The crowd was larger this year than any crowd the past seven. The Carl Grant Events Center at Union University was filled with tables surrounded by people of all kinds, ages, colors, and worlds held together by the sad reality that someone they loved has been murdered—some of them fifty years ago and some five months ago. The reality that no one truly understands this grief is echoed in the camaraderie across the room. “Lord-willing,” they say, “we won’t keep growing. We don’t want other people to know what this feels like.”
Grief is breathtaking. All have experienced it, and we know the deep-down grumbling in our guts that must be an echo of the deep-down grumbling in our souls.
A life is lost. A story ends.
When we know someone is slipping away from us, be it old age or illness, we take note of moments. We recognize that each greeting, each goodbye, each kiss, each glance may be the very last of its kind. We become talkative about our emotions, we become peacemakers of our lifelong grudges. We flip through photo albums, finding brand new patience for hearing that story the millionth time. When we know what is coming, we pay attention to burn every moment as a memory because with each sunrise might be the news of it being the last moment ever shared. Grief is always a monster, but we see this one coming and do our best to make peace with our loved one’s hand squeezed tightly inside our own.
The grief of losing someone to homicide bears resemblance of an entirely different monster. The similarity of no longer having the flesh of another in our hands while we speak with them is still there, but the similarities likely end here. The grief experienced by the women and men gathered around the tables at this event is marked not only by the felt absence of a granddaughter, a brother, or a son. It is also a felt and haunting absence of those recognized last moments.
While there were last moments, no one knew. While there were final words, they didn’t appear final.
The extra hugs, the new transparency we save for final moments, never got their invitations, and so they never happened. In this grief, the need for those moments continues. The broken record of “what if” and “if only” gets stuck on repeat, and surfacing memories become those of final moments, and what they should have been. The groaning inside becomes a kind of fighting for those final moments in hopes of turning the entire narrative around.
Every morning brings with it the same, sudden, shocking realization that it was not a dream, and the person we lived for and loved for is not in the next room, not beside us in bed, not in her college dorm. The nightmare has transitioned to the daylight. And it remains every single morning.
This group of survivors has taught me that my attempts at “fixing” any of this is not desired. They will not hear “God has a reason for all this,” because as sure as hell itself breaks in on earth, God surely didn’t have a reason good enough for murder. They won't tolerate “It’s time to get over it,” because there is no thing anywhere to get over. Normal is gone; now is here.
Started by a small support group several years ago, last night marked the 8th Annual Remember Me Commemorative Walk. The first group of less than a dozen is still in the room, and so are hundreds of others. Surrounding these dinner tables they hush their children, applaud at the right times, and pass the salt and pepper. They engage in the rhythms of daily life as if life itself keeps moving. They are miraculous.
Over 400 of them were there, holding framed photographs of the person now missing from their family. They gathered because they know this group is the only group that knows what it means and what it’s like. They gathered to insist their granddaughter, brother, or son would never be forgotten.
But to a greater degree they gather to insist that the person whose picture is framed will be remembered not by the grueling details of final last moments, but by the living memories of every single day they were here and holdable.
The procession was too long as families marched through the candlelit path lined by those willing to witness the nasty truth of death and the holy mystery of life. After walking through the witnesses, the crowd gathered finally together. Each holding a balloon, they screamed the names of their missing loves into the air and released the string. There were far too many balloons.
The night ended and continued, much the same way the nights of this remarkable group both end and continue every single day. If fortunate enough to meet someone from these ranks, you will find a living mystery. You will likely find people learning the art of carrying two raw emotions in their fullness at one time, refusing to let one swallow up the other. You will likely find women and men standing in a space between horror and hope, refusing to lie about the former in an effort to grasp the latter. These men and women walk with photographs in hand of their beloved ones, ripped from their lives by murder. They walk bearing faces shining with complete grief and complete resilience. They promise us, by the mere act of putting one foot in front of the other, that within us all there is a remarkable hope for humanity.
Donald Jordan is a Jackson native with a traveler’s spirit. He is a therapist, professor of social work, and expert at inviting himself to your home for dinner and drinks.
Photography by Donald Jordan.