In their own words: Loved ones of the nine killed describe grief, love and legacies

June 16, 2017 GMT

Two years have passed since a self-avowed white supremacist gunned down nine black worshippers during Emanuel AME Church’s weekly Bible study. Since then, the families and a nation grieved together. Unity flowed. The church reopened. And the killer was captured, jailed and sentenced to die for his crimes.

Now what?

To reflect on moments passed and journeys ahead, we asked members of each of the grieving families to describe what the second anniversary means in their lives. Here they are, in their own words.

Jennifer Pinckney stands with her two daughters, Eliana and Malana, while a Highway Patrol Honor Guard carries Sen. Clementa Pinckney, also pastor of Emanuel AME Church, into the Statehouse in Columbia for a public viewing after he was slain in a mass shooting at the church on June 17, 2015. File/Staff


Family of Emanuel AME pastor Clementa Pinckney: We will make him proud

Loved ones of Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME Church and a Democratic state senator, combined to offer their thoughts on the second anniversary of his death:

John Pinckney, father: I deeply miss my son. The memories and times we spent together are all I have to hold on to. My strength comes in the words of my son, “Old man, I’m coming to get you so we can go away for a little while and break bread.” That meant, let’s go eat and talk some.

With Father’s Day fast approaching, those memories and the blessing of Clementa’s wife Jennifer and their girls, along with his other children and grandchildren being in my life, get me through my healing process. Not to mention, prayer and more prayer.

Jennifer Pinckney, wife: Even though two years have passed, it still feels like yesterday that I lost the love of my life. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. I see him in our home. I see him in our girls. He was a blessing to so many and fought for righteousness.

Through much prayer, my girls, family and friends, I continue to move forward.

Malana Pinckney, younger daughter: I miss my dad a lot. I will always be his Baby Girl and Grasshopper. I will continue to do well in life to make him and my mommy proud.

Eliana Pinckney, older daughter: It has been very hard not having my dad around when I needed him, but I still hold onto the lessons he taught me. His little Princess will make him proud.

Kevin Singleton created a nonprofit, Passion to Forgive, to honor the legacy of his mother, Myra Thompson, a longtime educator. In December, he donated bikes to students at James Simons Elementary School. File/Michael Pronzato/Staff

Kevin Singleton on his mother, Myra Thompson: ‘I will follow her lead’


I’ve always heard that grief is something everyone deals with differently. Well, I can honestly say that from my experience, it is a true assessment of the word.

It does not feel like two years since my mom and all her friends lost their lives in the church where we were raised. All I could think about was Reverend Holman and Reverend Scott and all of the Sunday school sessions I attended as a child in that very basement where my mom lost her life.

Coping with it in my own way has been unreal. I do my best to put up a brave face and move forward, but the true emotional roller coaster can’t be explained with mere words. However, the way she raised me has given me the ability to even speak about it. The way Emanuel AME Church raised me via Reverend Holman and Reverend Scott has allowed me to have faith in a higher power. Despite my mom losing her life in the house of the Lord, I have never questioned the higher power ... not once. She prepared me for a time when she would not be around.

When I created Passion to Forgive, a nonprofit to honor my mom’s legacy of giving, it wasn’t about forgiving a human being. It was for the youth and everyone else it might benefit, not for me. It was for my mom and to honor how she would’ve handled it if I was the one in the church that night and she was at home. I followed her lead.

I’m not as good as she was. Myra Singleton Thompson would have allowed forgiveness to enter her heart for the community of Charleston, not for herself. So again, I followed her lead.

— Kevin Singleton, a Charlotte resident, lost his mother, Myra Thompson, in the shooting

Melvin Graham, brother of shooting victim Cynthia Hurd, spoke with reporters after a jury sentenced shooter Dylann Roof to death in January. File/Brooks Brunson/Staff

Melvin Graham hopes to turn tragedy into a legacy to honor sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd

As we enter year two, my family still feels both pain and sorrow. My sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, is missed so much. Along with her death, we have had to deal with the lost of aunts, an uncle and two cousins.

We have been on a roller coaster ride of events and emotions. Now there are no more court dates, no more trials. Maybe we can start to heal and build on the goodwill shown to us during this tragedy. We are working to uphold, uplift and honor Cynthia.

We are working to turn pain into joy, sorrow into triumph, and tragedy into a legacy of hope and change. We are committed to this as a family, and we will work to this end. Cynthia has shown us how one person can have a profound effect on the people around them. We hope to do the same in a positive way that brings honor and pride to Cynthia as well as our family, city and state. This will not be easy, but with the continual prayers and support of all the people who have helped us on this journey, we can and will.

We also focus on blessings. Most important of all, our sister Averill, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly before Cynthia’s death, is well and cancer free.

— Melvin Graham lost his sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, a longtime librarian and lifelong Emanuel AME member

The Rev. Sharon Risher placed a rose on her mother’s casket on June 25, 2015. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

The Rev. Sharon Risher on losing her mother, Ethel Lance: ‘I feel the fog lifting’

Two years later:

I feel the heavy fog lifting, and I can see more clearly. That ache in my heart and that queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach are not so pronounced, although they remain. I have days that are somewhat normal and have days when I feel such sadness and loneliness. Sometimes I find myself crying out of the blue. Most times, I feel like the world has forgotten them, on to the next mass shooting, because it continues to happen every day. Then God gently reminds me that their deaths were not in vain, and you are never alone.

Sitting in the courtroom for the trial was more than overwhelming. I arrived every day as if I was going into battle. I had long known the intimate details of what happened that night, but watching the videos, seeing the pictures and listening to the autopsy reports was more than I ever imaged. Most family members found themselves silently crying or moaning because we couldn’t keep it inside. When they shared Momma’s autopsy report and how many times she was hit by the bullets, it felt like my body and spirit felt what Momma felt.

Finally, the death sentence came, and I was sad and happy at the same time. The jury had given them all justice. I can live with their decision.

I label myself as an Accidental Activist. I have extensively traveled this country speaking at universities, colleges and churches, telling them the narrative of my journey since that day and how I have walked through such horrific grief. I tell them of my journey through loss, forgiveness, racism and gun violence. I believe God has appointed me to be one of the spokespeople for them all so that American won’t forget they lost their lives because of hate. I know hate won’t win.

— The Rev. Sharon Risher, an AME minister who lives in Charlotte, lost her mother, Ethel Lance, in the shooting

Bethane Middleton-Brown (left) remembers her sister DePayne Middleton Doctor, a licensed minister who died in the church shooting. Provided

Bethane Middleton-Brown: Becoming ‘Monte’ while raising the children of her sister, DePayne Middleton Doctor

Today, I recognize my resilience. My challenges are my footstool. I continue to seek counseling so that I never overlook a mental or emotional challenge. I do think about the trial and seeing my sister’s body laying helplessly on the floor as she left this sinful world and our lives. However, I believe she as well as the others were handpicked by God to be in his kingdom, and she’s nestled in his bosom.

I have her two youngest girls while the other two girls are close by. Since her death, one has graduated college. Her second born is sought after by colleges to play basketball and volleyball. The youngest still enjoys classical ballet/dance and also plays volleyball as well as runs track. Both girls are doing very well in school making high marks. I enjoy “me time” with my three children and my two nieces all individually as often as possible, and we have family time often. Our last three family fun times were hiking at Grandfather Mountain, bowling and playing laser tag.

I was the scaredy cat in the mountains when it came to crossing the swinging bridge and I suck at laser tag. The bowling ball went behind me instead of down the alley or in the gutter. I was the joke of the day it seems, but all in good fun. While we do attend church, this is a hard task for me and the girls and we do experience some anxiety in large crowds, but we make the effort. Family time is everything to me and most of our meals are done together. Dinner every night is together with all four of my sister’s girls as much as possible and in our household most days. My children welcome their cousins and it seems like we’re just having a good old family visit because of how well the transition went for us with this new way of living.

We recognize we are now a blended family. They have given me the name “Monte” for mother and auntie. I have my moments as do they.

For me, I work hard on maintaining my focus/attention span. I often forget and struggle with staying on task, but I am progressing. I always assumed that I had faith, but to feel it and see it within myself is so rewarding. I’ve learned that along with my parents, my sister has prepared me all of her life for the life I would have. She was truly a blessing. Today I am a stronger person, a woman of great distinction and poise because of the teachings I received from her. She was indeed the best big sister ever!!

— Bethane Middleton-Brown of Charlotte, whose older sister Depayne V. Middleton Doctor died in the shooting

Walter “Bernie” Jackson Jr. with an image of his grandmother Susie Jackson, who at 87 years old was the oldest of the nine victims at Emanuel AME Church. Provided

Bernie Jackson’s grandmother Susie Jackson filled life with wisdom and faith

There is absolutely not one day that goes by when I do not think about my grandmother Susie Jackson! My name is Walter “Bernie” Jackson Jr., and I am her oldest grandson. This year, she would have been a young 89 years old. She was still very much full of life, love and laughter. I had so many more words of wisdom, encouragement and guidance to receive from her. But that journey has taken a new direction.

The trial is over, and we are approaching the second year anniversary since she was taken from me, from you, from us. I still miss her, and I still have my moments when my tears are not tears of joy but tears of pain and sorrow. There are no more opportunities to share the good news of the amazing accomplishments of her great granddaughters, Tiana, Jasmine and Chloe. There are no more opportunities to be super excited about spending quality time with her at the family reunion and her showing me off to all her friends bragging about the great things that I do. No more opportunities to just be in her presence and enjoy the comfort of her spoiling me, even in my 40s.

Now, my new journey without her has allowed me to truly reflect on the life that she lived and how her sharing and caring spirit should constantly be a reflection in my own life. I am striving to be more like Jesus — and also to be more like Susie. My grandmother was an amazing woman who had so much more to give to the world. I’m committed to upholding her legacy and I want it to be contagious, just like her beautiful smile.

— Bernie Jackson lost his grandmother, Susie Jackson, the oldest worshipper who died in the shooting