Those who lost children or loved ones to gun violence share their pain in a new documentary, "Quiet Rooms." From left to right, Ruth Rollins, Clementina Chéry, Paul Prater, and Leeann Taylor.

Healing families of those killed by gun violence

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Healing families of those killed by gun violence by Eric Gordon

Originally published in Commonwealth Magazine on June 22, 2022

OUTSIDE OF TRAUMA ROOMS in hospitals around the country, there is a place that those in the medical field call the “quiet room.” According to Dr. Cornelia Griggs and Dr. Peter Masiakos of Massachusetts General Hospital, “It is a bland spot; a few soft chairs surround a table that holds a box of crisp institutional tissues. There may be a picture or two on the wall, but generally it is an unassuming room where…physicians tell mothers about the deaths of their children, far too often because of firearm violence.”

But these quiet rooms are anything but quiet. They are filled with the wailing of traumatized mothers, the deafening clatter of lives upended in the pointless epidemic of gun violence. Even though most news stories end there – “Man shot on sidewalk,” “Bystander killed in crossfire,” – for those who have been in one of these rooms, this is where the story begins.

The recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, have shifted the nation’s focus to the scene of the crime and immediate aftermath. But as the media attention inevitably wanes, I can’t stop thinking of those families in quiet rooms (whether in a hospital or community center) learning of their loved one’s murder, and just beginning their long healing journeys.

I’m a media professor at Emerson College, and over the last six months, my students and I have had the privilege to work alongside mothers and other loved ones who have lost young men to gun violence in Boston. In partnership with Mass. General Hospital’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a center for healing and support for those directly impacted by gun violence, we wanted to tell a different kind of story – not one focused on gunshots in “crime ridden” neighborhoods or the actions of gang members, but on the strength required for a community to heal and to overcome the systemic racism that perpetuates violence.

The result was a 20-minute documentary called “Quiet Rooms” that centers on five mothers who recount their journeys of grief and healing after the murder of their sons. In it, we hear about the shock of being notified of a son’s death, the institutional labyrinth of hospitals, morgues, and victim assistance funds, and the pernicious media narratives that demonize young Black men, implicating them in their own murders. In the words of mother and activist Clarissa Turner: “We’re the victims, but we’re treated like we’re the perpetrators.” This is illustrated by a story told by Leeann Taylor, a mother and one of the producers of the film, of being handcuffed as she was escorted to the morgue to view her dead son.

The film begins in the hospital’s quiet room, but then moves to the other spaces of literal or metaphorical quiet that these mothers created in their communities. The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester has its own “quiet room” – a space for “sand play” filled with figurines of all shapes and sizes on the floor-to-ceiling shelves, with small trays of sand in the middle. The invitation is to grab a figure that calls to you and place it in the sand. According to Peace Institute founder Chaplain Clementina Chéry, whose son was murdered in 1993, it is a place to “create your world” either as it is or should be, and it’s a place to communicate “when words fail.”

This quiet room has power. Surrounded by the clamor of violence, quiet is respite, it is community and relationships, it is simply being together. The Peace Institute’s space is not the only quiet room in Boston. In making this film, I have collaborated with so many mothers and family members who are creating their own real or metaphorical spaces, whether by starting organizations like Ruth Rollins did with We Are Better Together or Carla Sheffield did with Better Opportunities, Inc, or simply holding space for conversation and restorative justice.

The film was created as part of a class at Emerson College and involved Emerson students, two mothers of homicide victims, community organizers, and hospital employees. The initial concept, script, and interviews were done collaboratively with all partners. The end product is not only available to the general public, most importantly, it is a piece that the creators feel is about them and for them. One of the mothers featured in the film said at the debut screening, “I didn’t know that so many people cared.”

As the country’s attention is once again focused on the obscene spectacle of mass murders, I’m thinking of those mothers right here in Boston, and in  every city in this country, who have been re-traumatized by these preventable tragedies. As a society we need to show victims that people do care, and that long after the news cameras go away, they can be supported in their healing without shame.

If anything is going to change in our dysfunctional national discourse on guns, we need to tell different stories that include the voices of those directly impacted. Only then can we translate our outrage, fascination, and ultimately indifference, into care.

Eric Gordon is a professor of civic media and director of the research-based Engagement Lab at Emerson College.