Commentary
By Jessica Brown 3-07-2018

When I was 19-years-old, my eldest sister and brother were murdered in a home invasion. I can recall many things about that Monday in March. I spent the morning in one of my college classes chipping old polish off my fingernails. At around 5:30 p.m., just as I was about to leave my dorm room, the phone rang. It was Maria, a close friend of my sister. I thought it was strange that she would be calling me but after a few awkward seconds, she put my mother on the line. My mother could barely speak.

“Juanita and Rodney are dead,” she said.

I didn’t process what she said right away. I said “what?” in disbelief over and over again. All she could say was “that woman broke into their apartment and killed them.” I got off the phone and walked down the short hallway of the suite I lived in, looking for anyone and no one. I made it to the lounge and fell to my knees weeping. Everyone within ear shot ran to my side. I eventually said the words out loud.

“My brother and sister are dead.”

Seven years later, my older sister Brenda died too. Her death was less violent, but just as sudden. A blood clot took her away. At her funeral, the pastor read from Psalm 30:5 — joy will come in the morning. It was a fitting tribute because Brenda’s middle name was Joy.

Twenty-two and 16 years later, I am still waiting for Joy to come. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. has forced me to revisit this idea of joy in the wake of pain and loss. For homicide survivors, joy is a tough place to get to. I spent some time in survivor support groups years ago and there was a consistent theme: happiness is hard.

I thank God daily for the blessing I know I have, but feelings of well-being are rare. Being touched by violence took away my sense of safety. I have had many successes, but they sometimes feel hollow without being able to share them with the ones I’ve lost.

Even those moments where I find myself smiling or laughing, I suddenly recall the person who should be there with me. I sometimes feel guilty about feeling a fleeting moment of joy and I return to that dark place. I never really feel joy — I sort of recall and mimic it. The thing I desire most is to have my family back.

Losing a loved one to murder is unlike any other type of loss. Not only are we robbed of that person and of what could have been, we are robbed of peace, forever haunted by how our loved ones died. There is a level of brutality and fear that comes with homicide. When someone is sick, we can understand the illness and we usually have time to process and say goodbye. But homicide comes with so many questions and finding answers becomes a full-time job.

When I was emotionally able several years later, I began to investigate the murder. I went all over the city, sometimes with my mother and sometimes alone, to get copies of police reports, court documents, and the coroner’s report.

Even after I got the documents, I was not ready to read them. It mattered only that I had them in my possession. Knowing the details haunted me more. Details haunt homicide survivors. We replay over and over again the events that took that person’s life. These thoughts creep into our mind as we daydream, as we sleep, as we go about doing any innocuous task. Homicide steals your joy … perhaps permanently.

But for me, living as a survivor has been about finding joy in the midst of pain in healthy ways — I have great friends and some extended family who I can celebrate holidays and special occasions with, I don’t miss a Marvel movie, I dance a lot, and yes, I buy a lot of shoes. The most important thing I do every night that brings me comfort is saying a prayer to my family.

The Parkland families, like so many others, will be dealing with police, investigations, and will be reliving the deaths via hearings, testimonies, and appeals. These events can go on year after year, so even as survivors try to recapture some sense of normalcy, a legal issue will spring up and put them right back in that sad place.

To the survivors of the Parkland mass shooting, I am sorry you find yourselves members of this tribe. As you lay loved ones to rest and try to return to living your life, know that you may forever feel deep sorrow even in times when it seems you are feeling joy. Birthdays, holidays, graduations, weddings, and so many moments that should be times of joy may be just the opposite. But know that hope is also part of this equation. I find hope in friendships and unexpected connections. There are so many people in my life who have filled in those spaces left empty by the loss of family. And I hold hope for us survivors that joy really will come in the morning.

Jessica Brown is a Senior Professional in Residence in the School of Communication’s Multimedia Journalism department at Loyola University Chicago, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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