The new year is often seen as a time to start over. People write lists of resolutions and make plans to accomplish them. But for many Chicagoans who have lost loved ones to gun violence, these moments of celebration and the brutal winter that follows are overshadowed by the grief they feel when they see an empty seat at the table. 

Annette Johnson-Butler, a resident of Auburn Gresham, lost her 22-year-old son, Kewon Vilella, on October 9, 2016. He was shot in East Garfield Park. Seven years later, Johnson-Butler is still learning how to cope with the grief. 

Kewon was her “buddy,” she said. The two would ride everywhere together and take pictures with each other all the time. When they celebrated as a family, Johnson-Butler said, he would joke around, dance, and play games. The holidays are particularly difficult, she said, a reminder of all the moments they will never be able to share. “A piece of your heart is gone forever,” she said. “Thank you God for allowing me to see another year, but then, it’s another year without my son.” 

And then comes winter, a stretch of bitter cold and darkness, when most people stay indoors as much as they possibly can. Coupled with the societal expectation that survivors should just move on, this makes for an especially emotional time of year to cope with loss. And while summer block parties, picnics, and community events help people dealing with loss, winter, especially after the holidays, can make it feel like there’s less access to support. 

In 2023, Chicago had 557 gun deaths, according to Chicago Police Department data. Almost 18 percent of those killed were under the age of 19 and more than 30 percent were in their 20s. There were about 13 percent fewer fatal shootings compared to 2022, but those statistics don’t show the vast number of Chicagoans affected by each gun death, each one casting ripples of grief over their neighborhoods.

“I just wonder if people knew the impact that gun violence has on us, would it change anything?” Johnson-Butler asked. “Would it even matter? Do they even care?”

Coping with grief

The Trace spoke to several mothers in Chicago who have lost their children to gun violence. Their journey with grief, they said, is ongoing. Every moment is different — but some are harder than others.

Dr. Candi Cann, an associate professor of religion at Baylor University in Texas, has done extensive research on death, grief, and the many ways that people remember those they have lost. The idea that grief is processed in stages, she said, is a misconception. Instead, she points to a model created by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut that describes it as jumping back and forth between two feelings: overwhelming grief and the feeling that you’re doing OK. The switch, Johnson-Butler said, feels like going in and out of reality. Sometimes, she added, she can look at pictures and laugh at memories of her son. At other times, she longs for the chance to create new moments with him. 

“Grief is something you simply learn to live with as opposed to something you get over,” Cann said. That process can be further complicated in the case of a violent death, which involves other layers like racial bias, unexpected expenses, and bureaucratic hurdles. “It’s not just your individual experience, it’s your individual experience within a system that is deeply flawed,” Cann said. Many Chicagoans never find out who killed their loved ones and are left with more questions than answers.

Since each experience is unique, every person copes differently. Some throw themselves into work, others surround themselves with family, and some isolate themselves, unable to get back to their routines.

The loss of a child, Johnson-Butler said, is something no mother should ever have to endure. During the winter, she said she schedules more time in therapy and urges other survivors to also seek out help when they need it, despite it being more difficult to travel in the cold.

When she lost her son, she said she had the expectation that she would get better quickly and then realized that the best thing for her was to let go and give herself grace. “There’s going to be times that you’re not OK, and that’s OK,” Johnson-Butler said. 

It is unreasonable to expect people to get over a loss quickly, Cann said, but that expectation isn’t surprising because many American institutions have not ingrained the value of processing grief into cultural norms. Unlike other countries, she said, the U.S. does not have a federally mandated bereavement leave. “We end up hurrying people along in this process, and we have unreasonable expectations for them because we want them to be productive members of society and to go back to work.”

Remembering those who are gone

Year-round, grief is a constant battle, but the holiday season — and the isolating months that follow — punctuates the loss.

For over a decade, in a park behind Saint Sabina Catholic Church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, Purpose Over Pain, an organization that helps survivors of gun violence, has held an annual Christmas tree memorial. Community members adorn the tree with ornaments that display photos of loved ones who were fatally shot. Many feature children and young adults.

Purpose Over Pain’s Christmas tree is a memorial to victims of gun violence, created by the community. Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace

The event has grown over time. Adrienne Swanigan-Williams, a crime victims assistant at the organization, said that around 150 people registered for this December’s gathering. She said more mothers who have recently lost children reached out for help.

While Auburn Gresham experienced a 27 percent drop in gun violence in 2023 compared to 2022, the number of people fatally shot in the neighborhood of about 45,000 residents remains high at 21 victims. 

Swanigan-Williams has lost a child herself and relates closely to the people she helps. On January 21, 2017, her 21-year-old son, Tremayne Henderson, was shot by his friend in her Roseland home after an argument between the two. She said bringing people who understand each other’s loss together lets them know they are not alone and provides hope that they can live through the pain. 

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” she said. “I hate I had to meet you, but I’m glad I met you.”

Tremayne was the fourth of six kids. Swanigan-Williams said she misses the little things about their family gatherings. When her older children who had moved out would sleep over at her home during the holidays, Treymane would tease them, and they would all chase each other. For birthdays, Tremayne was often the one smashing slices of cake onto his young family members’ faces.

Now, Swanigan-Williams tries to do something positive every year to keep his memory alive. She has arranged dinners, peace marches, donations to unhoused folk, and often releases balloons or lanterns in his honor.

Cann said her favorite approach to grief involves inviting loved ones you’ve lost back into your lives. She said incorporating traditions that include them in your life can reaffirm a loving relationship through a new channel.

Sharita Galloway’s priority is making sure her son is never forgotten. Elijah Sims was two days away from turning 17 when he was shot while riding his bike in Austin. There was nothing doctors could do to save her child. He died the following day. She knew that area was unsafe, she said, but Elijah was simply hanging out with his best friend on his day off of work. Anybody, she said, could have been shot that day, on August 30, 2016.

For Galloway, Thanksgiving is the hardest celebration because Elijah loved her sweet-potato pies. She said Elijah would cut a pie in half, put it on a plate, eat it, then eat the rest straight from the pan. After his death, it was difficult baking the pies he loved so much, but she said every year has gotten easier.

Her youngest son was only 8 months old when Elijah was killed, but the way he talks about and expresses his love for Elijah today, Galloway said, it would seem like they grew up together. But the reality is that all of the memories he has of his brother are because of videos, photos, and stories shared with him. 

For survivors who have lost children in the winter, the snow on the ground and dangerous road conditions make it difficult or even impossible to visit and honor loved ones in the cemetery on the anniversary of their deaths. 

Swanigan-Williams said she will never forget the day she buried her son. It was below zero in late January and she was shaking from the freezing weather. Every year she is reminded of that moment, even when the unforgiving cold prevents her from visiting his grave. Still, she honors Tremayne’s life every year at home with a big family dinner, where she serves his favorite dish, macaroni and cheese, minus the hot sauce. That was his special quirk.