Mothers discuss life after losing their sons to gun violence

A new short documentary called “The Path Forward” shares a conversation among four mothers who lost sons to gun violence in Philadelphia, sharing intimate experiences from first getting the news to learning how to survive.

This is the second production made possible with support from the Credible Messenger Reporting Project and debuts in a time when gun violence has been rising steeply in the city for the second year in a row.

The conversation is moderated by Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder and national executive director of Mothers in Charge, a nonprofit violence prevention organization based in Philadelphia. Her 24-year-old son Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson was shot and killed following a parking space dispute in 2001.

Three members of Mothers in Charge took part in the conversation, including Aleida Garcia, Vernetta Santiful and Ruth Donnelly. The women began by discussing the early stages of their grief, beginning with how they learned their sons had been killed.

Garcia got a phone call from her daughter that saying that her 34-year-old son Alejandro Rojas Garcia had been killed. She said she “fell straight down and started screaming.” Santiful heard a news report about a man getting shot but only learned later that it was her 19-year-old son Solomon Maurice Montgomery.

Like Garcia, Johnson-Speight received a phone call; it was 2 a.m. and Khaaliq was in the hospital. Donnelly was out of town when she received a phone call that her 19-year-old Justin Donnelly had been shot.

The mothers discussed trauma symptoms that emerged from the earliest stages of their grief. Garcia remembered how she sometimes found herself compulsively shuffling through her bag. “I would forget everything,” Johnson-Speight said.

The mothers also discussed feeling denial and sometimes guilt and remembered moments when they did not feels as if they could carry on.

“I remember laying in bed and just not wanting to get up,” said Santiful. Garcia said she wanted to give up too but that anger motivated her to keep going: “I said the devil already took enough. He’s not taking any more.”

Mothers in Charge proved to be a helpful resource for these women. “I went to a meeting and talked and found out there are so many other mothers in the same situation we are in,” Donnelly said. Santiful found that the support and early counseling from the organization helped her move beyond living in a state of denial.

Through talking about their sons, visiting their graves and looking through photo albums, the women have continue to remember and honor their sons.

“He was a very fun person,” said Garcia. “He was always very social and outgoing ever since he was a child.”

Santiful said that if she could learn anything from her son’s life, it was how to forgive and be forgiven. Years later now, the women still grieve but also agree that the pain has brought resiliency.

“We will always be challenged to live with that pain,” said Johnson-Speight. “Everyday is challenging but we get better. We might fall off but we get back on it.”

The Credible Messenger Reporting Project is organized by the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting and pairs community reporters with extensive personal experience and advanced professional journalists to report on gun violence from the community perspective — from root causes to lived experience and possible solutions.

Dr. Johnson-Speight led this project and conducted the interview session as the team’s community journalist or “Credible Messenger” while longtime Philadelphia television reporter and anchor Denise James served as the project’s professional partner. James later served as the Philadelphia Police communications director and is now a media coach and executive producer at Denise James Media.