This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
That May weekend four years ago started like most: I hoped to see my son but needed to go to work. In fact, it was the Saturday before Mother’s Day, and he’d already called to say that he was driving down to see me for the occasion—he had something special for me, he said.
His voice was excited, which made me smile. I was happy that my 24-year-old child, with a daughter of his own, still made time for his mom.
But we didn’t get to see each other that Saturday evening, and I went to bed unsettled, unsure what our plans were for Mother’s Day.
I got the call in the middle of the night from the hospital. At first, I thought they were calling about my sister, who had been in the hospital recently. They weren’t. They were calling to tell me that my son had been shot. And by the time I got there, he was dead.
Rayshine, my light, my love, my son, had been shot many times while sitting in his car.
“On Mother’s Day?” I cried aloud, over and over again, in the hospital room. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that it was this day of all days. The hollowness in my heart was instant.
What do I do next? How do I go home? How do I go to work again? How do I keep living? I had to keep living, but as a mother, I knew that I would never be able to truly answer these questions again.
I was told that traffic and store cameras had captured some of the shooting, yet the police never had a suspect. The investigation was short and closed quickly. I had no closure of my own.
People have asked me about my experience with the criminal justice system, and all I tell them is that it was brief. I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t more effort made to find my son’s killer, and I still don’t know who killed him or why.
Unfortunately, in Camden, in 2013, my experience was common. Young black men were being murdered at an alarming rate in my community. The unemployment rate, too, was almost double the national average, and over 40 percent of the city was living under the poverty line. The police department was in shambles; months before my son’s death, the entire force was eliminated and replaced with one run by the county.
Like so many other people of color, my son is now a statistic, and so am I. The number of mothers in my community who have lost their children, particularly their sons, is simply staggering. We carry on, for the sake of our children and our grandchildren. But we live in permanent mourning.
Twice a month, some of us mothers who have lost their children meet at a local hospital. We sit together, we talk, and we share our stories and our pain. It is a horrific club. But we need each other.
When I recognize this pain in someone else’s eyes, I try to listen. I have learned that we desperately need someone to do this for us, to hear us, and to be available for us in our grief.
Mother’s Day is especially hard for me. I think of my son every day, but on Mother’s Day the pain is like that of a fresh wound.
I think that’s why helping other mothers is so important to me, and why every Mother’s Day, I take a group of them who have lost a child out for a meal. Last year, there were 10 of us; this year, we took out 30, as the numbers continue to increase.
The dinner was held in a private room at a local Camden restaurant, beautifully decorated with bright flowers and candies. The food—prime rib or crab cakes—was free, and a dance performance brought many to tears. The mothers were all dressed up, and each left with a gift bag.
So many mothers thanked me at the event, but all the work that went into it was not about me, it was about honoring the life of my son, Rayshine. It is about honoring the lives of all of the children that our community and others have lost too soon.
Their lives meant something and still mean something to all of us. And no matter how much time has passed since, we will always be their mothers.
Cheri Burks is a longtime resident of Camden, N.J. After her son’s death, she founded United Mothers Stand to help grieving mothers deal with the loss of a child. The organization partners with the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national network of crime survivors that advocates replacing prison spending with investments in community health, treatment, and prevention.