Alicia and Jimi Dassa felt lost. Their 18-year-old son had just been shot dead in front of their Rainier Beach home.
Amid the chaos after the Mother's Day 2020 killing, the couple got a pamphlet with resources for grieving families. Making calls, they found months-long waiting lists.
"There's nothing. What do we do?" Alicia Dassa asked a city of Seattle victim advocate — who herself could offer limited support in unsolved cases like the death of Conner Dassa-Holland.
There was one exception: a national group called Parents of Murdered Children. The nearest chapter was in Portland. Attending midweek meetings seemed a stretch, but the Dassas went to a national conference in Arizona in 2021.
"It was the first time I had ever felt normal since Conner had been killed," Alicia Dassa said. It was a relief to sit in a room with others grieving loved ones lost to violence and "not have them look at you the way most people look at you when they know what happened."
Since then, Alicia Dassa has worked to start a Parents of Murdered Children chapter in Washington, an effort now realized. With Dassa at the helm, the Evergreen chapter will hold its first monthly meeting Tuesday on Zoom, with plans for eventual in-person meetings around the state.
It is, tragically, good timing. The number of homicides has increased dramatically locally and nationally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. King County, for example, had 73 such violent deaths in 2019, according to data compiled by The Seattle Times with information from police, prosecutors and the medical examiner. This year, just through Sept. 10, county prosecutors have responded to the scene of 121 suspected or confirmed homicides.
"There are a lot of grieving families out there that feel like they're alone," said Falana Young, the chapter's treasurer and the mother of Dwone Anderson-Young, a 23-year-old killed in 2014 because, his mother believes, he was gay.
The King County Prosecutor's Office and other agencies dealing with homicide cases have already started referring parents to the chapter, with about 30 people expressing interest so far.
The organization offers not only a community of people who understand each other, including various family members and friends of those lost to violence, but also concrete help. Counselors, attorneys and private detectives volunteer their time to work through grief and consult on cases — including cold cases that might benefit from another pair of eyes. Washington's chapter is still sorting through what fees might be involved.
Members help each other, as well. Young said she doesn't know how she would have gotten through the sentencing of her son's killer last fall if it weren't for Alicia Dassa, who drove her there and back, and took notes. "I didn't have to worry about anything," Young said.
That's why Parents of Murdered Children is so important, Alicia Dassa said earlier this month on a day she and Young opened a bank account for the fledgling chapter. "You're not just there for your grief support. You're there for life support," she said.
Dealing with the loss of a loved one to homicide, both women said, is a lifelong journey.
Gaps in the system
It can start in the media's glare.
TV cameras seemed everywhere when Serwa Ashford arrived at the Kent apartment complex where her 28-year-old son, Marcus "Buddy" Golden, was killed in 2021 after a dispute with a neighbor.
"It wasn't a moment that I wanted filmed," Ashford said in an interview last year, recounting standing hours in the cold near where her son's body lay on the ground. "There was nowhere for me to hide, for our family to have the saddest moment that we've experienced."
Young, a granddaughter of the legendary jazz singer Ernestine Anderson, recalled a reporter knocking on her door afterward wanting to confirm the relation.
She felt pressure to speak to the media. "I don't want them thinking of this as another Black man that was killed in a gang," Young said. She said her son, a University of Washington graduate, lived with her in the Central District and worked in information technology for Harborview Medical Center, where she also works as an operations supervisor.
He was getting a ride home from a club when someone else in the car killed him and his friend, who was driving. Before being caught, the killer fled the state and committed a series of crimes in New Jersey as part of a protest against U.S. policy in the Middle East, prosecutors said.
Media exposure often prompts tongue-wagging comments and questions from the public, noted Laura Takacs, a Seattle social worker providing therapy to people grieving sudden, traumatic death. "Where were the parents? Why didn't the parents know what was going on?" some might ask.
"People now who are complete strangers are weighing in to a very private, very painful experience," furthering a common feeling of isolation among survivors, Takacs said.
That's one difference from dealing with the loss of a loved one due to an illness like cancer. Another big difference she's heard from her patients: the lack of time.
"There's no time to, you know, wrap up any loose ends, or have a final conversation that might be healing," Takacs said. "Oftentimes, [with] people who are maybe on hospice, family members can come to the bedside. They can play a role of caregiving."
By the time family members usually learn of a homicide, it's too late. The bedside is the street, or in the Dassas' case, the car.
Their son was shot — why and by whom remains a mystery — while he was moving a car for his parents.
"Conner was inside slumped over the steering wheel when Jimi got down there," Alicia Dassa recalled. "He had to punch the window of the car out to get the door open."
She followed. Her son was still alive. "There was so much blood I couldn't see where he had been hit," she said. An analyst for Public Health — Seattle & King County, wearing a nightshirt, she went into "emergency management mode," she said, checking his vital signs and trying to clear his airways.
What happens next remains a sore spot, and a weakness in the system, as Alicia Dassa sees it. Medics came and took their dying son to Harborview. COVID restrictions limited visitors. But when the Dassas arrived looking for him, Alicia Dassa — "covered in blood and barefoot" — walked past security and into the hospital while Jimi Dassa was stopped. Alicia Dassa is white. Jimi Dassa is Black.
She feels that race played a role and that Harborview should provide sensitivity training for its security guards. Family liaisons would also be helpful, she said.
Further, family members often have trouble even finding their loved one because they arrive at the hospital not knowing the person is already dead and the body is with the county Medical Examiner's Office, Alicia Dassa added. (The office is a short walk from the hospital, but bodies can't be viewed there "to ensure security and public safety," health department spokesperson Kaila Lafferty said.)
Harborview spokesperson Susan Gregg said hospital policy is to respectfully screen all visitors while providing a safe and healing environment. She also said the hospital employs social workers and counselors, and in 2021 launched a violence intervention and prevention program to support individuals and families affected by gun violence.
Yet, such programs tend to focus on young people whose daily lives put them in proximity to deadly violence, and don't always meet the needs of families who have never encountered such violence before losing someone, said Colleen McIngalls, director of victim services for the county prosecutor's office.
She also acknowledged limitations to her victim services, which at the county level has five advocates focusing on violent crime. Much of their work consists of shepherding people through the legal system. Without charges filed, "There's not a lot of like advocacy through the system that the advocates can provide," she said.
Three city of Seattle victim advocates offer some help in unsolved cases, including with accessing crime victim compensation, but don't provide long-term support.
The new Parents of Murdered Children chapter, McIngalls said, "is filling a huge gap that we have in our community."
Fathers needing to talk
"Am I crazy?" Alicia Dassa asks herself. "I still pay Conner's phone bill."
There are several reasons why, including that she doesn't want anybody else to have his number. But the biggest reason is that her youngest child, 12-year-old Keria, texts her beloved older brother all the time.
"I love you. I miss you. I'm thinking about you."
People with shared experiences of violent loss can understand Alicia Dassa's thinking. And Young, who has also been to annual conferences of the organization, said she needs that kind of reassurance, too.
"These are my people," she said. "They get me."
As important as that support is to mothers like Young, Alicia Dassa and Ashford — all of whom belong to a small group of mothers impacted by gun violence that's convened by the city of Seattle — it could be even more important to fathers.
Jimi Dassa said he reached out to other dads whose children have been killed, but only one wanted to meet and talk.
He guesses at why. Men traditionally are supposed to be strong, to keep the family together, to silently absorb tragedy — Black men perhaps even more so. But he doesn't really understand their hesitancy to connect in the context of losing a child.
"I don't know how you can keep that in," he said. "Our lives were blown up."
He cries. Sometimes he hides, because he doesn't want to bring the rest of the family down.
While he's shared his feelings at Parents of Murdered Children conferences, he's looking forward to meeting local moms and dads he can talk with anytime.
Seeing people at different stages of grief has been important, he said. In the organization, he's met people "10 years in, 15 years in, 20 years in, 30 years in, and they've survived." He's come away feeling: "We're going to be OK."
The Evergreen chapter of Parents of Murdered Children plans to meet the third Tuesday of every month. For more information and a Zoom link, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 564-229-2841.