The teenagers in the South Lawndale grief support group struggled for months to put their feelings down on paper. Each of them had lost a brother to gun violence. Now they had come together to tell their parents what they were going through, and they chose to compose a group letter. 

“I see your pain, but I’m in pain as well,” they wrote to their parents. “I want you to remember my brother. But I also don’t want you to think I am my brother. I don’t want you to be afraid when I go out. I’m not going to pass away.”

Edwin Martinez, the social worker who was facilitating the group in the largely Mexican-American neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, knows firsthand how violence can torment a family. A decade earlier, he was a teenager in a similar Chicago neighborhood, where he walked the long way to school to avoid getting hassled by gang members, got stopped without cause by the police, and saw his cousin gunned down as he stood on a stoop. He understands how hard it can be to talk about painful experiences and how grief changes shape over time.    

“This is why these spaces are really important,” he said of the groups he leads. 

Martinez’s parents came to Chicago from Guerrero, Mexico, and lived in a three-apartment townhouse with eight other families — his parents’ siblings and their children. Martinez shared the top level of a bunk bed with his older brother. Edwin’s twin, who had a range of  medical issues, slept on the bunk beneath. Their father worked for the factory that made Mr. Potato Head toys, and Martinez remembers he often brought the dolls home. Plastic eyes and noses were scattered throughout the apartment and they were often underfoot as he padded through. 

One summer day when Martinez was about 6, he was hanging out his apartment window, talking to his cousin, who was about 15 years older and standing with friends on the stoop next door. A silver van came bolting up the street. A man leaning out of one of the windows began firing an assault rifle at Martinez’s cousin and his friends. His cousin was hit four or five times, and fell limp on the stoop. His uncle ran outside, screaming for everyone to get inside and lock the windows. Then he picked up his son. The young man’s shirt soaked through with blood. Throwing his son into the back seat of his car, the boy’s father sped to a nearby hospital. Martinez remembers three long days of waiting before he got word that his cousin had survived. In the meantime, his parents told him to distance himself from his cousin’s family; they didn’t want their bad fortune to rub off.  

As a young boy, Martinez remembers walking to school without worry. No one bothered little kids, no matter which gang’s territory they were in. But when Martinez turned 12, and as he put it “stopped being cute,” people started stopping and questioning him. Some of his cousins were affiliated with gangs, and their foes considered Martinez a foe by association. He started walking in a wide arc to get to school to avoid the neighborhoods where he was not welcome. 

When he was 13, his twin died from kidney failure. Martinez felt alone. His parents, who had always been busy, were now increasingly withdrawn. He started acting up in school, and was often kept in detention many days after school.  

Most days, he found himself sitting next to a kid named Santiago. The two sat in silence. Street culture told them they were meant to be rivals — Martinez associated with a Mexican neighborhood group, Santiago connected to a Puerto Rican one. But as the hours after school ticked past day after day, the boys began to laugh and talk. Mostly they talked about Pokemon and other kid stuff. “That’s what we needed,” Martinez said. But Santiago was wrestling with his own issues — a father in and out of jail, a mother who was emotionally distant — and somehow the two found a quiet place of understanding. 

Martinez remembers telling his friend to “be safe” on one October afternoon as they parted ways. Santiago headed up the block toward home while Martinez started off in the opposite direction. As he walked, Martinez heard the “pop pop pop” of gunfire in the distance. The sound was not unusual in his neighborhood, and though he paused to listen, he soon forgot about it. The next day, a guidance counsellor at his middle school pulled him aside to tell him that Santiago had been shot and killed. 

Martinez said his friend’s death rocked him, but he didn’t have the luxury of stopping to grieve. He pushed forward, finishing the school year. His mom started driving him to school. His cousins thought they knew who murdered Santiago but Martinez had no interest in revenge. Whoever had killed his friend had done it needlessly, and lashing out at them would only bring him down to their level. About losing his friend he recently said: “It definitely makes you feel unsafe. But it’s also part of what happens, and I was like, I have to keep on moving on.” At the time, he told his cousins: “It’s just not right. He was just somebody that was walking home from school.”  

While Martinez sometimes got in trouble, his grades were always high, and he tested into Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, a selective public school often ranked first in the city academically. He did well, and went on to college at DePaul University, before transferring to the University of Illinois at Chicago. Throughout his schooling, he felt himself pulled back to his old neighborhood. He wanted to do the type of face-to-face work that allowed him to get to know families struggling, as his family had. 

After college, he received a masters degree in social work from the University of Chicago. Martinez remembers how, during an internship with the YMCA’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program, he was assigned to take a young man who had been shot to and from meetings with his parole officer. Martinez had started dressing “like a therapist,” by his own description, in preppy clothes and glasses. At first the young man assumed they had nothing in common. He sat quietly in the back seat, reluctant to speak with Martinez. But Martinez kept talking and joking, and over time the man’s icy exterior began to thaw. He still wouldn’t talk about his past, but he would joke around, play pool at the community center, and he even agreed to learn about job opportunities and some of the other programming the YMCA had to offer.

Martinez said it’s important to remember that success doesn’t always look the way it does in the movies. 

“He’s still out there doing his thing,” he said. “We’re not here to stop that person from gang banging or shooting other people, right? But we met our goals. We were able to plant a seed and expand his support system.” 

Today, Martinez runs several grant-funded support groups across Chicago. The groups are for parents who have lost children to violence, children who have lost siblings to violence, and “bridge” groups connecting the two. Martinez knows that grief does not follow a schedule: People are encouraged to join the groups when they need it, and leave when they don’t, whether it’s 10 days after a loss or 10 years. 

He is also working to launch his own nonprofit, called Centro Sanar, to address mental health disparities on Chicago’s Southwest Side.  He hopes it will provide counseling to people who could not otherwise afford or access it, and fill in a gap left by the state Crime Victim Compensation Program, which uses federal dollars to help crime victims pay for unexpected costs like medical care, mental health help, funerals, and the cost of missed work. State-funded counselling services end after three to six months, but trauma and grief often come in waves long after that. Months later, as survivors continue through the court process or victims compensation application, they often need support the most, but their counselling support has ended. Advocates say many people who need the money aren’t able to access it because they don’t know they are eligible, or they aren’t eligible because they didn’t report the crime within 72 hours or because officials find they contributed to the crime in some way.  

Martinez also understands the complicated ways that violence and trauma can weave through a family. He recalls counselling the relatives of a young man who had been shot to death by rival gang members. The family felt that abuse by the father had sent the son into the streets, where he sometimes acted violently. The tension at home became intolerable, and the mother withdrew emotionally. She lived in constant fear that her younger son would suffer the same fate. “It was a lot of pain to talk through,” Martinez said. “The younger son knew that his brother’s memory was being projected onto him, and he wasn’t sure what to do with that.”

That was nearly six years ago, and members of the family have come to the support groups during some periods, and stayed away during others. The son has indeed become involved in gangs and has been charged with gun possession. So the family understands both the fear that their child could perpetrate violence, and the concern that he could fall victim to it. Police solve only about half the city’s homicides — fewer last year — and families are left with no understanding of what happened, or who is to blame. But even when cases aren’t resolved, Martinez encourages people to think deeply about what might bring them peace. “We want the person to face justice, but what is justice? The person who did this, he could be my son. Now he is locked up, and his family is hurting just like mine is.”  

One key way to help families heal is getting the different people in a family to understand and support each other. It was in that spirit that Martinez had his teen group write the joint letter to their parents. 

Martinez couldn’t persuade any of the teens to read the letter aloud to the parents’ group, so he read it himself, as the parents cried. It took the parents several weeks to compose a letter in return: “I try to be strong, I try to make sure everybody’s okay, but I’m not okay and I don’t know when I’m going to be okay. I’m scared for what’s going to happen to you and I don’t know when I will not be scared of how you’re growing up and how you’re looking like your brother. But I want to work on not doing that.” 

“But I also hope that you grow up and remember your brother. We have to learn to live with the hole in our heart, but also we can’t forget him, and we can’t let his life be undervalued.”