Holidays can be hard for grieving families. In Charlotte, N.C. a support group called Mothers of Murdered Offspring, or MOM-O, has an annual tradition to help its members get through a season that can feel relentless: they host a Thanksgiving meal for local families who have lost a loved one to homicide.
This year's event was a catered brunch, held the Sunday before the Thanksgiving holiday. A couple hundred people gathered in the Oasis Shriners Auditorium in Charlotte. The room was filled with purple lights, purple tablecloths, and purple curtains; MOM-O uses the color as a symbol for non-violence.
The event started with a few words about the organization's work and a prayer. After the meal, parents and siblings lined up to light candles and say their loved ones' names into a microphone.
Lakeker Bright is a new member of MOM-O. Her 18-year-old son, Jamie, died in July, after he was shot by his friend in their living room. Sitting in that room months later, she says she is still processing what happened.
"I'm in a make-believe world now," Bright says. "Life is not real to me no more. I'm numb to life. I don't care if I live or die no more."
She says these past few months have been tough, but the holidays will make it harder. She used to call Jamie her golden child. In the months since her son's death, she has turned to MOM-O to help her try to make sense of what happened to him.
MOM-O was founded in 1993, by three people who lost loved ones to homicide in Charlotte. That year, the city saw its highest-ever number of murders: 129. The group's founders wanted to help other families experiencing the same devastating loss they were going through.
25 years later, MOM-O is still helping families grieve. In addition to the Thanskgiving meal, the group works with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to arrange candlelight vigils after a person has been killed. It helps families organize funeral services and birth and death anniversaries and holds monthly meetings, called MOM-O Mondays, for families to talk about loss together.
Sally Miller-Coleman was one of the first members of MOM-O, and she went on to start her own chapter in Cabarrus County, just east of Charlotte. She lost her son, Narius Eugene Miller, in January 1993. He was 13 years old. Young black men like Narius and Jamie Bright are disproportionately likely to be victims of gun homicide.
Miller-Coleman says in addition to helping families out immediately after a person is killed, the group also focuses on preventing violence in the first place.
"Don't wait until the murder happens. Try to prevent some of this. Because I don't like going to a mother - family - when their child is killed," Miller-Coleman says.
Like many members of the group, Miller-Coleman wants to channel her energy toward improving her community. She leads a Christmas charity drive for MOM-O to collect toys and clothes for children in low-income families.
"It's no forgetting it," she says. "But I don't want to walk around here with a sad heart for the rest of my life. And I don't think that's what God intended for me to do. I don't think - I can't say what my son intended, but I don't think he would want me to be sad 25, 30, 40 years."
No one wants to join a group like MOM-O. But Sally Miller-Coleman wants new members to know there can still be life after a child's death.
This story was reported as part of Guns & America, a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life. Find more here.