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And suddenly, one morning in December six years ago, Bonnie Howell’s world was shaken. She stopped walking a postal route and started preparing to bury her 17-year-old son, Paul. He had been stabbed to death at a party the night before.
Still devastated with grief long after the funeral, Howell joined a friend and attended a support group for those anguished by the loss of loved ones. But after Howell told the group about her son, she looked around the room and saw horror-struck faces. No one else had lost someone to violence.
Howell left the group and two years later, set out to form another support group for those affected by crime. During the day, she’s delivering mail again. On some nights and weekends, she’s president of the local chapter of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children.
On Wednesday, I sat down with Howell for an emotional conversation about her experiences with the support group and any advice she has for people close to victims of crime.
How have people found out about the group?
Unfortunately, word spreads. Once victim advocate personnel were aware of it, they started directing people to us. So now people know as a resource, we’re one of the places. We also have a collaborative working agreement with the District Attorney’s Office to assist survivors.
What’s it like for a person in that first group meeting?
A lot of times, I’ll start or those of us who have been there a while will talk first. We let them know they can say as much or as little as they want. Listening is very therapeutic. There’s people who come to the group for three or four months and don’t say a word. They just listen. And then one day, they start talking. It’s like a valve that’s been opened.
What’s the conversation generally like?
It’s usually women. Men usually accompany women but they seldom come on their own. So the conversation is usually very emotional. They’re upset about the way the child died. They’re upset about what they know. They’re upset about what they don’t know. They’re upset about the injustice of life. They’re upset about the criminal justice system. They’re upset about the lack of their ability to have an impact on what’s going on. They feel powerless. They’ve been robbed of hope.
So how would you describe the goal of the group meetings then? Are you trying to help people find answers or resolve some of those issues?
I would want for people to find a place where they can find some peace and it doesn’t always come with answers. There’s a lot of anger at these meetings, a lot of venting, a lot of things they would like to do to the murderers.
We listen. We don’t admonish them. We don’t tell them they need to forgive. We don’t judge them. We let them just be. We let them speak and cry and scream — whatever they feel.
Do you share advice from your own experiences?
I will share things that I’ve done to help in my journey, but I always tell people that we’re all so different. If you’re doing something else that gives you comfort, keep doing it, as long as it’s not destructive.
Do you mind sharing some of the advice you give others?
I tell them that being part of a support group and hearing the stories has made me strong. Seeing the path that other people have traveled on and that they’re still standing gives me courage. So we are all each other’s strengths. I tell them, “Look around. We’re still here.” There was a time that I didn’t realize that I stopped laughing and I heard myself laugh, and I said, “Oh my God, that’s a good sound.” (She smiles and laughs.)
I tell them that it’s easy to lay down and crawl up in a corner. It’s hard to keep getting up. People should appreciate what’s still there — the little things. The things that you may not have taken time for before. When I was making my son’s collage for his funeral, it’s all the pictures that didn’t make it into the photo albums that were the most precious. They were the ones that weren’t perfect. His hair wasn’t combed or he was picking his nose or doing something where you would go, “Oh my God.” (She sighs.)
For me, physical exercise helps. It gets me out of the house. When he first died, I shut myself up in the house. I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t answer the door. I remember a neighbor coming over and I remember her saying to me, “You have to accept it. It’s God’s will.” And I remember thinking, “You’re kidding me, right?” And I remember very quietly shutting the door.
About two, three years after Paul died, my beloved dog would take a run every morning, and he got hit by one of the cars. One of the neighbors came to my door and said, “Bonnie, I’m so sorry. I think its Jerry in the road.” I remember going down there and thinking to myself, “I buried a son. Nothing else will rock my world.” But yet I dropped to my knees and cried. We have so much emotion in us and we don’t shut that off. That’s what I tell people. Try to keep yourself open. Try to love and still be hurt because that’s what life is.
Do most people return after their first meeting?
It varies — sometimes consistently and sometimes not for months. They’ll be in the garage and come across an old box with pictures or ornaments from their baby’s first Christmas. And then they’re back because it brought everything home.
Like much of the nation, we’re seeing fewer murders in San Diego County compared to previous years. Have you noticed any trends among the friends and family of victims?
I hear that, but I see the news and there’s a lot of crime still going on. I know they have facts to back up their statistics, but when a family walks through the door, they don’t care that there’s been less murders this year because their child was murdered.
Is there a difference between people who have seen murder convictions or those with unsolved murders? (Two gang members involved in her son’s murder were convicted.)
The people who have seen convictions for the murderers don’t feel lucky. The people who haven’t seen convictions, think the ones who have seen convictions are lucky.
They think that it’s somehow lucky! You’re not high-fiving anyone in your group when a conviction comes back. It’s tragic.
There have been several high-profile teen murders this year. Did those incidents bring people out in greater numbers to the meetings?
I will say the one thing we all had in common was when we all came to the meeting after those high-profile cases, it brought all of our own memories up fresh. We remember what it was like when they just found the body. We remember those feelings like they were yesterday. All that stuff is very much a part of who we are today.
Anything else you wanted to emphasize?
We’re a core of people who support and lean on each other and are there for each other and that’s kind of what society is. We’re a reflection of society. The only difference is that our circumstances are extreme.
(For more information about the support group’s meetings, including dates, times and locations, check out the local chapter’s website.)