Deonna Perry’s sunny living room in Aberdeen brims with stuffed animals left over from funeral bouquets, sequined pillows bearing her son’s face and artwork of the young man flanked by white angel wings. To the mother, the room feels empty.
Perry recently buried her firstborn, Donnell Brockington Jr., after the 21-year-old was killed Nov. 13 in Baltimore, but she’s still unsure what life will look like without him. She sleeps each evening curled in her son’s bed, just a few feet from the brown bath towel he left draped over a door and a shelf full of jeans neatly rolled like she taught him.
Faced with spending her first Thanksgiving without Brockington, Perry packed her car full of turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese and drove into the city to hand out hot meals with friends and family on the spot where her son was shot. Baltimore police have charged four men with his killing.
But after the vigil candles flickered out, it was often the families who continued tending to victims’ memories — in the form of social media hashtags, colorful obituaries, tattooed tributes, acts of service and community cookouts.
And an even larger group of shooting victims and their families processed their own distinctive experience with grief after surviving the gunfire.
Weeks after Brockington’s death, Perry was adamant in her mission to help rectify Baltimore’s homicide rate.
The mother of four had moved her family to Harford County in hopes of avoiding the tumultuous childhood she had in East Baltimore. Brockington often promised Perry she’d never know the feeling of losing a child, so she never worried when he visited the city to hang out with friends.
His death came as a horrific shock, several family members said. Perry believes her son was killed after he attempted to mediate a disagreement between two groups.
“I’m getting out on these streets," Perry said. “These kids need hugs. They need love.”
Perry handed out more than a dozen plates of Thanksgiving meals that holiday afternoon, mostly to young men who wandered over from neighboring blocks. A few snapped selfies with the framed artwork of Brockington and angel wings she propped near the table of food. Some told Perry they knew Brockington and that he was a good man.
“I just want people to know about my son,” Perry said. “He was going to be someone. I’ll make sure of that before I die.”
A silent grief
Some families have turned to quiet corners of the internet to immortalize fond memories.
The family of 23-year-old Terrance Featherstone fondly described in his online obituary the way he rubbed his belly when he stood up and announced “Imma go and take a shower” or “Imma get ready to get something to eat." He was a quiet young man, they wrote, who never quite lost his baby face.
Several weeks before his death, Featherstone had announced to family members that he was giving up dealing marijuana.
“He wasn’t perfect, but he was loved and he loved in return,” the obituary states.
Featherstone was gunned down Sept. 5 in front of his mother’s home in the 600 block of Arsan Ave.
The brick facade of Angela Featherstone’s Brooklyn rowhome is still pocked from the gunfire, and bullet holes perforate the front door and window. She’s holding on to a piece of drywall stained with her son’s blood — unsure what to do with it, but unable to throw it away.
Angela has been meaning to call a contractor to make the needed repairs to the home, as well as an exterminator to address an overwhelming cockroach infestation. The list of tasks has grown long and overwhelming.
But the grieving mother is not doing well these days, she said. Less than a year ago, her daughter Brandi Featherstone was also killed in Baltimore. Angela is attending grief counseling, but has not yet told certain family members nor her best friend that her son has died.
“I don’t want to spoil her holidays,” Angela said.
Maybe she’ll use that piece of drywall to make some art, or a table, she said. But lately she finds herself sitting in her living room in silence.
“I don’t want to go to any more funerals," she said. “I want to go to my grandchildren’s graduations.”
A family decimated by violence
As the youngest of the nine siblings, Sarah “Sherria” Randall has always organized the reunions for her close-knit family. And on Halloweens, she cleared out the garage of her Owings Mills home to create a spooky “haunted house” for her many nieces and nephews.
Now, she plans their funerals.
“It’s something you don’t want to be good at,” Randall said.
She raised money for the services for one of her brother’s sons, Kareem Randall, after he was killed in West Baltimore on the day before his 28th birthday in April 2011. Another of her nephews, Ivy Hayes Randall III, disappeared at age 18. He is assumed dead.
After her brother’s eldest son, Kenya Randall, was killed in a hit-and-run by an SUV while working as a valet in East St. Louis in September 2018, his Aunt Sherria arranged to have the 39-year-old’s body flown home for a funeral and burial.
At the same time, she got a call that threatened to break her spirit.
Antoni Randall, her brother’s last remaining son, had been shot in the face in Baltimore.
She couldn’t face the thought of burying “Donte” — whom she remembered as a quiet father of two who loved to work out and play with the kids in the family ― alongside his brother.
“I cannot go through a double funeral,” Sherria recalled thinking. “I just cannot do it.”
With a breathing tube down his throat, the 33-year-old survived. Concerned for his safety, his aunt moved him out of his sister’s house on Biddle Street in East Baltimore and into an extended-stay hotel near BWI Marshall Airport for a few months. She stocked the fridge with food and took care of his bills and paperwork.
And she urged her nephew, not for the first time, to get out of the drug trade and the Baltimore neighborhoods mired in it.
Antoni Randall had been locked up several times, including on drug dealing and gun possession charges, according to court records. Each time, Aunt Sherria would send some commissary money. But she said she always refused to bail him out, hoping he would learn a lesson.
“Next thing you know,” she said, “he was back down at his sister’s on Biddle Street.”
About 2:20 a.m. on Sept. 27 police found him shot to death on the steps of a home near East Biddle and North Caroline streets. A gel capsule containing an unknown substance lay among the bullet casings, according to a police report.
He hadn’t been carrying an ID, so he was listed as a “John Doe,” and it took a week for his family to get his body from the medical examiner’s office, his aunt said.
Sherria, who has a son, a daughter and three grandsons of her own, had narrowly avoided the dreaded double funeral. But one year and five days later, she watched as her brother’s last son was lowered into the ground.
Sherria keeps her nephews’ funeral pamphlets and death documents in a white, zippered pouch she received from a funeral home. Bins of Antoni’s clothes and boots are the only things that now haunt her garage. She has his jeans and denim jackets neatly folded, “like he’s going to come get them.” His girlfriend is pregnant with a child who will never meet him, she said.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” she said. “All of my brother’s sons are dead.”
‘My son saved me’
Tiffany Brogden’s first son, Da’yon Thomas, wasn’t a nobody, she insists.
He was the boy who made her heart burst with pride every time someone told her they looked like twins. He was the loyal young man who had helped lug a friend’s belongings five miles to an uncle’s house after the friend’s parents had kicked him out. He was the devoted boyfriend who visited his girlfriend daily in the hospital before she died from asthma two years ago.
And he changed Brogden’s life when he was born 10 days before her 18th birthday. She had been dealing with a deep depression for years. Caring for a child of her own was a challenge that brought the teenage mother a joy she had never known.
“My son saved me,” Brogden said. “That’s why I am still here on this Earth today.”
In August, six months after his 21st birthday, Thomas was chased down and killed in a shooting in Northwest Baltimore “like he wasn’t nobody,” she said, choking up.
“I loved my son. His siblings loved my son. His stepfather loved my son,” Brogden said. “There was a lot of people that loved my son. He would go out of his way and help you as much as he can.”
In 2017, Brogden had relocated her younger three children to South Carolina to get them away from the rampant violence in Baltimore, she said.
Thomas stayed. Then 19, he refused to leave his girlfriend’s side, his mother said.
Police detectives have shared few details about the investigation into Thomas’s death, Brogden said. But his mother said she keeps calling to check for updates. She can’t stand to let the son who gave her a reason for living become another statistic, another cold-case file in a drawer. Police have not made any arrests in the case.
Brogden is urging city leaders to recognize a desperate need for more resources and opportunities for the children growing up in Baltimore’s underprivileged neighborhoods.
Two month after Thomas’ death, she said, his best friend was killed in Baltimore.
While over 300 people have been killed in Baltimore this year, a staggering 730-some more have been shot but survived. And those shootings — particularly those that have injured young children — have also left families grappling with grief.
Marvin Walker’s 18-year-old daughter, Markiyah Walker, and 2-year-old grandson, Chase Meade, were walking to get crabs on a Friday evening in May when they were shot outside a South Baltimore corner store. Five people were injured in the shooting, including another child, age 1.
Police officers performed CPR on Chase at the scene, and rushed him to the hospital before the ambulance arrived.
The shooting is something that his “grandbaby will have to deal with the rest of his life," Walker said.
Since the shooting, Walker’s grandson has had “multiple surgeries," including to have his kidneys removed, and was in the hospital as recently as late November. As his young grandson has been healing for a little over half a year, dealing with the circumstances of the child’s shooting has been difficult for Walker’s family.
“I have to deal with the fact that my grandbaby was picked up off of the ground bloody with a hole in his gut at 2 years old," he said. “That is something that no one should have to deal with and the only reason I am able to deal with it is God himself.”
But Walker said he has no animosity toward the person who did this to his daughter and grandchild.
He pledged to move his family out of the city after the shooting, but now says he doesn’t yet believe that is a realistic option. And despite the difficulties plaguing the area — he called the city “Satan’s playground” in the days after the shooting — he now sees bright spots of hope in Baltimore.
“I don’t want people to get the wrong idea that this city is so dangerous that people can’t walk up and down the street without fearing for their lives,” Walker said.
“There are certain parts of Baltimore where we don’t have these fears and worries.”