A portrait of Frank “Nitty” Sessions hangs on the wall at Nitty’s Salon 1 and Retail on Natural Bridge Road, high above the manicure station.
Tammy Riley’s daughter Tameya named the salon after her brother, who was shot and killed outside a north St. Louis bar in 2009. He was 24.
For Riley, her son’s photo is a constant reminder that his life was cut short. Superimposed on the image is a poem he wrote years earlier, “24 Things to Remember and One Thing to Never Forget.”
“Number 24 is, ‘Don’t ever forget, for even a day, just how much I do really love you,’” read his mother, though it’s clear she had the poem memorized.
The city’s families have been living with the trauma of gun violence for decades. This year, the number of grieving families has grown as deadly shootings claimed more than 150 lives.
Riley and other grieving mothers have found hope and healing by connecting with each other.
But they say mourning a loved one lost to gun violence never goes away.
After her son died, Riley only allowed herself to cry in the shower so her family couldn’t see or hear. Her grief was so strong it was physically painful.
“To lose your child so violently, it’s just wrong,” she said. “I questioned God at the time. Why my child? I prayed, I asked you to cover him. Why didn’t you cover my child?”
Anger and Disillusionment
Sessions died just blocks away from where Riley lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood of north St. Louis. After his death, she felt alienated from the community.
She suspects men in the neighborhood knew who shot him. But none came forward.
“Even the ones who were his so-called friends, no one lifted a finger to do anything,” she said. “I would sit on my front porch, and I would see the different ones walking past ... I hated them. I hated them! I just felt like: 'Why are you here? He’s not here, why are you still here?'”
Riley moved out of the neighborhood soon after her son was shot. She couldn't bear to be in the place where he died.
Sharon Williams felt the same way after someone shot her son Mikey dead in a back alley in 2008. He was 19.
For years, Williams had worked at community centers in the Mark Twain neighborhood in north St. Louis, including a gang-abatement center run out of her church.
When Williams was working in the community center, she and her family lived in St. Louis County. She would take Mikey with her to help out at her job near Bellefontaine Cemetery. He would hang out with the kids and even painted murals on the walls.
“After my son was murdered, I just couldn’t believe that everything that I had done for that neighborhood, that somebody from that neighborhood took the most important thing in my life, which was my child,” she said.
Williams had been running an after-school center close to where her son was killed.
“I’ve been working hard to try to keep all these kids from getting killed,” she said. “And yet I was unable to keep my own son from being killed.”
After that, she stopped working in the neighborhood. Even though she grew up there, she hasn’t been back since.
Shame and Stigma
The mothers say the string of deaths this year is a haunting reminder of their lost sons.
Many of the murders in St Louis remain unsolved. In 2018, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police closed 12 of the 186 homicide cases that year.
When someone is shot and killed in the city, witnesses often don't come forward because they fear retribution, Riley said. That makes her angry and feel even more helpless.
“I hate the fact they have this street code — ‘I ain’t no snitch,’” she said. “I feel as though if it were someone in your family, you would want everyone to come out, speak up and say what you saw. Relay that information to the police! But no one wants to do that.”
Some parents say after a child is killed, they’re consumed with fear of more death. Last year, Williams’ youngest son, who was 21, came home and said some men accused him of talking to the police and were looking for him.
That day, she sent him to out of state.
“I told him to get on his clothes. Drove him directly to the bus station, got him a bus ticket, one way, gave him $200. And I said, stay with your dad,” she said. “I’m done with this, I’m done. I can’t do it anymore.”
That night, she was finally able to sleep soundly. But the shame remained.
“It’s the stigma of having a kid murdered in the street,” she said. “People asking, you know, what did they do? Was the parent into drugs? That’s the worst thing to deal with sometimes.”
Williams said she couldn’t stop second-guessing her own parenting choices. Before her son died, she said, he had begun hanging out with dangerous people in the neighborhood where she worked.
She wonders if he would still be alive if she hadn’t taken him with her.
“There was a lot of guilt, guilt on my part,” Williams said. “Why did I allow my kids to come to the center? You know, what did I not do to keep my son from being killed? What happened? Who did this?”
Finding Healing and Hope
That pain is familiar to Maria Miller.
Five years ago, one of her brothers was fatally stabbed in prison. Then another brother was shot and killed that Thanksgiving. Her 21-year-old son, Courtney, was shot and killed on Christmas Eve.
“The three people that I didn't think that I could live without [were] taken away from me in six months,” she said. Every morning, “as soon as my eyes opened, tears would already be coming.”
After his death, Miller went to a counselor. She says it helped.
“I was like, ‘Are you going to say something to me?’ She's like, ‘I'm just here to listen.' And it was like this relief came upon me. Like, oh my God. Someone’s just here to listen, not judge, not say, ‘This is wrong. This is right.’”
But other members of her family still haven’t come to terms with the tragedy. They haven’t sought help.
Like many black women, they’re resistant to go to counseling, she said.
“I see a lot of people, especially with my culture, we were raised up to believe we’re strong, we can go through anything,” she said. “We don’t need counseling, something’s wrong with you if you get counseling, if you seek help.”
People who have lost loved ones to violence suffer from higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than those who haven’t.
For many people, seeking psychological help is taboo, said Marcelle Perry-Rhone, outreach coordinator for Better Family Life, a social services agency in St. Louis. For that reason, the nonprofit doesn’t call the help it provides “counseling.”
“We call it a conversation, because that's all the counseling ever really is,” Perry-Rhone said.
St. Louis needs more "culturally competent care" because traditional therapy can alienate some patients, she said.
For example, unlike traditional therapy, sessions at Better Family Life can last for hours, and clients can bring friends or family members so they feel more comfortable.
The three women have all found comfort connecting with other families.
“They’ve been through it, they know exactly how you feel,” Riley said. “You can relate the things you do to cope to the next person.”
They’ve found meaning in their sons' deaths by helping each other.
Williams has started a support group called Healing Hearts. Families and loved ones of gun-violence victims get together to talk through their experiences, offer advice and hold remembrance ceremonies.
And after seeing the lack of mental health care for survivors, she’s pursuing a doctorate in educational organization and behavioral health.
Tammy Riley has devoted herself to her faith and prayer and to her family, especially her granddaughter Frankii, a spitting image of her son.
“I always give God the glory,” she said. “The biggest blessing I have is my granddaughter.”
Miller has poured her energy into social justice advocacy through her organization Our Lives Matter. She’s doggedly pursuing justice on behalf of Larry, her brother, who was stabbed inside the Crossroads Correctional Center.
And she’s busy raising her 8-year-old, Caidyn.
“My peace was ripped away. My joy was ripped away,” she said. “But I have peace and I have joy now. Even though it hurts. It hurts! But I have peace and I have joy.”
For years, the anniversary of her son Courtney’s death made celebrating Christmas painful. But last year she finally was able to put up a Christmas tree.
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge
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