For some families of murder victims, healing begins in a community circle

With tiny fists, children clenched the red, white, black and blue star- and heart-shaped balloons.

Parents held their kids close, as well as balloons of their own. Friends and community members stood next to them as they formed a circle.

The air was tense with grief.

It had been one year since three Kansas City men were gunned down in a car. The family, the community, still mourned.

Their names: 34-year-old Kevin Murrell, 28-year-old Chad Cain and 28-year-old Cortez Hanley.

Rosilyn Temple, who lost her own son, Antonio “PeeWee” Thompson, in 2011, called everyone to stand closer together, to enclose the ring.

“We will open in prayer today,” said Temple, the executive director of the community advocacy group KC Mothers in Charge. “This community, we need prayer. We got to be different.”

She called for whoever saw what happened to the three men to step up.

“Who gave y’all the right to take our children’s lives?” Temple said. “No one.”

As tears fell along the cheeks of family members and friends, a few balloons floated away.

This scene is familiar for families who lost loved ones in the 150 KC homicides in 2017 and the 78 so far this year. Temple and KC Mothers in Charge hold at least one vigil each week.

It’s a phenomenon growing across the nation as loved ones and even strangers grapple with grief. After a Ride the Ducks boat sank in Table Rock Lake and 17 people died in July, about 300 people gathered for one of two vigils. In June, a community vigil was held to honor two Wyandotte County deputies who were shot while transporting a prisoner.

Vigils were held around the world for the 49 victims of the Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooting in 2016.

Families and friends share stories of their loved ones and also call for justice.

Zandra Chase Johnson, a close friend of two mothers who lost sons in the shooting, said it’s hard but important for family and friends to go to vigils. She lost her brother six years ago.

“Just allowing them to see their people haven’t forgotten them,” Johnson said. “We still love them, we still hurt with them, we just want to try and hold them up.”

On Damon Daniel’s second day as president of AdHoc Group Against Crime three years ago, the family of a 19-year-old stabbed to death over cigarettes called and asked him to speak at a vigil.

The next day, it was the family of a 22-year-old baptized a month before his death.

He felt traumatized watching the families’ pain.

“I’ve since grown to understand just how important it is for us to show up and stand with families,” Daniel said. “People need to know that people care, to have a total stranger come and share some words of comfort and know that there’s a total person behind that organization.”

Jessica Cless, a Washburn University assistant professor and licensed marriage and family therapist, said the process of grief, especially for those whose loved one was murdered, is complicated.

But vigils might help with that process. Cless said vigils could help someone to feel more control of or involvement in the healing process.

“A vigil is also a way that there is a public acknowledgment of the impact on that person and on that family,” Cless said. “It’s a little bit different than everybody just seeing it on the news and understanding this happened. It’s much more of a community coming together sort of event.”

Vigils typically open with prayer. Then, a speaker, invited by the family, steps up in the crowd to offer words of consolation and might open the floor to family members, then friends, to share stories of their loved one. At the vigil for the three men gunned down in their car, a local pastor stepped up next to lead the group in prayer before the balloon release.

“Everybody’s got a different process and we have to respect that,” Cless said. “I really think that in many cases, though not all, vigils can be a good opportunity for those families to feel a sense of meaning-making, a sense of control, especially in a time when they might have a lot of that control stripped away.”

Temple’s son was killed on Nov. 23, 2011 — Thanksgiving Eve.

Temple grew up in Kansas City and had seen other vigils. When her son was killed, she found that she needed the peace that came with a vigil.

“That peace is like a release that people can remember and know that I lost my child,” Temple said. “It’s getting more awareness for our loved one, for this family, for me as a family, for people to know that I’ve been victimized — that it’s not OK.”

She joined KC Mothers in Charge five years ago. The organization is one chapter of a national organization, founded in Pennsylvania, that supports those whose loved ones were killed.

The Kansas City Police Department calls Temple any time a homicide occurs. She heads out to the scene but isn’t there to work with officers — she’s there for the family. The mother.

That’s because, Temple said, you don’t know the pain of a mother losing her child until you go through it yourself.

“After losing a child, you’ll never be the same because a piece of you had been just taken away, in like a breath, a heartbeat is gone,” Temple said.

KC Mothers in Charge donates 10 balloons to the families at the vigil to celebrate their loved one’s life. The organization helps families through death anniversaries and also will host birthday celebrations — cupcakes included.

“Because as a mom, when you birth a child in the world, you just can’t act like this don’t exist,” Temple said.

KC Mothers in Charge also offers grief counseling, drop-in counseling and group counseling.

But vigils are where it all begins.

“This is where the process of healing starts,” said Steven D. Graves, a youth pastor at Belvidere Heights Baptist Church. “The process of healing starts for the family, it starts for our communities and this also shows others in the community as well as outside our community that we do know how to come together and lift each other up and support each other.”

Graves led the group in prayer as they stood in the street where the men were shot.

They released the balloons. Specks of red, white and black dotted the sky.

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