On December 17, 2004 at 9:35pm, I was awakened by a loud knocking downstairs.
I groggily stumbled downstairs and opened the door to two policemen.
“What did he do?”
“He did nothing ma’am. He was shot.”
“Shot?” I whispered in disbelief. “Is he dead?”
“No ma’am, but you need to get dressed so we can take you to the hospital.”
With trembling hands, I hurriedly dressed. When I returned downstairs, the policeman was getting off the phone, and I could tell by the look on his face that I was about to hear every mother’s worst fear.
“He didn’t make it.”
“He didn’t make what?” I yelled in disbelief.
“He’s dead, ma’am.”
I fell to my knees, clutching my chest in agony as I slowly crawled to the bathroom to vomit. The pain was too much to handle, and I felt my spirit briefly leave my body as I continued to reel from the shock.
Just a week before Christmas and my whole world was changed forever. Jason, my loving 18-year-old son with a generous heart was shot in the chest and robbed of his life.
What’s a grieving mother to do? I did what anyone experiencing trauma and pain should do – I wrote it out. After the funeral and the last of the company left I began my journaling journey. Months later, as I re-read my entries, I noticed the steps I’d taken on my journey toward peace. I saw the stages of grief I went through, and the revelations I had. These pages provided the framework for my fourth book: Survivor to Thriver – A Mother’s Journey Toward Peace After Her Son’s Murder.
James T Mangan says it best, “Take a chunk of your heart and spread it over some paper. It goes, oh, such a long way.” Writing allowed me to get everything out – the good, and the bad and onto paper. It was through writing my book that I was able to identify 7 distinct strategies I used on my journey to healing. Those steps then provided the framework for a ten-week Write to Heal Program for secondary students dealing with PTSD.
Recently, I was involved in a Transformative Justice Symposium at the California Institution for Women; a two-day event centered around the program Healing from Violence: Exploring Trauma & Resilience. Our group of 80 was filled with survivors, inmates, judges, members from the DA, wardens, and mental health providers who were all focused on providing support and a safe space to listen and learn from each other’s experiences. I was placed in a group of 10 alongside 5 inmates, all of them murderers.
Together we sat and shared our stories and perspectives. Inmates were asked to tell the group about the path that led them to incarceration, their sentence, and the name of their victim. They shared the life experiences that contributed to who they were before conviction, the barriers they’ve faced on their journey to healing, and their greatest source of strength since incarceration. Survivors spoke about the loved ones they’d lost and the hurdles they’ve had to overcome on their journey to healing as well as their source of strength since the death of their loved one. Each member was asked to reflect on what they learned from the others and the ways in which they would continue to take care of themselves.
Each group’s discussions were filled with such honest and poignant heartfelt responses, every circle was experiencing the same raw emotions – and each person’s stories were met with a level of understanding and compassion. The empathy I felt for the inmates in my group was overwhelming, I felt their pain and remorse and I hugged and kissed each of them as we all cried together.
These women’s stories have shown me just how lucky many of us are to have been born into the families and lives we have – the similarities in each of their stories is heartbreaking – the abuses and lack of support they’ve suffered is heartbreaking and has made me realize that not everyone is dealt a good hand in life. I feel so fortunate to be able to help them create a better future for themselves. We have found common ground and together are writing and journaling our way forward. I applaud the resilience and the tenacity of these four women and have felt such a supreme sense of pride to be able to witness their journey to freedom through writing.
Bettye Sweet is an author and founder of Write to Heal and we thank her for sharing her heartwrenching and yet uplifting story. Each year, for Giving Tuesday, Epica chooses a charity to partner with; our purpose is to get journals in the hands of those who would benefit the most from a positive creative outlet. For every leather journal purchased at epica.com over the Thanksgiving weekend, Epica will donate one to Write to Heal so that others may experience the same catharsis Bettye and other writers have felt along their journey to healing.
Check out last year’s recipient, Camp Hollywood Heart, and our blog post on their weeklong program! We are always looking for new charities to partner with, where our journals can directly benefit the recipients, if you know of or run an organization that would welcome such a partnership, please reach out.