Denise Green has been celebrating her son’s birthday on July 26 without him for the last four years. Her son, Joseph Taylor, died after bullets intended for someone else pierced his shoulder and struck behind his ear at a Baltimore intersection in November 2009.
People still pack annual memorials held on the anniversaries of Taylor’s birth and death, just as they filled the church for his home-going service. Because her son was such a giving person, Green said, she donated his organs, which have benefited a baby and six adults.
“He was a good son. He was a good brother. He was a good father. He was a good friend,” said Green, who has two surviving children and six grandchildren, including Joseph’s daughter. “If he had been sick, I’d still be upset, but it’s not the same feeling when someone just comes up and takes your child’s life.”
Like other mothers who have lost a child to violence, Green said she identifies with Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin. In televised interviews after her son’s killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter on July 13, Fulton expressed concern for other Black youths.
"It's not just about the Trayvon Martin case," Fulton told “Good Morning, America” during an interview. “Now, it's about your kids. It's about other kids. What do we tell our sons?"
Green said the case brought back the pain she felt when Joseph died.
“I have a lot of empathy for her and his dad,” Green said. “That kind of death doesn’t compare to any other death. It’s your child. You gave birth to him—someone you brought into the world. It’s unbearable.”
As opponents of the verdict agitate to urge the Department of Justice to investigate Trayvon’s death, young people—mostly boys—continue to fall prey to violence on our nation’s streets. In the District of Columbia, a vigil held July 22 in memory of Eric Leeper and Anthony Chase and siblings Jamie and Jamahl Jenkins, killed in two double-shootings in Ward 7, drew more than 100 people, including Mayor Vincent Gray, Councilman Tommy Wells and Councilwoman Yvette Alexander.
The victims were all between the ages of 19 and 28.
Sherry Sykes of Washington, D.C., has also been despairing since her son, Omar, a business major at Howard University, was shot and killed near campus on the Fourth of July.
“We advised him when he asked for advice, and we watched him blossom into the gorgeous young man we all knew,” Sykes said during an overflowing memorial service on campus. “And Omar we feel your love still, and we will do our best to do you proud.”
But even mothers whose sons have not fallen prey to violence relate to Fulton.
Joy Turner, a single mother in Baltimore who has a 14-year-old son, said she couldn’t watch the Zimmerman trial. “It’s just too painful,” she said. “Your heart just went out to the family. It was as though you were walking in their shoes.”
Dandrea James Harris, the mother of a young son in Bowie, said the case demonstrates how dangerous life can be for young Black men, whom she called “moving targets.”
“You know what we have to do with moving targets?” she asks. “We have to keep them under the radar.”
Millie Brown, mother of a 21-year-old son, founded A Mother’s Cry, a support group for mothers who lose their children to violence. She said she has seen countless injured young men go through the emergency department at Johns Hopkins University.
“We have so many Trayvon Martins here in Baltimore,” she said. “There are so many that you don’t see on the news, which is sad.”
The name of her organization is based on the cries she has heard too often when a mother learns that her child didn’t make it. She started A Mother’s Cry to try to ease the mothers’ pain.
“It was something that I needed to do to try to stop one mother from making that yell to let them know that they’re not alone.”
A Mother’s Cry has planned a reunion for survivors and area residents who want to support them from noon to 8 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Swan Pavilion at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore.
“Just follow the yellow balloons,” she said. “Yellow represents the sunshine that the children…brought their families during the years they were alive.”
Brown encourages people to get more involved in their communities, whether it’s working with young people, holding elected officials accountable or reaching out to neighbors who have lost children to violence. Just knocking on the door will be mean so much, even if the survivor initially says “no” to a helping hand.
Green said to cope with the pain, she attends counseling sessions and she helps other grieving families by volunteering with support groups such as A Mother’s Cry and Roberta’s House, where her son’s daughter also finds comfort.
Shane Perrault, Ph.D., a D.C.-area psychologist, said taking positive steps toward healing by being proactive, grieving on your own terms without apology and acknowledging moments of anger or depression helps parents to heal.
“There’s no manual for an unexpected loss like this,” he said. “If I talk to 10 people who are grieving, they will all grieve differently.”
“Give yourself time and find a support group,” he advised.
Even that doesn’t make it easy, Green said.
“It’s a process,” she said. “It’s not an easy one. Not for anyone. Not for me.”
Yanick Rice Lamb is an associate professor of journalism at Howard University. She has a 25-year-old son, one-year-old grandson, and lots of godsons and nephews. Follow her on Twitter: @yrlamb.