From Grief, Growth: Dealing With the Death of a Child

One woman explains how she coped with tragic loss

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This is a story about a wayward son and the mother who loved him. His name was Nathan Davis-Gilliard. Seven years ago, he was gunned down off Camp Street in the Mount Hope neighborhood on the East Side’s north end. Police say the shooting was related to a longtime feud between two rival gangs. Nathan’s mother, Nancy Davis Wilson, says the murder was a senseless killing that nearly knocked her out for good, as in, “I thought about going to his grave and shooting myself and letting the blood trickle down to the earth below.’’

But she didn’t. She decided to live and then some. A few months ago, the 65-year-old grandmother of 18 and great-grandmother of six graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in human development and family studies. Her minor is even more impressive: thanatology, or the study of death and grief. Yes, there are stages, and, no, there is never any closure.

Most people her age are thinking about retiring. Nancy is thinking about spending long hours with troubled kids who shoot someone because he dissed you at a party. She wants to be a social worker and therapist. Gang violence is turning our city streets into very dangerous strips of asphalt, she says. Shootings are becoming as frequent in the capital city as potholes.

She called him Nathan. “Everyone else called him Nate, except me,’’ she says. The middle of seven children, he was a quiet kid with a sweet crooked smile who would carry groceries across the street for elderly neighbors. The troubles started in his teenager years, as they often do. He got mixed up with a bad crowd, young men who sold drugs and stole cars. He had stints at a residential facility for at-risk boys and prison. Still, Nancy never gave up hope that he would turn his life around. Mothers do that. How can they not?

Nancy was working at her hotel job when she got the call. Her daughter was screaming on the other line. The 25-year-old was walking with a friend on Knowles Street, in front of the house where he grew up and played basketball and rode his tricycle. A carload of young men drove up. Shots were fired. His brother heard the pop-pop-pop and rushed outside. “He lost it,’’ says Nancy. Nathan was lying on his back in the driveway.

After the funeral, the tears and the sorting of possessions, Nancy was alone with her sadness. A calmness swept over her when she thought about killing herself. At the urging of her family, she sought psychiatric help and pulled herself together. In 2009, she got an associate’s degree in criminal justice from the Community College of Rhode Island and then transferred to URI. The professors were kind and wise. They encouraged her to talk to other students about the loneliness and confusion of grief.

She was trembling the first time. The pain spilled out like a bloody wound. She knew she had a story to tell, a powerful one that could reach far. She spoke to inmates at the state’s juvenile detention facility, school groups and nursing students. At church, she talked to other parents about how to make Providence streets safer – connect kids up with mentors, build recreational centers, toughen gun laws. “These kids need to know that life has meaning,’’ she says.

Some people tell her to move on, to put Nathan’s death behind her. But she never will. A troubled child deserves no less love than the shining star. Losing Nathan was the worst thing that has ever happened to her. Her love for him is as strong as ever. The mother and son are working together now to help the children before they’re lost. “I’ve always been searching for my purpose in life,’’ she says. “Now I’ve found it.’’

She’s on the mend, but still experiences what she calls “triggers.’’ Not long ago, she read a local story about unsolved murders. Nathan was on the list. “The tears came and came,’’ she says. “They were flowing on the words, and between them.’’ Nancy has left half of Nathan’s headstone blank. Her name will go there someday, and she will rest beside him.