It was like some sort of exclusive club. But instead of a secret handshake or special-code word, members gave one another hugs, knowing nods and reassuring pats on the back.
On Saturday afternoon, Twin Cities residents who have shared the incomprehensible pain of losing loved ones to violence came together at a north Minneapolis church for a community service that was one part mass memorial and another part therapy session.
One of the first to speak was 10-year-old Alaja Miller, whose father, Kristopher Miller, a popular North High School staffer, was shot and killed last year in a crime fueled by another man's jealousy.
"That was the worst day of my life," Alaja told the crowd of more than 100, before she could no longer hold back her tears and her grandmother had to finish her speech.
Little Alaja was preaching to the choir. Many who attended the service at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church had suffered similar heart-wrenching experiences.
For a year, Marsha Mayes has missed seeing the smile of her 3-year-old son, Terrell, who died last December after a stray bullet went through the wall of his north Minneapolis home and struck him in the head.
Mayes and her three remaining children no longer live in the same house, but she still walks the block on a regular basis. "If I don't let them see my face, then they will forget," she said.
After witnessing the outpouring of support for those affected by the recent school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the Rev. Jerry McAfee said he decided that residents need to remember that there are people locally like Alaja and Mayes who are still dealing with the impacts of violence and need compassion.
"That's the message -- 'We haven't forgotten you,'" McAfee said, when asked about the purpose of this weekend's event.
At one point during the service, candles were lighted as a long list of names of those who have been murdered in the Twin Cities over the past five years was read.
Help with healing
Besides keeping the memory of those gone alive, a big component of Saturday's service was providing resources for those left behind on how to deal with their grief.
"When homicides happen in our community, our people rarely get the services they need. ... Trauma untreated turns into more trauma," McAfee said.
Information about the stages of grief and grief support guidelines were provided to program attendees.
"We have people today that are still suffering even though their loved ones passed years and years ago," said the Rev. Randolph Staten, who presented information about grief and trauma.
People should try to address their grief to help stop the cycle of violence, Staten said.
There to give advice to those who had recently lost someone were others who had to deal with the pain of violence years ago.
Mary Johnson's son was killed by a teenager back in 1993. It took more than a decade for Johnson to forgive her son's killer and to let go of all of her pent-up hate.
Lack of forgiveness "is like cancer," she said.
Johnson now works with the man who took her son's life to spread their story of healing and reconciliation in her From Death to Life organization.
According to preliminary statistics, violent crime, which includes homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults, increased in Minneapolis in 2012 compared with the year before, when violent crimes dropped to their lowest level since 1983.
For more information about grief counseling or to get training to become a grief counselor, call Staten at 612-388-3388. For mothers who have lost a child to murder or for mothers whose children are in prison for murder, information about healing groups can be obtained by calling St. Jane House at 612-521-9282.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495 Twitter: @stribnorfleet