Emerald Garner on Trauma, Picking up the Pieces and Finding Her Voice

“We didn’t choose for my father to be murdered, but we were left to pick up the pieces after.”

My father was killed on a Thursday. The first time we went to the National Action Network was that Saturday. And the following week, Rev. Al Sharpton had a march on Staten Island. I took the train and the bus to the march since I didn’t have a car at the time, and when the march was over I was looking for a ride back to Harlem. Rev. Sharpton told me to get on “the Huddle bus,” so I asked his daughter Ashley if I could ride the bus with them, and she welcomed me with open arms.

On the ride back uptown, they told me what they do at the Huddle and how they meet every week and how it’s a place to talk and get the support and guidance that I will definitely need moving forward through this process. So I took them up on their offer, and every Monday I would find my way to the House of Justice and attend the Huddle.

(Haymarket Books)

It was, ‘Just don’t worry about it,’ ‘Down the line everything will be fine,’ and ‘Once you get the settlement, everything will be okay.’ And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There was no togetherness, no accountability for the world mishandling us.

Emerald Garner

That was the first experience with therapy that I feel actually helped me. I had a safe space to express my real feelings, whether they were anger, sadness, frustration, whatever the emotion was, and I wasn’t being judged for it. They actually told me that it was okay for me to feel whatever it was that I was feeling. Nobody had ever told me that before. The other therapists while I was in the foster system always told me how I should feel or what my emotions should be. But at the Huddle, they started off by saying, “Literally whatever emotion you are feeling right now is what you need to feel right now, and it’s okay.”

So let me be clear: What me and my entire family needed was the right kind of therapy. And for me, I was forced to deal alone with the trauma, and the anxiety, and the roaming thoughts and emotions after my father was murdered. I recognize that it would have been very helpful if someone had come in as a mental health professional, and not only for myself but also for my mother, my sister, my brothers and everyone else in my family. We didn’t have bereavement counseling. In fact, I’ve never in my life been to a bereavement counseling session. I didn’t even know that bereavement counseling existed, and now that I am learning about it, I wish that would’ve been available to me and my family.

So as a result, the issues that we had before my father was killed remained after his murder and were magnified times a thousand. With bereavement counseling, we would’ve been able to deal with the issues of the past, deal with the issues of the present, and have a plan for the future. But there were no steps, no nothing. It was, “Just don’t worry about it,” “Down the line everything will be fine,” and “Once you get the settlement, everything will be okay.” And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There was no togetherness, no accountability for the world mishandling us.

So here’s how it went. My father is murdered, then boom we’re thrown in front of the camera, boom we’re speaking at the National Action Network (NAN), and the next month we’re all over the world because we’re doing a march someplace else with NAN.

Then the next month, Mike Brown is killed, and the next month Sandra Bland is killed. And while you haven’t even fully grieved, you’re now linked to other cases, and you only have the bond that your loved one was also murdered by the police. And you have to navigate being re-traumatized over and over again while you still haven’t received justice for your father being murdered, and the video is being played over and over and over again, and the cop who committed the murder and all of the cops who stood around and watched and didn’t intervene or say, “Okay, that’s enough,” or, “He’s said he can’t breathe 11 times,” or, “He’s down, stop choking him,” are just living their lives, back with their families, back to work like nothing happened.

And through all of this, there was nobody pulling us to the side saying, “Hey, I’ve dealt with families who have experienced trauma, and you can use these methods to cope,” or, “You need to talk to this person who will help guide you through this process.” There was nothing. And we all grieve differently, every one of us because we are different people and need different things and that’s why, going back to what I said earlier, the right kind of therapy and counseling is needed. But also, all that costs money. None of that is free.

The surviving family members of a victim of police brutality should all automatically get all of the counseling and therapy they need free of charge for as long as they need it. That should be automatic.

I personally don’t like to deal with things head-on, so I become a hermit crab. You don’t hear from me for a while, you may see a few social media posts here and there, but you won’t see me calling and texting a lot because I am in healing mode for myself and feel I have to shut out everyone else in the world. With the right guidance, I would have learned that, although I may need that, I should warn the people close to me before I go quiet. Or I should communicate the best way to be there for me and the way not to attempt to be there for me because sometimes people have to be taught how to support you and can’t read your mind or your emotions. But I didn’t have anyone guiding me through that, and relationships were damaged as a result.

Erica was different. She wanted to let the world know exactly how she felt. She wanted to be open with her emotions. She wanted to wear her heart on her sleeve, and for everyone to be fully aware of what she was going through, struggling with, and dealing with. She wanted to rally the troops and storm the castle, so to speak. She wanted to scream from the mountaintops with a megaphone.

My brother Eric wanted to busy himself with partying to take his mind off everything. Almost as if he didn’t want to think about everything going on, so he tried to replace it with people and music and partying. But in his quiet moments, he was tormented about it and had difficulty speaking about it in private or in public.

My other brother Emery, the youngest, just digressed completely. He went into babyism. He couldn’t deal with it at all without breaking down. And that was the same for all of us. We just presented it differently. He needed someone to help push him along because the world doesn’t stop just because you have stopped. The world keeps going. And he needed someone to guide him through managing all of that.

Everyone started to grieve differently, and nobody was given the proper tools that should have been applied to each way of grieving. So we were all left to figure it out for ourselves, and we shouldn’t have had to do that. We didn’t choose for my father to be murdered, but we were left to pick up the pieces after, and that just wasn’t fair.

Excerpt from Finding My Voice: On Grieving My Father, Eric Garner, and Pushing for Justice by Emerald Garner, Monet Dunham and Etan Thomas. First serial rights courtesy of Haymarket Books.

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Emerald Garner is the daughter of Eric Garner and co-author of Finding My Voice: On Grieving My Father, Eric Garner, and Pushing for Justice.