This March, Alexis Jackson worked tirelessly to make sure all the details of her oldest daughter’s Sweet 16 were perfect: a heart-shaped cake in Abe’bre’anna’s favorite color, purple; a glittering Eiffel Tower backdrop in the Paris theme; tables topped with shiny purple tablecloths; and a carefully combed-over guest list. But as the room erupted with the voices of the teenager’s closest friends and family singing “Happy Birthday” on March 16, one special person was missing — Abe’bre’anna. 

Two years ago, Abe’bre’anna, then 14, was fatally shot in the head as she was lying in bed, in her childhood bedroom. 

“I cried every day for hours when it first happened, it was uncontrollable,” said Jackson, “and I am just now getting to a place where I don’t cry every day. But those moments still happen all the time.” 

The events of that warm spring Sunday evening are etched in Abe’bre’anna’s mother’s memory. Jackson had been in the children’s upstairs bedroom of their Cleveland home, watching television as her three daughters sat down for their turn to have their hair done in an array of styles. As her middle daughter, Jo’rya, chose from an assortment of colorful barrettes and rubber bands, they heard the bullets — dozens — riddle their home. Jackson called out to all of her children and heard her youngest daughter yell that Ab’bre’anna had been shot in the head. Jackson rushed to her daughter’s side and screamed; she held her until the police arrived. 

As the immediate grief set in, Jackson recalls being inconsolable; it felt as if her heart was “ripped out of my chest.” She went to her godsister’s home the night of the shooting, where the family was gathering after they left the hospital. A woman in her late 60s arrived. She had almond skin, square glasses, and hair sprinkled with hints of gray. At the time, Jackson didn’t know Brenda Glass, the founding director of a namesake trauma recovery center in Cleveland. Since then, though, the once-stranger has consistently shown up to support Jackson, who credits Glass with saving her life. 

“A lot of the strength Miss Glass has, she put inside of me,” said Jackson, 33. She attributes much of her healing to the guidance and support provided by Glass and her recovery center, which serves as both a safe physical place and a constant emotional support to dozens of shooting victims like her.

For many Americans who lose a loved one to gun violence, or are experiencing trauma related to violence, accessing mental health care and support can be difficult. Research has found that the likelihood of psychiatric diagnoses increased by 52 percent following a shooting. Correlating research shows that marginalized communities, which are the most vulnerable to gun violence, do not have equitable access to mental health care resources. A 2022 survey by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national organization dedicated to public safety solutions for victims of violent crime, found that 96 percent of violent crime victims did not receive financial compensation and 74 percent did not receive counseling or mental health support. 

The Brenda Glass Trauma Recovery Center is part of a national network of 52 facilities, organized under The National Alliance of Trauma Recovery Centers, that provide holistic mental health services, like grief counseling, while addressing immediate needs, including financial assistance for housing following a violent crime.

“Oftentimes, it is not safe for them to go home because that is the site of where their trauma took place, or there is a present threat,” Glass said. “So we provide them initial housing, and work to place them somewhere more permanently.”

Aside from counseling and therapy, the Brenda Glass Multipurpose Trauma Center offers other services such as housing, home supplies, and education for children. Dustin Franz for The Trace

Jackson said the housing assistance was critical to her healing; she couldn’t bring herself to go back to the house where her daughter died. As she cycled through extreme grief, housing instability, and signs of depression, her engagement with the center helped her better understand her symptoms of trauma, and address them. 

But a year after her daughter was shot, just as Jackson was getting accustomed to her new normal, her 20-year-old cousin was gunned down in his car as he sat talking with his girlfriend. Demetrius Williams — she’d called him “Man-Man” — was more like a son to her, she said. He was a silly but earnest character in the family, always looking out for his younger cousins. Williams had been extremely close to Jackson’s only son, Jason, and the loss of Abe’bre’anna weighed on him; Jackson believes the shooters who killed her daughter had been looking for Man-Man, who was shot once in the neck and died shortly after arriving at the hospital.

“When my daughter died, he pulled away from me because he felt so much guilt,” Jackson recalled. “This is 105th and St. Clair — we heard who did it and why, and he was struggling so badly with her death, and I did not know how to help him.” 

Glass said Jackson’s grief was compounded as she navigated this period. Glass’s center uses psychotherapy, a one-on-one form of talk therapy with a licensed mental health care provider like her, in an effort to mitigate issues and learn ways to improve their overall well-being. Their sessions became less tense over time, and Jackson was able to reconcile with the pain of losing her daughter. 

“I had to let her know that it is OK to be angry and let that out,” Glass said. “I had to keep showing up for her, allowing her space to talk when she was ready, and let her know that I truly understand where she was coming from.”

Glass, herself a victim of childhood trauma, established the trauma center in 2018, after 15 years of doing support work for people at her church.

“I’ve been on both sides,” she said. “I am a victim of multiple forms of violence: sexual, domestic, and gun-related. That’s why the services that we offer encompass the things that I and others who experienced violence would need. For gun violence victims, there is usually never anyone there willing to support them resourcefully, so we make sure we are there for them.”

That commitment of support has been key to Jackson’s progress. She says that, though it’s been hard, the memories of who her daughter was have kept her going. She smiles as she remembers her, a seventh-grader at Franklin D. Roosevelt Academy on Cleveland’s East Side, who loved music and had dreams of growing up to become a dancer. 

“She just loved to dance, I mean, she would make Tik-Toks all day. She used to stress me out because her phone was always dead from her dancing, so she would always steal my charger,” said Jackson. “And she would always want us to join in the videos with her, and we would be like ‘a girl gone.’ I would do anything to be able to dance with her now.”

Abe’bre’anna Jackson was just 14-years-old when she was killed while lying in her bed on May 23, 2022, in Cleveland, Ohio. Dustin Franz for The Trace

Cleveland, affectionately referred to by residents as “The Land,” is nestled in the northeastern end of the state, on Lake Erie, and is the second-largest city in Ohio. Once a bustling industrial city with labor growth that skyrocketed during the Great Migration, its industry has retracted, along with jobs, and it now has a population of around 362,000. The decline coincided with the federal deregulation of guns, creating a fertile ground for violence. Cleveland saw a spike in gun homicides during the COVID-19 pandemic that resembled the high rates of the 1980s and 1990s, as did most cities during that period. In 2023, though, while there was an overall decrease in citywide violence from the year before, there was a record increase in youth violence.

Abe’bre’anna had been caught in the surge. Though her mother has found a way toward healing, Jackson believes the system is fundamentally broken.

“The police told me flat out that the victim — the person who was shot — is dead, and that we as her family are not the victims,” she said. “That is so untrue, because her pain is gone; ours has just started. Cleveland doesn’t have any programs like this coming directly from our city, that offer this kind of support, and that needs to change.”

To fill the gap, Jackson was inspired to create a community group, called Our Angels for Abe’bre, for young mothers and fathers who have lost children to gun violence and are navigating grief, day in and day out. The support group is still burgeoning, with 30 members currently.

“I wanted to create a group where young parents like myself could feel welcomed because, in some of the support groups I visited, there was not a lot of representation of younger parents who lost young children,” said Jackson, “and I also wanted it to be a space for fathers to feel welcome and receive support.”

Jackson explained that she didn’t want to be judged by law enforcement or criminal justice representatives for not living in the safest place and the possibility that her other family member could have been the intended target. “One of my main fears was being judged about the situation and the way it happened,” she said, recollecting the countless times she’d asked herself if it was her fault, or what she could have done differently. “But [Glass] encouraged me without judging me. That was everything to me.” 

Jackson and her family are still searching for closure as the shooting of her daughter remains unsolved. In her cousin’s shooting, U.S. Marshals made an arrest in early March. She is grateful for the progress being made in her cousin’s case; it is a sign of hope that her daughter will also get justice. The lack of progress in the case is down to the reluctance of fearful witnesses to come forward, she said: “Who will be there to protect them?” 

But Jackson keeps her faith. 

“I have peace knowing that my loved ones who are gone were so loved, I mean so loved, while they were here.”