When RowVaughn Wells arrived at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on an icy, gray Wednesday in Memphis, she was there to say goodbye to her son Tyre Nichols. He was dead. Killed. Beaten to death by local police officers while he screamed for her less than 100 yards from her house.
There was a phalanx of television crews across the street from the front of the church, and the Secret Service manned the doors. The sanctuary was full of dignitaries, including Vice President Kamala Harris.
Wells entered the church under the glare of TV cameras that craned over the balcony and when she neared the front, and the black coffin surrounded by white flowers, she began to shake her head and fight back tears.
Her grief and mourning were not her own. They could not be walled off from the political drama in which she was thrust and caught.
When the church’s presiding pastor, the Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, opened the service, he said:
“This family has endured the unsolicited, unwarranted, unreasonable, unjustifiable and massive burden of grieving their loved one and at the same time fighting for justice.”
This is the thought that I have not been able to shake in this case, and those that preceded it:
Not only is their loss staggering, but their ability to grieve that loss has also been altered and interrupted, converted into politics and performance. Privacy is unavailable to them.
As Hunter Demster, a local organizer, told me, the family has endured “vigil, after protest, after news conference, after news interview.” Although he was leery of saying for certain, he didn’t believe they’d “had a moment to sit and grieve.”
Mourning, properly, slowly and messily if needed, shouldn’t be a luxury. It’s the least that any of us deserves when tragedy befalls our families.
As Collette Flanagan, whose son was also killed by a police officer and who runs the group Mothers Against Police Brutality, told me by phone just before the funeral started, she remembers telling herself that “you’re going to have to put this grief on a shelf,” that “you’re going to have to put aside all of your hurt and your sorrow and you cannot go quietly into the night.”
Forcing these families to subjugate their mourning is a crime, a moral crime.
Mourning in public, on repeat, under and in front of the lights and cameras, isn’t part of the normal grieving process. Many people can hardly understand their flood of emotion, let alone live with the pressure of constantly being asked to form those feelings into sound bites.
And yet, somehow, families like Tyre Nichols’s valiantly do just that. They put their personal mourning “on the shelf” to become leaders of a mass public mourning. They advocate for their dead child instead of simply mourning the dead child. They are drafted into a war — without warning or preparation — a war in which the enemy is entrenched, and the comrades beleaguered.
What they surrender — what we force them to surrender — is what the grief expert Joél Simone Maldonado described to me as the “sacredness in grief,” the sitting along with it in silence, the honoring of loss, and developing ritual around it. Families must engage instead in what Maldonado calls “performance grief.”
And sadly, the legions of these families are growing.
At the funeral, I sat in front of Donna Gates Bullard, who tapped me on the arm before the service and explained that her brother Michael Gates was also beaten to death by law enforcement in Memphis. He was killed by sheriff’s deputies in a so-called “jump and grab” sting operation in 1989. (Memphis seems to have no shortage of horrible names for their tough-on-crime efforts.)
Bullard said she came to the funeral to honor her brother. This is something I’ve often seen, the pilgrimage of mothers or sisters of other slain children to the sight of a funeral of the newest one. Their grieving is ongoing and unresolved.
During one of the musical interludes, I looked back and saw Bullard burst into tears, her hands clasped across her bosom, as if trying to hold herself together.
These family members are constantly told that they must be strong for their killed child, but where is the space for vulnerability? Where is the space for human frailty? Where is the opening to confess their fatigue without judgment? Where is the space for them to be when the only noise their mouths can make is that of wailing and cursing the sky?
We have a model for a kind of perfect performance of grief from these women, a single script to follow.
They are made to polish and professionalize mourning, to substitute oration for lamentation, to respectfully receive an endless stream of condolences when the soul craves silence.
I have seen this conflict up close in other mothers who have lost children to violence, and who made that loss part of a cause.
When I first interviewed Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, in person, she was consumed and shrunken by grief. She brought her mother to the interview, and she reflexively wrapped her hands around her mother’s arm and rested her head on her mother’s shoulder as she spoke.
When I spent the day with Sam DuBose’s family in 2015, his mother, Audrey, was so drained that she needed to cling to me just to leave the car and walk into a TV interview. But when the lights came on and the camera rolled, she delivered a stirring and spirited interview. After it was over, she confessed to me in a whisper, “All I want to do is just shut my door and cover up and never open it again.”
When I interviewed Tamir Rice’s mom, Samaria, that same year, on the one-year anniversary of her son’s death at the hands of a Cleveland police officer, one of the first things she told me was, “I’m tired and I’m overwhelmed, and I just want to go to bed.” But she couldn’t go to bed. That day, she had to perform, she had to receive hugs and do interviews and deliver a speech, which she did with passion and conviction just feet from where the blood of her 12-year-old boy had soaked the ground.
Not only do these women lose a part of their heart when their children are killed, the rest of the heart is bound in expectations and advocacy. The loss is compounded.
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