One by one or in little knots the women arrive, carrying photographs or funeral programs, and settle in chairs gathered in an arc around Marilyn Washington Harris, whose son Khadafy was killed more than eight years ago.

They come to the monthly support group formed by Harris to share their tears and anguish over the violent death of a son or daughter, husband or uncle; to be told it's OK to feel the way they feel, to cry, to talk.

But where are the men?

As more and more of Oakland's young men and women are killed, women are finding help and solace in sharing their grief with others. Men, on the other hand, have been told, taught, or shown by example from a young age it is a sign of weakness to cry or show emotion in public.

And that is a mistake, experts say. Bottling up those feelings won't lessen the pain, and it could contribute to destructive behaviors later. Men may not want to talk about how they feel as many women do, but they must find a healthy outlet for their pain and anger.

"They are trying to hold it in and I don't know if they know how to let it out," says Todd Walker, 47, a crisis outreach worker with the Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence who regularly meets with families and attends funerals to provide emotional support.

"At the funeral you might see a man wiping his eyes, but he doesn't cry. And if the older ones don't cry the younger ones are thinking it's not cool to cry, that they're a punk if they do," Walker says.


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"I tell them it's OK. If you put your arms around them, they will cry at the drop of a hat," he adds. "But they shield themselves from the grief and take it home with them. That's why there's all the retaliation out there. A lot of the murders right now are senseless."

No formula

There is no wrong or right way to grieve, and a response will sometimes vary depending on the circumstances, said Peter Ryan, an Oakland psychologist who runs a grief support group at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center. For example, there is a major differences between losing someone in an accident or disease and losing someone to violence, Ryan says.

"When you've lost someone to violence, (the survivors) have anger toward the person who committed the violence, and that really gets in the way of speaking of how they are hurting," he says. "They hurt in a different way. And it's often easier for people to cling to anger instead of get to the grief. "... They feel helpless, like nobody cares."

Ryan says Kaiser has established a support group specifically for people whose friends and family have been murdered. But in any support group, there are always more women than men. Men get praise from their peers for being strong, he said, and that is hard to overcome.

"Women can get to their emotions more easily than men can, so even when men come they don't usually break down," Ryan says. "They can get a lot out of the group, but they don't do it through talk. Women have learned how to talk to each other and they don't feel bad about that. Men are more inclined to hold back. "... They don't speak easily from their heart."

Brandon Turner, 25, is a testament to that statement.

Turner was 24 when his mother died of cancer. Nine months later, on March 5, 2008, his older brother William Turner was gunned down on a West Oakland street corner after coming to the aid of a woman who was being harassed.

Three months later, Brandon Turner's cousin Zaire Washington was killed. And now, he is dealing with the loss of another cousin, 18-year-old Charles Morrow, shot and killed last month. There have been no arrests in any of the cases.

Through each tragedy, Turner remained stoic, even while helping plan the funerals. Although young, he has always been the strong one in his large, extended family, and he will not cry in front of them. He appears outwardly calm, but inside he's a mass of anger and grief, and he lashes out at those who break down in his presence. He admits he lost several close friends who were nearby when he erupted.

"I was able to get up and get past the fact that my mom passed, but I've been knocked down since my brother was murdered," Turner says softly, stopping to swallow hard before continuing. "I could never fully understand what the word 'yearn' meant, but I yearn for my brother. I want to reach out and say something to him but I can't. I'm starting to forget my mother's voice but I can still hear my brother's voice. There are certain clothes that I won't throw away because they still have his scent, you know?

"Every time I say OK, I'm ready to accept the fact that my brother is gone and not coming back, I have to deal with another situation," Turner says.

About three weeks after his brother was killed, Turner's supervisors at the West Oakland Health Center, where he was an HIV-AIDS counselor, told him to take off time and get help. They knew him well, and it was obvious he was not himself.

Turner spent four months in therapy but it did not relieve his anger and misery. In fact, talking about it, he says, only made it worse. Because of that he has shunned attempts to join a support group, even though, logically, he knows it's supposed to help.

"I don't think the support group would be good for me," Turner says. "I don't want to hear their stories. I'm not being mean or anything, it's going to make me sad again. I have my own story and I'm trying to get past my story."

He's been working at Fuller Funerals, helping other families cope with their loss, even though he can't cope with his own.

Root of the problem

Many men differ from women by thinking that talking about feelings is a waste of time, and they would rather be doing something active, says Claudia Sieber, a marriage and family therapist in Oakland. Often, men think that sharing their innermost feelings is not masculine or cool. And they won't ask for help, figuring they have to come to grips with their emotions themselves, Sieber says.

Complicating matters is a cultural taboo against mental health counseling among the African-American and Asian-American cultures, Sieber says. Because of those factors, it's not unusual for Sieber to counsel people whose problems started many years earlier, although they never knew it.

"I see couples and families and individuals who come to me 20 years later and they've never really dealt with their loss," Sieber says. "They come in for other issues and discover that they never grieved, and sometimes they realize that was the root of other problems in their life."

That's what happened to Pastor Raymond Lankford, executive director of Healthy Oakland, and many members of his family. Lankford's favorite aunt, Brenda Wright, was killed in July 1980, as he was about to head to Oregon State University on a basketball scholarship.

The news hit him, his mother, his brother and the rest of the family hard. He was angry and there was nothing he could do about it.

While in college his attitude began to suffer. He got injured his second year, and he was offered cocaine. He left Oregon and earned a bachelor's degree in social science from UC Irvine. But he had cultivated a drug habit. By 1986, he had hit bottom.

"It was a result of the death," Lankford says. "I didn't know then but I know now that if I had had therapy I could have come to grips with what was happening in my life."

He did go through therapy, years later, and what he learned helped him when his 17-year-old nephew, Isaac Turner, was killed last August. He couldn't put his community outreach on hold, nor would he want to, even though a big part of his mission is comforting families during times of loss.

"I think the community helps me (cope)," Lankford says. "They call upon me, which I take as an honor. They need me to be strong and be focused and to tell them they'll make it. Even though those words may not resonate at the time, they resonate enough for them to move forward."

Kokomon Clottey, executive director of The Attitudinal Healing Connection in West Oakland, says suppressing emotions can make people ill. His organization works to help residents overcome trauma and conflict in less clinical ways; through art, frank discussion, healing circles and drumming.

"Men need to wake up to this wisdom: Emotions that are not expressed will not be released, so it does not leave the body and later on it turns into something else," Clottey says. "We keep building negative emotions and trauma, and more men die of heart attacks than women because women meet and talk about their disappointment but men don't. It's a big problem. "... We are killing ourselves as men."

Jesse Harris remembers the days after his stepson Khadafy Washington was found dead on the McClymonds High School campus. Harris was hurting inside, but thought he had to be strong for his wife and stepdaughter.

"I had to be there for them. I had to go to work, and I let them see I wasn't breaking down," he says. "But in my own little way I'd stop and think about things, take some time for myself, go sit somewhere or go upstairs and be by myself."

Harris started going along with his wife when she formed her grief group. Early on a few men showed up and he reached out to them.

"I told them, 'You lost your son. I lost my son. If you need to talk about it, call me,' and I gave them my phone number," Harris says.

Grief, but no tears

Pastor Jasper Lowery sees the young men who gather around the street shrines that are pieced together when their friends are killed. They leave short, clipped messages, and wear T-shirts with the image of the dead person. The men stand around and drink, but their emotions are bottled up.

"They are self-medicating to mask the hurt and the grief, so they don't really get over it," Lowery says. "So much grief and anger builds up, there's no way to release it.

"There probably hasn't been any counseling along the way, so the anger stays until that one particular thing happens, and in this city, there is always something. Maybe somebody just cuts you off in the car, or looks at you crazy, and Lord knows, if you got a gun."

Sieber agrees it's a major problem. She worked at a group home in Oakland for adolescent males and saw their pain and the consequences of not being able to express it.

"The young men put up a shield and, of course, their families are not able to help them," she says. "They minimize the loss all the time, act like it's no big deal. "... And the more loss somebody has experienced, the more callous somebody becomes just to survive."

Walker visited Calvin Simmons Middle School in Oakland last month to talk to eighth-graders about loss and trauma, and the way those things affect their lives. He was shaken by what he heard. One youngster had been to 15 funerals, another had been to seven, and another had been to five.

The students said they didn't remember seeing any of their brothers cry. Walker says adults have to show youths how much death affects them, rather than holding it in.

He doesn't know why it happened, but after years of holding his tears in check, Brandon Turner curled into a ball and wept during his cousin's funeral this month, the rage and grief he had held tight inside for more than a year finally spilled out, despite all his efforts.

"It surprised me," he says quietly a week later. "That was totally out of the norm for me, but it was an extremely difficult time. I think it was more so all the pain (of everything) hit me all at once."

Reach Cecily Burt at 510-208-6441 or cburt@bayareanewsgroup.com. Check out her blog at www.ibabuzz.com/westside.

Support
  • Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence grief support group meets at 6:30 p.m. the last Thursday of the month, Oakland City Hall, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza. www.khadafyfoundation.org or 510 839-1706.
  • The Attitudinal Healing Connection sponsors a Loss and Grief Support Circle at 7-9 p.m. every Thursday, 3278 West St., Oakland. www.ahc-oakland.org, or 510-652-5530.

    Brandon Turner, above and top, grieves for his cousin Charles Morrow during funeral services May 9
    in Oakland. Turner also lost his brother William Turner and cousin Zaire Washington to gun violence.