On a difficult holiday, mothers create bonds through shared loss of children to violence

After Octavia Mitchell lost her son in 2010, she said she couldn’t celebrate Mother’s Day for 10 years. She’d spend the entire day in bed, she said, unable to get up.

But, four years ago, Mitchell decided she was losing out on celebrating the day with her other children. So, she dedicated the day to celebrating herself and other mothers who have lost their children to gun violence. Mitchell’s son was fatally wounded by Chicago police officers on the South Side during a 2010 traffic stop.

Mitchell’s organization, Heal Your Heart, hosted its fourth annual Mother’s Day event Sunday, inviting mothers with a similar experience across Chicago to find community. People came in and out of the event in Bronzeville, enjoying food, poetry and other performances throughout the afternoon and into the evening.

“I invite everyone here to be among their peers,” Mitchell said. “People just say ‘I couldn’t imagine.’ I prefer to be around someone who can imagine. We can cry together and embrace each other.”

Mitchell said she modeled the event a little differently this year –– she wanted to feature children affected by loss and gun violence. In a grieving family, the focus is so often on mothers that people forget to focus on the children, Mitchell said.

Her granddaughter Tarriel White, the 16-year-old daughter of Mitchell’s son Izael Jackson, read a poem titled “Diary of a Fatherless Child.” She said she wrote the poem in early May about her experience of growing up.

White described losing her father at a young age, and the support system she has built since.

“Even though he’ll never get to know me and I’ll never get to know him, and he’ll never see me graduate, he’ll never see me get married, have kids, go to college, my home is a wonderful support system,” she read, “I will live with him, and he lives with me.”

Sharon Pughsley was one of the first people to arrive at Sunday’s event. She said this year was her first time attending a Mother’s Day event after she lost her daughter, Tanisha Pughsley, who was 27. An Alabama police officer, Pughsley was killed by an ex-boyfriend in her home in 2020.

She said she tried to teach her daughter everything she needed to know to survive, and Mother’s Day always serves as a painful reminder of losing her. Pughsley wore a necklace with her daughter’s picture to the gathering.

“It’s bittersweet because this is a club none of us ever wanted to join,” Pughsley said. “But it helps just to talk to people and know that you’re not going crazy. … It helps me think, ‘OK, we can get through this.’ I’m not going to get over it, but I know I can live through this experience.”

Mitchell handed out personalized gifts to mothers at the event. This year, she presented attendees with healing candles, and last year she gave out keychains with the names of lost children on them. In the past, she said she’s distributed pictures and cards.

Mitchell said she tries to give mothers a gift to remind them of their children and to put a smile on their faces. Sherka Tailor attended the event last year and said she returned because elements like these make the group feel like a family outside her family.

Tailor lost her daughter and nephew in the same 2021 shooting. A sophomore at Jackson State University, De’Anne Bell was studying biology and hoped to become an obstetrician. She was shot at a party on homecoming weekend, Tailor said.

Tailor said that Mother’s Day is difficult, so she was hesitant to come to the event. But, she said, she thought about how her daughter would want her to go.

“To see so many people that’s been through the same thing and experienced the same hurt and the same trauma come together to build a bond and a relationship with each other, like this is a family,” Tailor said. “You can lean on them when you’re having rough moments. You can always lean on them.”