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Amid toll of COVID-19, violence compounds grief for families of homicide victims

Radiah Jamil, Kayla Johnson and Diamond Thomas-Dean

Philadelphia-- Isolated from in-person connection due to the pandemic, Philadelphia mothers gather weekly from behind computer screens to partake in a virtual support group as they cope with their loss of a loved one. 

The need for virtual grief groups like those that the violence prevention and education program Mothers in Charge provides has only increased during the pandemic, as rates of violence in many cities across the country have climbed. 

Philadelphia and other U.S. cities have seen a drastic increase in neighborhood violence. Homicides in Philadelphia increased from 356 in 2019 to 499 in 2020, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. And the upward trajectory continues; homicides were up 28% percent year-to-date as of April 18. 

The pandemic has simultaneously decreased access to resources for combatting trauma, interrupted the grief process and postponed closure for mourning families by delaying court cases and eliminating large funerals. COVID-19 continues to restrict connection, community and communication—and those limitations can add to suffering after a loss, decreasing access to resources for combatting trauma. 

“People are further traumatized,” said Michelle Kerr Spry, the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) program coordinator for Mothers in Charge. “The grieving process has been halted.” 

Loss radiates to whole community

 Darlene Childs

The increase in homicides has meant Mothers in Charge is serving more clients. Darlene Childs, the organization’s executive assistant to the director, estimates the organization served about 450 Philadelphia families during 2020—up from about 280 in 2019.

“Doing the work some days becomes overwhelming—to talk to another family that has been touched by homicide, to go to another rally, to see more news about a family that is going to be forever devastated,” Kerr Spry said. “You don't come back from this.”

Kerr Spry would know; the 57-year-old lost her oldest son, Blain Spry, to a shooting in 2005, two years after her brother Jimmy Kerr was shot to death.

“It is a lonely place to be when you've lost your child,” Kerr Spry said. “While family and friends try to help, unless you have gone through it, you cannot understand it. So being in a space where there are others that know exactly what this feels like is so helpful.” 

That is where Mothers In Charge steps in with services ranging from individual and group therapy to anger management to legal support. 

The effect of a person’s death goes beyond their immediate circle; it affects the whole community, Kerr Spry said. 

“They're out there with all this pain and nowhere to put it, no way to recognize what is happening to them,” Kerr Spry said. “And so we have this intergenerational, multi-generational pain that continues to get fed, and it grows, continues to break families and communities and countries.” 

The pandemic has made these losses more difficult to bear and heal from, as delays in the court process have made it harder to find closure, and lost jobs and the transition to virtual learning have disrupted normal routines that provide comfort.

“When you have lost a loved one, the other parts of your life just fall apart as well,” Childs said. “The way the pandemic interrupted daily routines compounded that pain. There's so many different layers to this than anyone had ever imagined.”

Pre-existing fears

Some Philadelphia families were already feeling unsafe prior to the pandemic—concerns that can impact other aspects of individual and community health. In a 2018 survey by Drexel University’s Urban Health Collective, Philadelphia residents reported public safety as the largest problem facing the city. 

An increase in killings has broader health consequences for communities in which they occur. How safe people feel safe in their neighborhoods affects their ability to exercise, access healthy foods and take other actions to prevent leading causes of death, such as heart disease and cancer, said Gina Lovasi, co-director of Drexel University’s Urban Health Collaborative.

“Being constrained based on fear of violence affects other parts of our health,” Lovasi said. “So not just whether you're a victim of violence, but... worrying about being a victim of violence, affects other behaviors.”

Witnessing and experiencing violence can also affect mental health, increasing the risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and substance abuse. Those effects have been magnified during the pandemic. 

Unable to find closure

Michelle Kerr Spry

Michelle Kerr Spry has watched grieving mothers unable to find closure after losing children to gun violence during the last year. As murders have increased in cities like Philadelphia, families have been unable to hold funerals as COVID-19 restrictions prevented gatherings.

“Funerals are a way to provide a family some closure and they get to be with their community of family and friends to you know honor the memory of the loved one,” Kerr Spry said. “And that hasn't been able to happen.”

During her 15-year involvement with Mothers in Charge, Kerr Spry said she has seen families fall apart without proper coping mechanisms.

“This kind of pain can cripple you,” Kerr Spry said. “And it kills a little part of you.”

One of the ways through the pain is to face it and talk about it, Kerr Spry said. When people don’t confront their grief, the pain manifests in other ways. 

“So whether someone drinks or they get high or they are self-destructive in other ways, such as risky sexual behaviors, anger-management issues—it shows up somewhere,” Kerr Spry said.

As their trauma becomes compounded, it can cross generations when, for example, families fall into economic hardship, develop substance abuse problems or struggle with mental health.

“People are feeling incredibly lonely. And when you have lost a loved one, particularly your child, you want your community to be around you, surround you,” Kerr Spry said. “And those kinds of things have not happened in a normal way because of the pandemic. And so this further trauma on top of the homicide that has occurred ... it's just expanded and compounded.” 

Finding a supportive community has become more important than ever for family members grieving a loss. On a recent Thursday, about a dozen Philadelphia mothers gathered in a virtual support group with their displayed names changed in remembrance of lost loved ones — Jason and Joseph, George and Aziz, Kevin and Kenneth, among others. 

Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder and executive director of Mothers in Charge, joined them.

“This time right now is one of the worst times we’ve seen in a long time, so we need all hands on board, all hands on deck to make a difference in our city of brotherly love,” she said. “We know about the problems; let’s talk about how we can be a part of the solutions.”

Jamil, Johnson and Thomas-Dean are high school students at Brooklyn Latin School, Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School and Simon Gratz Mastery Charter School in New York City and Philadelphia. They were participants in Urban Health Media Project’s workshop, “Home Sick: How Where We Live Impacts Health” in Spring of 2021. 

This story was also published in The Philadelphia Tribune.


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