In memoriam of the 61 people who have lost their lives to violence on the island since 2001, Antonio Belvedere and Dr. Gina Spence hosted a virtual vigil on Wednesday, April 28. The event was held via Facebook Live and started at 8 p.m.
After a brief introduction and opening prayer led by Dr. Spence, her daughter Greashena shared her story and how she overcame unimaginable grief to become a stronger person.
Ms. Spence lost not one, but two people close to her due to gun violence within days of each other. After her husband James Lawes was shot and killed in 2010, the very sound and mention of guns made her sick to her stomach for quite some time.
“ My nerves were shot; I had to go to the bathroom every time that I heard a gunshot or every time I heard about someone being shot,” she said.
Ms. Spence’s son was only seven years old when her husband was killed. Even though he was not her son’s biological father, the two shared a very special and close bond. When he was shot, the family had to pick themselves up and start over again.
“It was very difficult for my son to start all over again, from having someone around that was tied into everything that he loved and enjoyed doing to not having that support there anymore,” she said.
Despite almost giving up and being on the brink of suicide after her husband’s death, she now reaches out to other families who have lost loved ones due to gun violence and helps them through the Champions Program.
“I made a decision to not be a victim and to carry out my husband’s legacy; rather than to remain in the anger and bitterness of his actual death,” she said. “It’s not your loved ones fault that they are gone, so how would they feel about you not progressing in any aspect of your life?”
There is no set time for grieving and every family is different. It took Ms. Spence four years to even start to move on with her life and stop living in grief.
One thing that helped Ms. Spence cope during that incredibly dark time the grace and comfort of God. When she was given her husband’s belongings after he passed away, everything was covered in blood except for the small Bible in his back pocket.
“I know who I truly am now, because God loved me enough to pull me through the depths of the hells that I was sinking into,” she said.
Dee-ah Iris, who lost her son Steven to gun violence back in 2013, also called in during the vigil and shared her story.
When she saw her son in the hospital after the shooting, she never thought that day would mark the end of his life.
“Seeing my son attached to all of those tubes and blood being pumped into his body, I would have done everything that I could to take his place and change fate,” Ms. Iris said.
Burying her son completely changed every aspect of her life and character.
“[After the burial], I went from a happy, go-lucky person to this dark, depressing person; because it hurt to live and even breathe for a very long time,” she said. “I had not realized how far from the beaten path I had gone, but it was all done to cope with my enormous grief.”
Ms. Iris recently went to the grief coping course that is offered by Dr. Spence, which greatly helped her during her journey.
“[Partly thanks to this course], I can grab hold of the tool to be able to take my healing to another level,” she said.
Similar to Ms. Spence, Ms. Iris took her great sense of grief and eventually turned it into something positive by going back to school and earning her teacher’s certification with a Mathematics concentration.
“ I found that working the nine-to-five job in finance/accounting did not bring me as much joy as helping youngsters grow, learn math, embrace life and build their character,” she said. “When the opportunity came for me to join the board of the Champions’ program, I said ‘sign me up’ right away.”
She encourages the public to support the Champions program and Gina Spence Productions as a whole, particularly for the children of gun violence victims.
“The children are the ones who do not have a voice and are wondering why their family members are not coming out of their room; let’s make [talking about gun violence] not be so taboo,” she said.
Going forward, Mr. Belvedere and Dr. Spence plan to have this type of vigil at least once every month, where they will continue to hear from more family members and loved ones of violence victims.
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