On Dec. 19, 1993, Clementina Chery was a stay-at-home mom raising three children in Boston. The next day, the life Chery had known ended abruptly when her 15-year-old son, Louis David Brown, was fatally caught in the crossfire of gang violence.
“When someone you love is murdered, there are [several] things that can happen to you,” Chery, 44, says. “You can become homicidal, suicidal, addicted to drugs, or an alcoholic.” Or, she says, you can “use the pain and anger and literally transform it to power and action.”
She chose the latter, and in 1994, she and her husband, Joseph, founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, an organization dedicated to helping survivors of homicide victims work through their grief and rebuild their lives spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
Some issues are unique to survivors of homicide victims, Chery says. “There’s the shame,” she says. “And then there’s the community that shuns you because they want to justify [the murder].” But for the families left behind, the cause of death is often not as important as finding the resources to bury their loved ones and the strength to go on.
Chery has helped more than 300 Boston-area families find programs that offer financial assistance for burial costs, write obituaries, plan funerals, and find financial and mental health resources to guide them through their grieving process.
According to a 1989 report by the National Center for Victims of Crime, homicide grief expert Lu Redmond estimated that for every homicide, there are seven to 10 close relatives deeply affected. With 14,054 homicides in the U.S. in 2002, the number of people affected is substantial.
Families of homicide victims have legal issues to contend with. “When you have a homicide, the family is suddenly thrown into police [matters] and the courts,” says Duane LaMoreaux, a director with the Metro Detroit chapter of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children.
Chery holds the hands of survivors of homicide victims every step of the way. “We train families, literally, on how to understand this new life that they’re dealing with from the investigation process to going to court and understanding the different facets of the criminal justice system,” she says.
When Jaye Morris’ husband and 18-year-old son, Willie James Bendolph and Jarrel Morris, were brutally murdered in August, she had no idea how she would pay for two burials. Chery helped her apply for and receive city funds earmarked for people in her situation.
“I was like, ‘These bills are over my head,'” Morris recalls. “Tina [Chery] said, ‘No they’re not. There are funds for you.'” Chery depends on donations and fundraisers such as the annual Mothers’ Walk for Peace, which takes place each year on Mother’s Day, but she’s actively seeking a partner with deep financial pockets to help keep the center going.
“I realize that God has a greater purpose for me,” she says. “While I need money to do my work, I figure as long as He has the spirit inside of me, it’s going to get better.”
National Organization of Parents