Jamie Lynn Harris experienced the traumatic loss of her son Jaylyn in 2008, when he passed away at 4 years old of myocarditis, a rare heart disease.

“At that time, I felt like my world was just completely upside down,” she said.

Harris looked for support groups of those with similar experiences, but there were none in Evanston. The one support group she found in Chicago was too far away and too expensive, so she decided to create her own.

Jamie Lynn Harris with her son Jaylyn Deandres Harris in a photo from the mid 2000s. Credit: Jamie Harris

Specifically, she wanted to start a group geared toward Evanston parents who have experienced the loss of a child.

“I know there are other parents out there that are looking for the same exact things that I’m looking for,” she said.

Today the group Harris started in 2019, Life Without My Child, meets on the fourth Saturday of each month at the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center. The group currently has 23 “angel moms” and one “angel dad,” which are the names they use for those who have lost children.

To get the group off of the ground, Harris applied for a community-building grant through Advocated for Action to pay for a conference on the topic. Harris hosted the inaugural conference on July 16, 2019, the anniversary of the day her son passed. The event offered grief therapists, spiritual counseling, food and music.

Harris said roughly 30 to 40 people showed up, “so many different mothers that have experienced the loss of a child within Evanston.”

At that event, three Evanston mothers opened up about their losses, and Harris said they were very vulnerable, sharing their stories.

She said the first conference set the tone for the kind of space Life Without My Child had a potential to become, showing the camaraderie parents can create. The group transitioned to Facebook when the pandemic hit in 2020.

“It has created a space for us to come together. It has created something that has never been created. And that space is very safe and very private, very therapeutic,” she said.

The LWMC Support group at a community event holding photos of their loved ones who have died. Credit: Jamie Harris

Harris said that if she hears someone in Evanston has lost a child, she will reach out personally to invite them to attend. But mostly, news of the organization travels via word of mouth. Participants often invite others they know, as well, to the private Facebook group.

Tiffany Rice discovered Life Without My Child through a friend’s Facebook invite when she lost her son Dajae Coleman to gun violence in Evanston in 2013. Rice said she’d had a long history of organizing on her son’s behalf before meeting Harris.

“[After the loss of] my son, it was a period of just, you know, total shock,” Rice said. “But at that time, that grief was kind of transformed in a way … it motivated me. And I was ready to get out and do some work.”

Rice started the Dajae Coleman Foundation, which began offering programs in the community – including reading programs, block parties, scholarships and more to indirectly address gun violence.

In 2018, when Rice’s son’s case finally went to trial, she was exhausted and decided to dissolve the foundation and take a break from her community involvement. A few years later, Rice’s friend invited her to Harris’ Facebook support group.

She saw the group celebrated birthdays and other important anniversaries for children lost throughout the years. But it wasn’t until she attended a support meeting for herself that she realized the “full scope of what it was.”

“I had never really experienced therapy,” Rice told the RoundTable.

She said that she never really confronted the grief and pain of her story, although she’s told it many times.

“I haven’t done the work to, you know, mentally go there,” she said. Rice never connected with any other parents who had lost children, and for a long time, didn’t feel like she could. “Because … everybody has their own unique experiences.”

But the support group was her first time feeling that connection. Rice said that taking her experiences and others and seeing how they intersected opened her eyes to the fact that “we all are ultimately going through those same stages of grief.”

It also showed her that she didn’t have to process the experience alone.

“It kind of helped me to gain a better empathy for people in similar situations as mine. So, ever since, I’ve just been involved with Life Without My Child, in every way I can be.”

In the past three months, Life Without My Child has begun to partner with the City of Evanston.

Jamie Lynn Harris said that when Audrey Thompson, Director of Parks and Recreation, heard about their group— Thompson reached out to support them. While meeting together, the two realized that their individual visions were aligned.

“The Angel Moms were called upon, and it has been an amazing experience,” Harris said.

A few women in the organization, including Harris and Rice, assist with prevention and intervention in conflict resolution.

The goal, Rice said, is to proactively build relationships with kids to intervene in the issues they may have with one another.

Evanston has drop-in centers for middle school and high school youth – Robert Crown Community Center and Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center, respectively – and angel parents will hang around those places to build relationships.

Life Without My Child hosts a yearly holiday toy drive for the family members experiencing the loss. The parents also participated in the 2019 Fourth of July Parade and the 2022 Juneteenth parade. Angel parents brought large, printed posters of their children to each event.

Harris said the group loves the opportunities to attend parades because it gives angel parents a chance to show that their children are not forgotten. She said it’s also helpful for their grief journey.

“We just show our babies’ faces. We get to walk the streets of Evanston,” she said. “You may not see them, but they’re still with us. So for us, it’s a joy.”

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

3 replies on “Bereaved parents find support in dealing with tragedy”

  1. I’ve lost my son to gun violence in 2017. Although it wasn’t in Evanston, I’m an Evanstonian of 50+ yes.

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