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The winter holidays were a large family affair for Terrez McCleary until gunshots took the life of her daughter, Tamara Johnson, in a 2009 South Philadelphia shooting.
Ten years later, the season of twinkling lights and cheery carols remains a difficult time of year. Terrez and her husband, who have custody of their daughter’s little girl, try to leave Philadelphia. Terrez’ husband, Andre, says it’s hard to stay in the area when they know they can never recreate what they once had.
“It’s very, very hard to be able to try to put a smile on your face and enjoy the holiday when you’re missing someone,” Terrez McCleary said.
That’s why, this year, McCleary did something a little different. On Sunday, McCleary and Moms Bonded by Grief, a bereavement group she founded, hosted the holiday party she never had to help her in the years after her daughter’s death.
Held at the Dixon House in South Philadelphia, the party was designed to help other Philadelphia families who have lost loved ones to homicide get through a season that can feel alienating and lonely for people in grief.
As of Dec. 7, 330 people have been killed in Philadelphia homicides this year, according to city data.
Each one of those people had family — many of them children.
In a year that’s felt particularly violent, Moms Bonded by Grief wanted to give those kids who have lost a loved one a few hours to laugh and “help them with the process of going through the holiday season,” McCleary said.
Kids played tag and enjoyed sweet snacks from cotton candy and popcorn machines. Face painting and a magic show provided entertainment while parents and guardians shared stories about lost loved ones, and offered prayers.
Attendees also denounced a gun violence epidemic that has left more than 1,350 people shot in the city to date in 2019. On Sunday afternoon alone, two men were shot in Southwest Philadelphia, one of them fatally.
”Every day, there’s a new shooting in the city of Philadelphia and every day that another mother loses a child, it’s heartbreaking for me,” said Sonya Dixon who lost two grandsons to separate incidents of gun violence. “And I grieve all over again for my boys.”
‘We’re not alone’
Derion Tyree was one of the children who attended the party.
Derion, 11, hasn’t been the same since her father was killed in March, said Naqueya Kemp, her mother.
Once effervescent, Derion has become slightly withdrawn and prone to mood swings, which have gotten her in trouble at school, Kemp said.
Kemp said her daughter doesn’t like to talk about her father’s passing. She worries how Derion will cope over the next few weeks, a time of the year she used to celebrate with her father. He would pamper her — it was Derion’s favorite time of the year, Kemp recalled.
“Her birthday is December… [her father] would always make sure he’d do her birthday and Christmas. He’d never cheat her,” Kemp said. “So it’s going to be hard.”
She will turn 12 next week and she’s already asked to replace her usual birthday party with a small dinner.
Derion resisted the idea of the Dixon House party at first, said Kemp, who brought her with hopes of getting her into the Christmas spirit. But once the tween arrived, she started to chat and play with other young attendees who shared her grief.
The younger children let out joyous Christmas morning screams when they opened wrapped books, dolls, and bicycles while older children left with gift cards. Donations made by students from Parkway Center City College, nurses from Jefferson University Hospital and doctors from Temple University Hospital helped purchase the presents.
Kemp took home one gift, for which she felt grateful, she said. She was separated from Derion’s father, but they remained good friends until his death. The past few months have been tough for her.
“This was very helpful for me too, to see other people here that go through what we go through and just to see that we’re not alone,” Kemp said.
Lisa Harmon, who helped organize the party, said the experience felt therapeutic. She lost her son Alan Gray just over a year ago and the holidays will never be the same. Gray had brought people together, she said, holding back tears.
“Everyone from my mother, his nephew, friends of his, and they’d all come to my home,” she said. “And he’s there just drinking and eating and telling stories and jokes and it’s just fun with him… and now it’s just empty.”
Harmon brought her son’s daughter, Aniyah Hamilton-Gray, 17, to the party. She munched on pretzels and sweets during the party. She said she felt a little old to be there, but would come again if there’s a similar party next year.
The grief tends to hit her at night. This time of year, the void of her father’s absence feels especially large, she said, yet she wants to celebrate with her family. He thinks she would want her to be there.
“I’m used to him showing up, coming to my grandmom’s house,” she said. “But now it’s gone.”