My mother loved perfumes. For special occasions like church, she spritzed my sisters and me on the wrists and behind the ears. She ended up hiding her expensive bottles from us because we would sneak and spray ourselves so often.
The week my mother died, I told her I was sending her a Banana Republic perfume she loved. "Ooh, girl, I can’t wait to smell good," she said.
She died the next day.
I know God commands us to forgive, but there is no time stamp – forgiveness is a journey
Ethel Lance, my mother, was killed on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, along with my cousins Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, and six other people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It appears to have been a racially motivated massacre plotted by a 21-year-old white man.
The perfume was delivered on Thursday. She never got to use it.
A mere 48 hours after the church shooting, millions of Americans watched my sister, Nadine Collier, stand in front of our mother’s accused killer and forgive him at his bond hearing. The media ran with the forgiveness narrative, praising the ability of the victims’ families for their graciousness and faith.
I didn’t forgive Dylann Roof. And I still don’t forgive him.
The problem with the forgiveness narrative
After I saw my sister address the nation, I thought, This girl has to be crazy! Who’s going to forgive him so quickly? I was hurt that people thought Nadine’s views reflected the views of the Lance family and the thoughts of all of the Charleston nine’s loved ones.
Don’t get me wrong. I disagreed with Nadine, but I respected her opinion – she’s my sister, and she has a right to her own emotions and grieving process.
Still, after the shooting, there were several articles that exploited our different ways of grieving. They pitted us against each other in the midst of a horrific tragedy.
I understand that the people of Charleston, and of America as a whole, latched onto the overwhelming message of forgiveness as a coping mechanism.
But the focus on quick forgiveness and the pivot to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse washed away the severity of the larger issues at hand – that the accused killer, because of his hatred of black people, could be so stirred by white supremacist ideology that he would go into that church to kill my momma and all the others.
The man accused of killing my mother did not show any remorse. Why should I feel the need to forgive him when he has not asked for forgiveness? I know God commands us to forgive, but there is no time stamp – forgiveness is a journey that you allow yourself to feel because someone has wronged you.
The physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of grief
I don’t think I believe in the five-step process of grief. But if there are five stages of grief, I am still in the anger stage, almost a year after the shooting. There is no right way to grieve.
Part of my job as a chaplain is to reach out to people and be a confidant during times of loss. But when I lost my mom, I couldn’t find that strength I tried to put forth for church members.
There were many days when I didn’t want to get up out of the bed. I sat on the couch for days in the quiet with my television off – I didn’t want to be bothered with the news, a steady reminder of the shooting and its aftermath in the public eye.
Some days I didn’t even want to go to church. As soon as I left the sanctuary, I knew those feelings of anger and sadness were going to fly right back into my head. But I made myself get up on Sundays – I needed to be in the fellowship of other people.
Grief also takes a toll on your body. I have lost 35 pounds since last year. My stamina is not the same. My eating habits are not the same. My reading habits are not the same.
Why I’ve thrown myself into gun control advocacy
In the months since the shooting, I received a handwritten letter from Lucia McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was killed in 2012 from gun violence. Lucia sent her condolences and told me to reach out to her if I needed to. On a whim, I did. From there, I became involved with gun control advocacy, rallying for national gun control organizations.
I think advocacy chose me. God told me to get up — he had a plan for me. He said, "This is what you need to do." Traveling around the country, speaking to communities plagued by gun violence, and engaging with others who have lost loved ones to bullets gave me an opportunity to be busy and leave my home in Dallas.
I’ve had the opportunity to rally for reform on Capitol Hill, and I’ve been working on closing the "Charleston loophole" that gives gun sellers the leeway to sell weapons to customers even if their background checks are not completed in the allotted time.
Despite few successes in gun reform policy since Charleston, my hope is that people who feel the need to have a gun err on the side of being responsible and follow the regulations and background checks that each state requires.
But my hope wavers when I hear the frequent reports about other mass shootings. Forty-nine people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando on Saturday, in the latest massacre and the largest shooting in modern US history. I tried to stay away from news and social media.
When shootings occur you find yourself in a hyper-vigilant state. Sadness looms. You feel the same fear and horror for the victims’ families.
We are not safe. We must fight even harder for legislative action on guns. I want to survive and help somebody else along the way.
What taking down the Confederate flag meant to me
The conversation on guns in America took a back seat to calls for South Carolina legislators to take down the rebel flag, which flew high above the statehouse since 1961. The state put that flag up to honor the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, when the South seceded from the Union.
After it came to light that Roof sported that flag as a symbol of hatred for black people and other minorities, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill that ordered the removal of the flag in the weeks after my mother’s death.
I don’t believe in the death penalty, even for Roof. God is the only being who decides our fate.
That flag came down on July 10 — my birthday. I was at home in Dallas, watching the sight on TV from my living room. After 50 years, it took the deaths of nine people to realize the harmfulness of that symbol. I think the removal was a political gesture aimed at black people.
The removal said, Hey, we’ll give y’all something all of sudden because one of ours killed nine black folks. That symbol of heritage to some always meant hatred to some of us of color. People don’t understand that.
I don’t believe in the death penalty — not even for the man who killed my mother
Despite the anger I am still coping with from my mother’s death, I don’t believe in the death penalty, even for the man who killed her. That’s my conviction because of my faith. I’ve said the same thing all along – I don’t believe as human beings that we should take away someone’s life just because we have the power to do so.
God is the only person, the only being who decides our fate. Still, I will let the judicial system do what they choose. The Department of Justice announced last month that it will seek the death penalty against the shooter. Whatever the outcome, I will not protest.
This is how my faith carries me. I don’t walk in fear. I don’t think about Dylann Roof. All I want to do is do what God has planned out for me. If I can stop one person from experiencing the pain myself and my family and all the families experienced post-Charleston, then I have done my part.
–as told to Elisha Brown
Sharon Risher is a chaplain and grassroots advocate for Everytown and Moms Demand Gun Sense.