When gun violence steals the cheer from a family’s holiday

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Members of Virgil's family picking up a donated portrait of him this December. (Courtesy of Sandy Ross)

Members of Virgil's family picking up a donated portrait of him this December. (Courtesy of Sandy Ross)

“Kids in the Crossfire”: The first in an occasional series of articles.  

Christmas was less than two weeks away, and Sandy Ross’ home showed little sign of the holidays. The only clues were a fake pine tree lying naked on its side by the kitchen and two wrapped presents sitting by a house plant in a corner of the living room.

Commanding the space between the two rooms was a neatly organized pile of clothes and sneakers that belonged to her 25-year-old son Virgil Ross, who was fatally shot on May 23  —  Philadelphia’s 123rd homicide this year. (As of Dec. 17, there had been 343 homicides in the city and more than 1,400 shooting victims.)

Virgil Ross. (Courtesy of Sandy Ross)

Photos of Virgil and a large laminated poster asking for information about his shooter, who remains at large, stood atop the clear plastic containers that held all his belongings.

For months, Ross has been meaning to do something with these things. Her youngest son, Nasir Ray, 10, sneaked shirts, pants, and sneakers out of the pile and wore them out in public, even though they were much too big for him.

But this particular Friday wouldn’t be the day to tackle them. Ross sat in the dark living room with “Judge Judy” playing on the television and rain lightly tapping on her window.

“I just can’t move from out this space,” she said. “I have a lot going on in my brain, like, ‘All right, do this, get up, clean, go do your paperwork, go back to work.’ But then it drains me, and I wind up still sitting here.”

The family used to go all out for Christmas. Now, the holidays only emphasize for them that Virgil is gone.

Sandy with her son Virgil, last year during the holidays. (Courtesy of Sandy Ross)

Across Philadelphia, among families who have lost loved ones to gun violence, trauma and grief can be magnified at this time of year — from the minute the Thanksgiving turkey hits the table, on through to the noisemakers ringing in the New Year.

“These feelings are normal: You went through something horrible,” said Caroline Menapace, a child and family therapist with the Violence Intervention Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It makes all the sense in the world that you’re feeling this way.”

Menapace works with young people, ages 8 to 18, who have been brought to the hospital with assault injuries, including those from firearms, providing trauma-focused therapy to them and their families.

First and foremost, she said, there’s no roadmap to getting through the holidays, or birthdays, or anniversaries marking the death of a loved one, but doing small things can ease the hurt.

Whether that’s making a loved one’s favorite recipe, going to the gravesite, spending time at a restaurant or other cherished place, or just taking the day off from work to watch TV, Menapace suggests doing what feels right, which is different for every person.

“I also think that it’s OK to let people know that it’s OK, that those days are hard and no one should expect you to be OK on those days,” she said.

That’s because finding what works takes time.

Moms bonded by grief organized Christmas gifts to give to children who have lost a family member to gun violence. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Trying to climb ‘out of the funk’

Terrez McCleary said the holidays remain difficult for her, a decade after her daughter Tamara Johnson was fatally shot in 2009. Starting the bereavement group Moms Bonded by Grief has helped her.

“This [year] has been the first time … I was able to find the strength to be able to enjoy the holidays,” McCleary said.

During holidays past, she and her husband found leaving Philadelphia and going on trips helped them put their best foot forward for Johnson’s little girl, whom they care for.

This year, however, McCleary felt up for trying something a little different. She threw a holiday party for children who have lost loved ones in a homicide.

“I just wanted to be able to do something to bring the family out of the funk for a moment, put a smile on the kids’ faces, and help them with the process of going through the holiday season,” she said.

Ross took her 10-year-old son to the party to see if it could cheer them up. At one point, when her son Virgil’s death came up in conversation, she burst into tears — something she kept apologizing for.

Menapace said there’s no need for apologies. For both caregivers and children, discussing feelings is a key part of addressing trauma and grief.

“It’s OK for caregivers to be honest about how they’re doing too,” she said, and that’s a good segue for touching base with young people.

The start of these conversations can be simple: “’You know, Grandmom died, and I’m really sad. How are you feeling?’” Menapace said. “Or, ‘It’s OK if you’re feeling really sad, it’s OK if you’re not feeling really sad, and it’s OK if you don’t want to talk about it right now, but you know that I’m here if you want to talk about it.”

Nothing wrong with asking for backup

Sandy Ross has tackled the months since her eldest son’s death one day at a time. At first, she  was too busy to feel the loss fully: She had a funeral to plan, her son’s apartment to empty out, and then it was time for her other three children to go back to school.

But things have slowed down now. Some days are better than others, and the days when she can’t leave the house plague her with feelings of guilt.

Her other children, Nasir, Samir, and Talayah, ages 10 to 18, appear to struggle in a similar fashion. She’s gotten calls from teachers, concerned as the grades of students they know as strong academic performers dip.

Her boys have become withdrawn, even standoffish, for the first time, and Ross has noticed her daughter has been sleeping a lot more.

“It’s eating away at everybody’s spirit,” she said.

The children won’t talk about their brother’s death, and Ross said she’s not sure she’s ready to either. “We beat around the bush.”

That’s not uncommon. Menapace said, and it’s completely normal for caregivers to ask for backup.

“If the caregiver doesn’t feel that they can really be that person for the child [to talk to] because, you know, they’re going through it as well, [we encourage] the caregiver to try to identify another source of support for the child, whether it’s a counselor in school or a teacher,” Menapace said.

That’s a method Ross has adopted. Even the act of getting up and going to therapy has been a struggle, so speaking to her children about their brother’s death when they’re ready might be hard for her. She’s reached out to teachers to help create a support system for her kids.

Getting young people in a room with people their age who have similar lived experiences can also help them process their feelings.

Menapace said grief groups for teens are available across the city and can help them open up.

“It’s a group of teenagers who have all been through sort of this violent incident,” she said. “I think that’s something that’s really powerful in addressing grief, as well as surrounding yourself with people who have gone through something similar, because it is a very isolating experience.”

Lisa Harmon, a member of Moms Bonded by Grief, said connecting young people with a network of support was part of the reason they threw the holiday party for children.

“A lot of times on holidays, it’s very, very difficult to open up, to bond with our children,” Harmon said. “Some have difficulty, so we thought [it could help] if we could get them all together because they have something in common.”

Lisa Harmon (right) attended the Moms Bonded By Grief holiday party with her grandchildren and son. Lisa’s son Alan Gray was killed last year. Pictured is Shahir Hamilton, Shawn Harmon, Aniyah Hamilton-Gray, Amir Hamilton-Gray, Sakiyah Hamilton-Gray and Lisa Harmon. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

For Ross’ youngest son, the party appeared to be a good distraction. The room bustled with the energy of any cheerful holiday party. Nasir joined other children as a clown performed magic tricks and when it came time to open gifts.

He also brought his mom’s table pink sculptures of cotton candy to try, water ice, and soft pretzels.

A quiet Christmas

Other than the party, Ross has little planned for the holidays.

A banquet server who loves to cook, she used to pull out all the stops for Christmas. She would make roast beef or turkey with sides of string beans, baked potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. Her four children acted as taste-testers before the rest of the family arrived.

She won’t be cooking this year. Virgil’s jokes were a key part of the tradition. She thinks she’ll send her children to her mother’s instead.

If she can find the strength, she said, she’ll take a plastic table to the spot where her son was killed and hand out Tastykakes, small Christmas gifts, and flyers asking for help finding the person who robbed her son of his life.

“It’s not going to bring him back,” said Ross, “but I do want some kind of closure.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.

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