Violent death support group to help families


Those who have lost a loved one to violence do not need go through the grief process and legal system alone.

The Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death, a nonprofit agency in Albuquerque is starting a support group at the Wellness Center in Los Lunas.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Joan Shirley holds a picture of her 17-year-old son, Kevin, who was shot and killed in 1999. Shirley is a victim’s advocate with the Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death. She will lead a support group on the last Wednesday of each month at the Wellness Center on Lambros Loop in Los Lunas.

“No one needs to go through this alone,” said victim’s advocate Joan Shirley. “It’s when you’re alone that you’re powerless. When you’re a part of a group of people who support you, you’re no longer alone, you have people who can walk with you.”

Shirley, whose son, Kevin, was murdered, is leading the group meetings, which will be from 6 to 8 p.m. on the last Wednesday of each month. Anyone who has lost someone to murder, vehicular homicide, a drive-by shooting, an undetermined death, questioned suicide or some other violent death is encouraged to join the group.

“There’s all kinds of grief through this,” Shirley said. “And actually, with murder, you’re talking about really complicated grief — you’re not talking simple grief. This was violent. Someone took that person you loved violently. They went against the norms of society and took this person from you deliberately. It wasn’t a disease.”

Shirley and her husband, Wayne, lost Kevin on the evening of May 29, 1999. He had been at a party with two friends, Matthew Hunt and Luis Garcia, in the East Mountains. On their way home, all three boys were gunned down in their vehicle. Kevin was 17.

It took more than seven years before an arrest was made, and another two years before the Shirleys would have their day in court.

The traumatic experience of losing a loved one to violence puts an enormous strain on the entire family because everyone has their own personal struggles with the situation, and each individual grieves differently.

“We realized that we needed help because our family was getting where we weren’t communicating,” Shirley said. “We were having a hard time trying to figure out what we were doing.

“My husband didn’t grieve in the same way, and I didn’t grieve in the way that worked for him, so we couldn’t grieve collectively … and all the time you know this killer is out there somewhere.”

When Shirley discovered New Mexico Survivors of Homicide, she was relieved because she found people who were sympathetic and understood what she was going through. She didn’t have to explain her experience to them because they knew. No one knows better what you are going through than someone who has had that experience, she said.

“I needed some other mother who had gone through this to tell me I was going to live through it,” said Shirley. “Because I didn’t think I could.”

Navigating the legal system and learning how it works is challenging enough for the average person, but to do so while in shock and grief can be frustrating.

“A lot of times the victim advocates in the system move things pretty quickly because they don’t have time to explain things over and over,” she said. “So, when I didn’t understand something, I just went to the group and said, ‘OK, this is what’s happening, explain this to me.’ They were knowledgeable and I appreciated that.”

After years of meetings and sitting on the organization’s board, Shirley was a victim advocate from 2002 to 2005. She educated herself by attending conferences, classes and different social service organizations to expand her knowledge base to better assist other families and individuals.

The Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death opened two years ago. Its mission is to bridge the gaps in the availability of information and resources that impede and discourage victims trying to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic loss.

Shirley and Executive Director Patricia Caristo facilitate the group meetings and help victims through the maze of legal processes as well as offer an understanding of their rights.

“We’re going to at least give them a place where they can get some compassionate, caring support,” Shirley said. “The system tries but it’s very difficult for a system to support a family. They’re there to help a family, but they can’t give the daily support that we can.

“We’re going to help you live through this and live through this, well, as best we can because this doesn’t kill you. It feels like it’s going to kill you, but it doesn’t kill you. It just takes a huge toll.”

The next Victims of Violent Death meeting will be from 6 to 8 p.m., Wednesday, July 31, at the Los Lunas Wellness Center, 3445 Lambros Loop in front of Heritage Park.

You can call Joan Shirley at 238-1663, or Patricia Caristo at the Albuquerque office 243-2222.

-- Email the author at