Tracey Brumfield lost her son, Keshawn Slaughter, to gun violence seven years ago. To keep him present through their grief, her family has turned to a life-size cardboard cutout of the 26-year-old.

The cutout is a tool that families across Chicago have embraced. While a few mothers hug them every day, waving as they pass by or proudly displaying them, many interact with them mostly during events, including memorial services, gatherings, and holidays. Often, family members take photos with them. Their physical presence takes up space, allowing families to include them in the new memories they make.

A life-size cutout of Keshawn Slaughter, who was 26 when he was shot and killed on his way home from a carnival with his stepson. Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace

The threat of gun violence has only grown for Chicago’s children and young adults. The number of homicides by gun for those under 30 increased by almost 16 percent between 2013 and 2023. Mothers are forced to navigate a city where many kids have been recklessly killed. Some don’t know how to best protect their children and struggle with the reality that in many cases, they’re unlikely to ever know who shot and killed their loved ones.

Losing a child to gun violence, Chicago mothers said, is sudden and unexpected; having their loved ones ripped from their lives leaves an overwhelming sense of loss. Through these cutouts, mothers are able to reclaim their children in a way that provides a reminder of their child’s personality and mannerisms. While it’s hard to say how the tradition started in Chicago, some mothers learned about memorial cutouts through funeral homes, Facebook posts, and friends. Ahead of Mother’s Day, The Trace spent time with five mothers and spoke to them about how these physical objects of remembrance help them continuously reaffirm their love for their children.

Adrienne Swanigan-Williams displays a locket of her son Tremayne.

Tremayne Henderson, 21, was a jokester who could often be found holding his nephews and nieces, who called him “Uncle Mayne.” He was the only grown child still living at home, his mother, Adrienne Swanigan-Williams, said. Her children told her that she babied him too much. But they had a special bond, and she admitted that she was resistant to letting him grow up. While she felt regretful that he wasn’t able to venture out on his own, she now sees it as a blessing in disguise that gave them more time together. On Jan. 21, 2017, Tremayne was shot and killed by his childhood friend after an argument at Swanigan-Williams’ Roseland home.

“I felt guilty of losing my child in my house when a mother is supposed to protect a child,” Swanigan-Williams said. “A mother is not supposed to bury her child.”

Swanigan-Williams and her son, Tremayne Henderson, 21. Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace

But she knows that she was a wonderful mom and he was a wonderful child, she said, and feels comforted when she’s able to include a life-size cutout of Tremayne at family events and assure everyone that he is still part of the family.

She likes to help other mothers in similar situations by reminding them that they are not alone. “No matter what, you are still a mother,” she tells them. “That child is still in your mind and that child is still in your heart.”

A life-size cutout of Rishawn Hendricks, 16. Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace

Rishawn Hendricks, 16, was a quiet kid who loved to play football and basketball. He kept out of trouble, his mother, Jaree Noel, said, and now she misses the everyday duties of being his mother, like allowing him to go out with his friends or watching his games. On Oct. 22, 2022, Rishawn was shot and killed at a playground a block away from his home in North Lawndale. 

At first, Noel said, she, too, felt like it was her fault he died — she had given him permission to play outside. She’s since realized that no one has control of when their children die. “I don’t think it will ever be safe,” Noel said. The danger, she said, comes from parents unable to be present in their children’s lives as well as kids’ recklessness. She misses her son greatly, but also feels relief that she doesn’t have to be worried about him every day. He deserved to be a kid, she said, but at least now he doesn’t have to constantly look over his shoulder.

Jaree Noel and her son Rishawn Hendricks, 16. Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace

She continues to honor his memory with cutouts. She celebrates milestones as if he were still here. Noel plans to have a graduation party for Rishawn this June, where she will display a new cutout of him; in this one, he’s wearing his school basketball uniform.

Matthew Rodgers Jr., 24, had such a strong presence that to this day, almost eight years after his death, the people who loved him keep him around through multiple cutouts. His mother, Celeste Campbell, brings one of her five displays out all the time to feel his company; his friends do, too. They couldn’t let Matthew miss a recent birthday celebration so they ordered one to be shipped all the way to Miami. For some people, Campbell said, the cutouts are a constant reminder of their child being gone. For her family and his friends, they are a celebration of his life. 

Celeste Campbell and her son, Matthew Rodgers Jr., 24. Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace

Matthew was a rapper known as “Young Affishal.” As his fandom grew, he never left his friends behind, including them in music videos and teaching them how to rap and produce music. Matthew lived his life to the fullest, bringing his charismatic energy to every room he entered. On Nov. 20, 2016, he was shot and killed after a performance in Wicker Park.

That moment changed Campbell’s perception of motherhood. Now she feels overprotective of the rest of her children and grandchildren. “Sometimes they say I do a little too much,” she said. “But what do you expect me to do?” Her family now constantly checks in with each other and uses Life360, a location-sharing app.

Campbell feels that people are not paying enough attention to what’s happening in their neighborhoods. “We have to take back over our communities,” she said, and rebuild through block parties, youth programming, and checking in with neighbors.

Keshawn Slaughter, 26, was a family man. He was a father of seven children and a father figure to many of his nephews and nieces who needed one. Especially the boys. Tracey Brumfield said her son would take them under his wing. 

Tracey Brumfield and her son, Keshawn Slaughter, 26. Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace

On April 10, 2017, Keshawn was violently ripped away from his family. He recognized a group of young men on his way home from a carnival with his 11-year-old stepson and called his fiance to tell her. Despite trying to avoid them, Keshawn got into a tussle with them; he begged them not to shoot his son. They did it anyway, striking him in the stomach. Keshawn, too, was shot in the shoulder. He broke free but fell and was shot twice in the head. His son survived.

“My family is broke to me,” Brumfield said. “My son is missing.” Now, it’s hard for her to look at his children, who look identical to him, and see them act out because their dad is gone.

Although they can no longer spend time together like they used to, they honor him and celebrate the rest of the family in an appreciation picnic day every year where they include a cutout and take pictures with it. “My son, he meant everything to me,” Brumfield said. While it brings some comfort, she added, it’s sad they have to do this to feel like he’s still there.

In his short life, Michael Octavius Bell, 36, and his mother, Zenobia Carmel, worked to bring awareness to the gun violence that plagued their neighborhood. After losing loved ones to shootings, they attended vigils, marches, and picnics together.

The two talked about everything. Beyond these somber moments of activism, they liked to have fun, cracking jokes and playing roulette, a game Michael taught his mother. Eleven years ago, he surprised her with a fully furnished home in Dolton, a southern Cook County suburb, where she lives today. 

Zenobia Carmel and her son, Michael Octavius Bell, 36. Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace

He was an entrepreneur who ran his own real estate company, roofing company, and lawn mowing service. His goal was to buy land where his family could all live together. On May 25, 2018, Michael went to pick up his friend in his former neighborhood of Brainerd, also known as Washington Heights. Two young boys shot them from across the street, striking Michael fatally in the chest and one of his friends in his leg and arm. 

“It was always me and him doing stuff for our family and keeping everyone together,” Carmel said. “Now it’s not like that anymore.” Now she only has the life-size cutout of him; she included herself in it, to memorialize their closeness.

Carmel was distraught but determined to continue bringing awareness to the gun violence that claimed her only son. For five summers, she marched every Friday with St. Sabina Church’s Pastor Michael Pfleger to inspire people to put down their guns. A photo of Michael printed on a canvas joined them. Carmel hoped sharing his likeness would make it harder for passersby to look away. Every year, she holds a picnic in memory of her son in the park where he was killed.

She has done her part in trying to bring awareness to the problem, Carmel said, but she’s tired. She feels that nothing has changed.