How to Handle Your Baby Brother's Homicide: A Brief Guide
creative nonfiction by Shauna Jones

Day 1 (Friday)

A. Prepare to settle in for the weekend. No makeup. No leaving the house until work on Monday morning. No risk assessments, no talking someone down from a crisis, no stress.
B. See your oldest younger brother’s number pop up on your phone. Ignore it since you've snuggled down on the couch with your cat for a Friday afternoon nap.
C. Ninety minutes later, answer when your mom calls. You struggle to make out her words. Get bossy. Tell her to breathe and talk slowly. “Jamie’s been shot in the head. Everyone is at the hospital except me. I’m with the baby.” The baby is your six-year-old nephew. Tell her you’re on your way. Hang up. Grab your travel bag. Text your son, your ex, your coworkers.
D. Encounter heavy downpour on the 120-mile drive, causing you to slow down, but still drive 90 miles per hour in the dry stretches.
E. Talk with Keisha, your sister-in-law, about halfway there. She can only get out a few words. Tell her to say it again. Hear her wail. Wait as she passes the phone to the trauma surgeon who tells you that due to the trajectory of the bullet, your baby brother has little to no chance of survival. Thank him for the info. Hang up. Curse the downpour. Curse the tears blurring your vision. Breathe.
F. Arrive at the hospital. Take a mask and visitor pass from security. Walk to STICU (surgical trauma intensive care unit).
G. Walk in on your sister-in-law bent over your baby brother on the left side, your other brother weeping on the right side.
H. Look at the scene. Decide no one should see their sibling like this. Breathe. Assume your duties as big sister.

Day 2 (Saturday)

“A Death Has Occurred”

That’s one of the two selections on our chosen crematorium’s website. The other? “Planning Ahead.” We don't have that option. 

My brother died by homicide.

That last sentence is new to my brain. I silently mouth it over and over, listening to its horrific and captivating rhythm. If I used it in the poetry unit of an Intro to Creative Writing class, I’d ask students where to place the accent marks.

The night before, my sister-in-law and I decided that my brother’s organs and tissues would donate life to others, and we worked on the process with a counselor from the organ donorship center. We discovered through the Center for Organ Recovery and Education that “of the 2.2 million people who die each year, only approximately 2 percent of them are able to be organ donors.” If we can't have Jamie after forty-two years, we’d give what we could to others. 

She and I, reluctant Wonder Twin sisters, spin plates and lean into each other (she a widow and me newly initiated into the Dead Brothers Club) as we contact the insurance company, car loan company, mortgage company; buy fried chicken and toilet paper and wine; and decide how to tell the kids. 

I sleep on the couch again, unable to obtain coolness or comfort.

Day 3 (Sunday)

Because all the preliminary medical tests indicate approval for organ and tissue harvesting, we can hold a bedside remembrance service at 6:30 p.m. then help wheel my brother to the operating room doors. We contact who we want to know and express that we understand if they choose to not have his bloody, bruised, swollen face as their last image.

How-To tips if you ever find yourself in this situation:
Let yourself be pissed.
Let yourself be pissed at the trope of life conquering death due to a loved one’s teardrop falling on the beloved, magically saving them from leaving this world. We tried. We dropped tear after tear on my brother’s body over the past three days. The experiment failed. My upper right arm bears an almost heart-shaped bruise from me threading my arm through the hospital bed rail so I can lay my hand on Jamie’s heart and hold it there every visit.
Let yourself be pissed at the sun for trying to peek through during the late afternoon drive back to the hospital. I did this with my sister-in-law and my other brother. I need the dark. Poet Irene McKinney’s question, “Have you had enough darkness yet?” and her response, “No, I haven’t had enough darkness” reads even deeper now, even more poignant.

We’re given one more opportunity for a hug, a word, or a kiss before my brother disappears through the OR doors. I bend and kiss the only untraumatized part of his face, the bridge of his freckled nose. Our Ma-Maw Mabel always said freckles were angel kisses so we’d feel less self-conscious.

I kiss his nose and his blanketed heart then turn to catch his wife who becomes nearly dead weight in my arms, certain that her wails will visit me long after this evening ends.

Day 4 (Monday)

Around 6 a.m. I hear toenails scratching the wooden floor and roll over. Slick, one of Jamie’s two dogs, is beside me, nudging my hand with his damp nose. I pet his jet-black fur, feeling his anxiety and confusion. After a couple of moments he heads to the basement, and I head to the shower to wash off yesterday’s grief and dry off for today’s fresh coating.

As I massage the shampoo around my scalp, I recall the new words and phrases I’ve unwilling learned, including hemodynamic stability (what Jamie’s body had to maintain until time to transition his body parts to other patients). The bullet had entered his occipital lobe at the back of his skull, shattered, and a piece traveled forward until it lodged in his prefrontal cortex. In general, only nine percent of patients survive a gunshot wound to the head. Jamie had zero chance of survival because of the damage to a main jugular vein that drains blood from the brain. I listen to my own brain repeat that sentence, again marveling at the poetics of this trauma.

My bones scream what my voice cannot.

Later, as I drink another cup of bitter black coffee while composing a draft of the obituary, my sister-in-law’s sister brings over items from Jamie’s van, reporting that someone had slept inside the vehicle then stolen most of Jamie’s tools. I marvel that people would use a bullet-ridden van as their hostel for the night. I decide to add that to our litany of loss.

I call the loan company to alert them, ask them to remove Jamie from the account, and find out the payoff amount on his midnight blue Toyota Camry. I’d co-signed for him, the man who’d spent most of his teen years cycling in and out of juvenile detention and placements, mostly due to stealing cars from a prominent dealership in Charleston and driving them around the state starting when he was around twelve years old. His first son was born when he was sixteen and still in an out-of-state facility. He’d grown into a solid man without the benefit of a father to guide him and I trusted him enough to help him gain reliable transportation, first with the van and then the car. He never missed a payment on either vehicle.

Selecting a memorial service site fills the rest of the afternoon. We choose a large picnic pavilion surrounded by trees with a little creek flowing behind it. Later, some family members would choose to not come because they thought we’d be sitting ducks. I understand their fear, especially since Jamie’s murder was one of several in the Charleston heat, and yet my sister-in-law smiles for the first time in days when she, my brother, and I stand beneath the shelter and envision black and gold decorations. Jamie was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

We set the date for three Sundays later. My birthday would be the day prior to this sad Sabbath. 

Day 5 (Tuesday)

Mom cries as I approach her bed. I bring her a cup of coffee, black with a few ice cubes. “My baby boy is gone, Shauna,” she whimpers. 

“I know, mommy.”

Her hand jitters as she lifts the cup to drink. Her oxygen machine quietly makes its strange rhythm. “Thank you. You always know what to do.” 

Hot anger surges from my belly and into my throat but I make myself swallow it. “Mom, I don’t know what to do. I’ve never dealt with something like this.” She views me as the rescuer, like I’m shielded against this trauma. Why? Because I’m a counselor? Because I’ve always been the calmest one during a family crisis even as a kid? I hurt for her and yet I’m also irritated. Every time I think I’ve moved past resentment, I get reminded that old family roles don’t go away totally, at least not in my experience.

How-To tip if you are ever in this situation:
Embrace the AND. 
You can…
Be pissed AND compassionate.
Be exhausted AND restless.
Be directive AND need someone to kiss you on the head. I hope there is someone to kiss you on the head. I did not have anyone.

We rewatch the local TV news report from yesterday, listening to the WSAZ reporter note that “Charleston police say they have obtained a juvenile petition for first degree murder against a 17-year-old" and “Five suspects have since been detained in connection with the shooting, which is now being ruled a homicide investigation.” The report ends with encouraging viewers that anyone with any information call the Criminal Investigation Division.

This triggers a fresh bout of mom’s paranoia that we are keeping information from her. We are, or we did, but we did it to protect her. We didn’t let her visit him in the hospital or go to the final ceremony where we wheeled Jamie to the operating room. She would suffer in not seeing him but would suffer more if she had witnessed him in that condition. 

There is no guidebook for this grief.
I sit with her for a few more minutes before heading back downstairs.

How-To tips:
If you are ever in this situation, allow yourself the space to remember the details of your baby brother:
Jamie at two: frightened of a dust bunny shaken in front of his face. There is photographic evidence.
Jamie at seven: happy to receive a bicycle for Christmas. There is photographic evidence.
Jamie at eleven: defiant after I held him across my lap and whipped him during my junior year of college on Thanksgiving break for chronically skipping school and not listening to our mom. There is no photographic evidence, only a sadness in my heart.
Jamie at fifteen: proud to wear a tie along with my other brother wearing one at my wedding. I think the only other time I saw Jamie in a tie was at his own wedding. There is photographic evidence.
Jamie at sixteen: bewildered at the birth of his first son. There is photographic evidence.
Jamie in his twenties: still somewhat defiant, but also growing into fatherhood. His second son was born during these years. There is photographic evidence.
Jamie in his thirties: laughing over his own jokes, always good-natured even though tired from his handyman jobs. His youngest son—his mini-me—was born when Jamie was in his mid-thirties, a surprise for him and Keisha. There is photographic evidence.

Day 6 (Wednesday)

I need to return home today since I’ve already missed three days of work. My sister-in-law and I have co-piloted what we can right now. I am both reluctant and relieved to head up the interstate, but about thirty miles in, my body threatens to sink into sleep. I know it’s my sympathetic nervous system being on high alert for days and is now producing less adrenaline. I roll down the window and fight the tiredness until I hit the rest stop, where I sleep for an hour before driving on. I pass through light rain showers and take note of their calm downfall versus the violent rains when I drove down to Charleston.

I decide to stop at a favorite restaurant when I get into town. I am bare-faced and worried that my eyes look dead to others. They feel dead from the inside...hollow, dull. I order a steak cooked medium and a glass of Merlot. I slowly sip, trying to be as invisible as possible because I don’t feel like talking. When my meal arrives, I am caught off-guard by the steak, less cooked than I expected, pinkish-brown blood staining the plate. Blood. I swallow hard before slicing into the meat. When I lift my glass for another sip, my hand jerks and I end up with scarlet liquid all over the front of my white t-shirt. This somehow reminds me of my brother’s blood pooled in his nose, his mouth, soaking through his headwrap onto the bedlinens during those final three days. I notice a lady at a booth catty-corner from me trying to be discreet in looking at my wine-splattered shirt, probably wondering if I need to be cut off, if I’m safe to drive. I know I should care, because it’s a slippery slope to not care about things, but I am more concerned with my dead eyes and want to ask my server what she sees but don’t since I probably already seem odd. I pay my bill and head home. I curl up on the couch with my cats and nap for a while.

For the next three days, a friend texts before she drops off simple meals for me at dinnertime, leaving them by the back door. She understands that I’m just holding on right now and need to balance hunkering down with functioning in the world. I ache for my family, because at least I’ve had years of practicing and teaching countless lessons on coping strategies and emotional regulation. 

How to handle adjusting to your new reality:
Let friends take care of you, and also let them know when you need solitude.
Let yourself wail in private just for a few moments as needed.
Let family members share their feelings while reminding them yet again about not projecting their pain on one another.
Let yourself drink that wine, watch that show, read that book, and rest. Rest often.

Later Days

Soon we will burn a candle and listen to Aretha belt out “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as we sit in the late August heat under the picnic shelter.

Soon we will hear details (but no names) of the patients who received Jamie’s heart, his lungs, his liver, his kidneys and learn that numerous people will benefit from his tissue over time.

Soon we will receive updates on the murder investigation as new information is gathered. Each new talk with our prosecuting attorney will be like someone ripping their fingernails across our shared scar, but we know the necessity of reopening the wound for justice.

Later rather than sooner, the sentencing gets postponed twice before we get to share our impact statements with the teenager who murdered our Jamie. He turned eighteen while we waited. He was transferred to adult jail while we waited. I hope he did lots of thinking while we waited.

How-To tip:
If you are ever in this situation, remind your family that you can feel your pain but you are not going to take it out on one another. You may have to issue this reminder repeatedly over the stretched-thin months even though you feel like they are not fully listening.

Day 375 (Tuesday)

How-To Tip:
You will be given the opportunity to write and share an impact statement at the sentencing. I encourage you to do so, not only to let the defendant know the etchings of their actions on you, but to feel heard in the courtroom.

Here is my statement:

[defendant’s name redacted],                                                                                                             

I’d like to start by saying that no one should have to see their baby brother like I saw mine 
on Friday, [date redacted]. I don’t know if you’ve seen the face of someone who took a bullet to the back of the head with the bullet passing through the occipital lobe, rupturing a major vessel, and lodging in the prefrontal cortex. Jamie’s head was swaddled in thick bandages that did nothing to prevent the blood from pooling onto the bedsheets and around his neck and shoulders. His mouth was filled with red-black blood despite the inserted tubing. His nose was consumed with blood. His left eye was swollen and resembled a golf ball beneath the bruised eyelid and his right eye was open just a sliver to where I could see his deep brown iris. I also want to remind you that he took one of your bullets in his right hand because he was running away from you with his hands in the air. 

We did not allow our mother to go to the hospital. She is haunted enough as it is without having that nightmarish image be the last she saw.

My baby brother had spent his teenage years in the Kanawha County juvenile system, but over the years, he became a respected man who was loved for his humor and his willingness to help others as best he could. My sister-in-law and his three sons were the most important things in his life. While all three of my nephews have suffered, my seven-year-old nephew is my greatest concern. I have a picture on my refrigerator that he drew of me, him, his mom, and his daddy. He’d started to draw his daddy beside the three of us, but crossed out the circle and drew him above us with “God” and “Love is good” written beside him representing heaven. What seven year-old should have to deal with that? This is different than having an absent father. He knew the deep love and affection of his daddy, and you took that from him.

Keisha and I made the decision to donate Jamie’s organs and tissue. We did it because if we couldn’t keep him, then other people would have the chance to live. At least we could give to other families. Don’t twist that around, though. You did nothing noble, [defendant’s name redacted]. You murdered my brother. You contributed nothing but violence.

There is a meditation practice called tonglen which I automatically started doing in the STICU that first night. It’s where you breathe in the pain of others and breathe out love and relief to them. I sat there trying to breathe in Keisha’s horror of losing her husband and my brother Brandon’s pain of losing his brother and best friend. I’m still breathing in my mother’s grief and my sister Chrissy’s pain and breathing out strength and love. I also breathe in my own sorrow and breathe out the hope of another day to heal. I am a therapist and spend my workdays helping others sort out their lives. [defendant’s name redacted], I need you to understand that your choices on [date redacted] have made the past twelve months some of the toughest I’ve ever faced trying to balance my professional life and my personal life. 

Am I grieving? Yes. Am I sometimes angry? Yes. Still yet, I don’t hate you because in hating you for running around with a temper and a gun, I’d have to hate my middle nephew O, who also possesses a temper and a gun, and I cannot hate my nephew. The difference in you and him is that you will be in prison for a few years and he has a life sentence without his dad. Besides, no amount of anger or vengeance or wishing ill for you and your family will bring my brother back. I chose to live my life without that negative energy because I believe we all contribute to the energy in this world.My greatest hope is that you and your friends make a choice to live differently. I hope you start with dropping your street name of “Mob Jay.” That’s where my anger still rises, with your street name. Be better than that. Or don’t. I have no control over your decisions. I hope for all our sakes, though, that you dig deep inside yourself and bring forth what goodness is there. 

Before All the Later Days:

On Friday night, one week since this trauma started, I Google whether heart cells rejuvenate, and this question appears in the search results: “Can a heart live without a body?” 

The answer? “The heart does not need a brain, or a body for that matter, to keep beating.” 

I’m left wondering about the opposite, how each of our bodies and brains will survive with our tender hearts and what will happen as we hope they can heal.

Shauna Jones earned her MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College's low-residency program. Her writings focus on the body and spirit, resiliency, and the haziness of memory. She has been published in several journals and one of her essays was nominated for a Pushcart. She is a West Virginia native but travels as often as possible. She lives in Buckhannon, West Virginia with her cat Tutu.