What it’s like to lose a child to Chicago’s gun violence

It was Halloween night 2009, and Frankie Valencia’s world was at his fingertips.

He lived in a happy, financially secure home in Chicago’s relatively “safe” Lincoln Park neighborhood. He had just been nominated to intern at the White House.

Then gangbangers changed all that, crashing the party he and his friends were attending.

The night that Joy McCormack got the call she would never wish on any parent.

“The house was a multimillion-dollar home and everyone thought it was going to be safe,” McCormack says. “But the gangbangers came in with semi-automatic weapons and opened fire.”

From that point on, McCormack says life was never the same. And following the heartbreak of losing her son, she says one of the hardest things for her was in the aftermath.

“We were thrown into this devastating, chaotic experience, and we didn’t understand how this could have happened to our son,” she says. “And what was crazy to me was that there was no response. You literally are told your child was shot and killed, and that was it. We were turned out of the hospital, like, `That’s it, go home.'”

Pam Bosley felt similarly isolated when her son Terrell was killed outside the church where he played gospel music in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.

“He was doing all the right things,” she says. “School, church, no drugs or anything. The hardest part is not having him here. But the other part of it is I still don’t know what happened. His case is still unsolved.”

McCormack says no parent should have to navigate losing their child to gun violence alone.

“There were really no victim services in Chicago for families that have suffered a violent loss and where they did exist, it’s because there was a case that’d been solved and you’re in a court system,” she says. “But the reality is that 70 percent of cases never see a courtroom. So the majority of families who are forced into these experiences are dealing with it by themselves.”

That realization led McCormack to found the nonprofit Chicago Survivors in 2010 as a way to reach out to victims’ families and help them through the tragedy.

“The majority of homicides affect a person who is under 30, which means they are often survived by parents, siblings or children. And all of those family members are thrown into this new world of navigating their loss.”

McCormack saw that firsthand as her son Victor went through the trauma of his brother’s death.

“It’s completely changed the trajectory of Victor’s life,” she says.

McCormack says Victor lives with PTSD. He tried going away to college, but ended up back home.

“It was very difficult for him to be around and fit in with everyone else who have so-called normal lives. And because he’s Latino and his brother was murdered, there was a stereotype that followed him around that he was into things he had never even been exposed to.”

McCormack says the loss hit Victor especially hard.

“He was just about to cross a threshold where he was starting to have some responsibility, and now the person he relied on so heavily to be his male role model was gone,” she says. “So how do you fight for hope and believe people when they tell you that you can be anything you want to be and you can live the American dream if you just work hard enough when you see someone who was doing that and know that his life was taken?”

But McCormack says Victor’s story has a more positive ending than most in his situation.

“We are grateful we didn’t lose Victor. Many kids who have been through this self-medicate because they can’t deal with the pain and psychological impact. He didn’t. Instead, he now works with Latino youths and tries to make an impact on their lives.”

Bosley says she feels that perceptions play a huge role in how the cases are treated by police and media.

“People feel that all of the kids getting shot are in gangs or into drugs. They need to understand the perception is wrong, and that the majority of kids who are being shot in Chicago are innocent and are tragically caught in the crossfire.”

After her son’s death, Bosley made it her career to make the communities in Chicago safe for children. As the violence prevention manager at The ARK of Saint Sabina, she helps to provide a safe haven for Chicago children to learn, play and express themselves, as well as to conduct programs for youth outreach and community events.

“The goal is to bring youth together to bring awareness to the violence and to talk about solutions to the violence,” she says.

Frankie’s and Terrell’s families have made real change by helping so many Chicago families like them who have been victims to violent loss, but McCormack says the work is far from over.

“It’s shocking how many people don’t care about the gun problem. There’s a real consequence to not caring about this. I just want people to care about this before they have to,” she says.

Bosley agrees.

“I have hope,” she says about finding a solution to end the violence. “It’s not going to happen overnight, because this madness didn’t happen overnight. But I do believe it will happen.”

McCormack invests her hope in future generations, even if she has little for her own.

“My life is devastated. What I can say is that I’m willing to fight. It doesn’t have to be this way. This isn’t normal. It’s not just another weekend in Chicago. Our children dying this way is actually completely preventable.”

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