A funeral in Ferguson
Two weeks after the killing of Michael Brown, we have become painfully familiar with his parents through their public appearances and television interviews, their faces drawn, their sorrow apparent.
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, constantly dabbing tears from her face, sparing in her responses, but powerfully articulating her agony with the words she chooses. Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., with shaved head and full beard, a large man often clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “No Justice, No Peace” and a baby picture of his son. The senior Brown is stoic, resolute in his speech, but even in the power of his presence there is the certainness that a hollow space has been made.
On Monday, they were scheduled to bury their boy as the whole world watches.
No one should know what that feels like.
Whatever one may feel about the contours of this case — about what led Officer Darren Wilson to shoot the teenager, about the relationship of the police to people of color, about the protests and unrest that followed, about the militarized police response to the unrest, about the quality of the investigations and the level of confidence people have in them, about the perverse sense of theater emerging from the rhythms of the days under the glare of media lights — we can all, in our shared humanity, feel for parents who lose a child.
As a parent myself, I can’t fathom the ache and inextinguishable anguish that must accompany such a loss.
Losing any loved one is painful, but losing a child — particularly in such a violent way and particularly a young child — must be exceedingly painful. It also upsets the order of things. Children should outlive you. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, the way the world and life would have it. But, in a moment, the world stops making sense.
I don’t think anyone can be properly prepared to deal with the news of such a thing. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday, the mother recounted, with tears streaming down her face, the feeling of getting the call that her son had been shot, before getting to the scene:
“Before even getting there, somebody call you on the phone and tell you something like that, and you miles away. It’s terrible.”
The father recounted the excruciating wait once he and the mother arrived on the scene and how upsetting it all was:
“We couldn’t even see him. They wouldn’t even let us go see him. They just left him out there, four and a half hours, with no answers. Wouldn’t nobody tell us nothing.”
It’s hard to imagine a more painful scenario and the grief it must carry.
And that grief can last for a very long time.
A 2008 study published in The Journal of Family Psychology found that, understandably, the death of a child can have “long-term effects on the lives of parents,” including “more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and more health problems.” Even that, to me, feels like an understatement. I am always in awe at the strength displayed by parents who lose a child and are immediately thrust into the public eye because their children cease to simply be children but graduate into being a cause.
Yet, too many people have had to endure a similar grief, if often under different circumstances. According to ChildDeathReview.org, in 2010, 45,068 children ages 0 to 19 died in the United States. Two-thirds died of natural causes. Another 8,684 died of unintentional injuries like car accidents and drowning. But 2,808 died as result of homicide, including 1,790 by firearm.
And when the person doing the shooting is shot not by one of the bad guys (people all parents teach children to avoid as best they can) but by one of the people we as a society count as one of the good guys (police officers sworn to protect and serve), there are obviously going to be questions that need answering.
Whenever I see parents like these, standing and speaking in the wake of tragedy, I find myself studying their faces, imagining — hoping, really — that if I were them, I, too, would be this strong, that I, too, would fight on my child’s behalf, for justice and against the besmirchment of his or her memory. But something in me whispers that it’s a lie, that I would be overcome and inconsolable, that so much of me would die with my child that not enough of me would be left to carry on.
So the least I think all of us can do, in consoling solidarity, is to join them in paying our last respects.
Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.