
Gun violence has continued to escalate over the past several years in Birmingham, and the city ended 2022 with the families and friends of 144 homicide victims left grieving. The year was deadliest in recent history and only a few homicides short of being the deadliest in the Magic City’s entire history. The highest number of homicides recorded in recent memory was 141 in 1991.
Just this week in Birmingham, five homicides were recorded in just over 48 hours. The five men were killed between 12:40 a.m. Monday and just after 2 a.m. Wednesday.
After the attention of losing a loved one fades, Walker said, “My hope is that somebody in their circle will continue to show love. The attention is gone away, but don’t forget the parent. Most people who are grieving will not ask for help. They don’t have the energy.”
“I encourage checking in, not necessarily every day but monthly and when holidays come up. I make notes of when a child’s birthday is coming up and reach out,” she added. “My hope is that somebody will be there. To the grieving person, I encourage them to seek support and counseling. The Amelia Center is an awesome resource in our city at [Children’s of Alabama], and it is free.”
The Amelia Center at Children’s of Alabama provides professional counseling for individuals grieving the death of a parent, grandparent, sibling, or close friend.
Robert Smith, executive director of the Birmingham-based center, said there is a period of “acute grief” for many families that can last 18 to 24 months after a significant death. During that period, grief counselors focus on helping clients handle returns to normalcy, like working and being social, as well as dealing with the many firsts that follow the death, such as the first birthday, holiday, or anniversary.
“There’s so much that has to take place in the first year and a half, two years, when the emotion is hard to control,” Smith said. “It’s hard to be around people. It’s hard to even imagine a happy or joyous holiday. Those are the times that people struggle.”
He added that there’s a “natural order” humans expect in how deaths occur. People expect grandparents to die. People expect parents to die.
“The death of a child just disrupts all of our ideas about what’s right and wrong with the universe,” Smith said. “[A parent starts] thinking about, ‘Wow, my kid’s never gonna get married. I’m never gonna have the experience of seeing my kid at his wedding. My child’s never going to have a child. I’ll never have grandkids,’” he said.
Vernessa Barnes, who has served as the congregational care minister at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, agreed that some will never return to “normal” after a loss.
“Parents don’t go back to their normal life, … not only because the holidays bring on additional grief but also because memories are hard. … We try to encourage people to cherish those memories and use them as a source of comfort,” she said, adding that seeking community help and joining support groups are important after losing a child—and the church can help with healing, as well.
Barnes knows what it’s like to lose a loved, although it was not to violence. She remembers the support she received when she lost her only child, Javonti Barnes, 37, in 2018. His death may have been heart-related, but doctors did not give a definitive cause.
“My church family played a tremendous role in helping me at the time of my loss,” the minister said. “They were there when I called and sometimes didn’t know what to say. You, too, can go to the church, sit with someone, and be encouraged that way. They also can help plan a service in honor of a person’s life. For more grief support, they can refer you to other groups in the community.”
Barnes said that it can be more difficult to lose someone to gun violence than to natural causes because homicides create a bigger hole.
“Losing a loved one to violence is more devastating to our system,” she said. “As our community grieves, we need to arm ourselves with adequate resources to meet needs.”
Williams who lost her 21-year-old son to gun violence said her heart goes out to both the mother who loses a child and the mother whose child committed the crime “because both are hurting.”
“On my down days, I read scriptures or listen to sermons or songs to feed my soul,” she said. “The journey is different and the walk is different [for everyone]. I dare not to say I know how another mother feels because it’s different. I do know she’s hurting. … I can imagine her pain, but I don’t know her pain. We have to allow each person to go through it and find a way for themselves.”
For Williams, there was additional pain in the loss of her son because the defendant pleaded guilty to felony murder.
“For taking my son’s life, that guy got five years in prison. They give more time to the drug guys than they do to murderers,” Williams said.
The Amelia Center at Children’s of Alabama provides professional counseling for children (age 5 and above) and teens grieving the death of a parent, grandparent, sibling, close relative, or friend. Counseling is also provided for parents grieving the death of a child of any age, ranging from pregnancy loss through adulthood. Support groups for children, teens, and parents are available, as well.
For more information about The Amelia Center, visit https://www.childrensal.org/services/amelia-center or call 205-638-7481.
Previous installments of the series: