Each year, gunfire claims the lives of hundreds of citizens in South Los Angeles-a pervasive fact that leaves scores of friends and family grieving and in pain. With nowhere to turn, many grapple with unresolved pain and anger that can affect them the rest of their lives.
Attempting to heal the wounds of those who have lost loved ones to gun violence has become an urgent mission for Bettye Sweet and Vicky Lindsey. Both mothers have lost family members to gun warfare.
Sweet lost her son, Jason Sweet, 18, three years ago. Ironically, Sweet had moved to Huntington Beach with her son in an effort to escape the violence plaguing the streets of South Los Angeles.
“Someone called my son on the phone and said he was driving from L.A. to meet him,” said Sweet.
“My son got into the car with this friend and the friend robbed him of $500. Then the friend shot him in the heart. Before the ambulance could get to him, my son suffocated on his own blood,” said Sweet.
Lindsey lost both her boyfriend, Lionel Whiteside, and her son, Lionel E. L. Whiteside Jr., to gun violence. “My boyfriend was murdered on June 6, 1989 and my son was killed on Nov. 9, 1995.
My boyfriend got into an argument with a friend and got shot. And my son was killed inside the car by the friends he was riding with. They were coming from a Compton High School football game.”
Seeking an outlet to cope with their grief and pain, both Sweet and Lindsey channeled their bereavement into assisting others impacted by violence.
Sweet, who said she received help from Lindsey after her son’s death, wrote a self-help book entitled From Survivor to Thriver: A Mother’s Journey Toward Peace After Her Son’s Murder. “It’s based on six strategies I use to help others who are dealing with the death of a loved one,” said Sweet. “I tell the reader to get their feelings out through crying, talking, writing, forgiving, positive thinking, and prayer.”
In an effort to reach out to young people grappling with the violent death of a loved one, Sweet recently held a 10-week Right to Heal program at Duke Ellington Continuation School. All had lost relatives or friends through gun violence–an experience that Sweet said led to many of the teens experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. Sweet encouraged the teenagers to talk about their long-buried grief and explore their feelings in notebooks. “Most of them didn’t see themselves living past the age of 20–but we’re trying to instill healing and hope,” said Sweet.
Sweet recalls one student in the class who was grappling with the violent death of a relative. “He was in the car with his 15-year-old cousin and three other guys. Someone rolled up on their car and started shooting,” said Sweet. “He saw his cousin shot seven times. He said he tried to stop the bleeding, but his cousin died in his arms. As he was talking about the tragedy, he began to sob in the class,” said Sweet. “He confessed that he was fearful and scared, and wherever he went, he always had peripheral vision because he thought he might get shot as well.”
Sweet said that the program helped the young man to release his pain. “Being in the class with others impacted by violence made him realize that there were others experiencing the same pain as he was,” said Sweet.
Sweet has completed a promotional video about the Right to Heal program that she hopes will encourage the Los Angeles, Compton, and Inglewood school districts to adapt the program into their curriculum. Her goal is to have the Right to Heal program implemented in school districts throughout California.
For Vicky Lindsey, reaching out to families grappling with the violent death of a loved one is her primary motivation. “I founded Project Cry No More, a grief intervention program, in 1988,” said Lindsey. “We primarily work with mothers whose children were murdered.”
Lindsey said her organization receives referrals from various agencies and community organizations about a family who has lost a child to violence. “They’ll call and say, ‘Vicky, I need you to contact this mother because the child has been murdered.’” We get referrals from the Department of Children and Family Services, politicians, intervention programs, law enforcement, the school district, churches, friends, family, and loved ones.”
Lindsey said that communicating with grieving loved ones and letting them talk about their loss is paramount. “A lot of times, all the mother wants is to be heard–and they want to be heard by people who understand them. We have an instant connection when I tell them that my child was murdered as well,” said Lindsey.
“We as mothers never get over a murdered loved one,” said Lindsey. “Our main focus is to let our community know that we mothers will not allow our children’s murders to be in vain.” One of the mothers that Lindsey has counseled is Pam Moore, who lost her son, Byron Anthony Daniels, 22, fifteen years ago when a stray bullet killed him in a nightclub.
“My son was in a nightclub called the Barbary Coast. Someone in the nightclub was shooting at another guy and the bullet hit my son instead,” said Moore.
Moore said that in the fifteen years since her son was killed, Lindsey has been a “lifesaver” who helped her cope with the pain. “At one point, I couldn’t even talk about my son’s death or go down the street where my son was murdered,” said Moore, who said Daniels was her best friend.
“But Vicky has always been there when I needed her. When I get mad and holler and scream, I call Vicky. I’ve called Vicky at 4 a.m. and said, ‘Vicky, I need to talk’ and she’ll get up out of her bed and talk. I call her Big Mama,” said Moore.
Pausing Lindsey added, “When we have a loved one killed, there’s a lot of bottled-up anger and we don’t know where to release it or how to channel that anger,” she said, adding that the anger, if unreleased, manifests itself in a number of ways–through headaches, depression, serial unemployment, or even retaliation by killing someone else.
Lindsey said that organizations such as Project Cry No More and the Right to Heal program provide a much-needed service in the community. “If we don’t deal with those young kids who are harboring feelings of grief or anger, they will eventually retaliate,” said Lindsey. “There are those young people who say, ‘I’ve got to kill the person who killed my loved one.’”
Both women said that helping others cope with grief connected to gun violence is a lifelong mission. “If we don’t deal with the grief connected with losing our loved ones to violence in the community, we can’t solve part of the problem–and we have to work to solve the whole problem,” said Lindsey.
To reach Bettye Sweet and the Right to Heal program, call (323) 708-4156. To reach Vicky Lindsey at Project Cry No More, call (310) 438-0075.