BY JOSEPH E. MILLER
The bell rings and children file into a classroom at a domestic abuse shelter in downtown Philadelphia. Donna Davis greets each kid and marks attendance, checking the list of families staying there. The names change regularly as women come and go from the program.
Once all the students are seated, Donna begins the lesson with a question: “How are you feeling today?” It’s not something they’re used to being asked.
One older kid raises his hand. “Ms. Donna, I’m feeling crazy!”
The Davis family, from left: Brandon, Donna, Shannon, and Clarence.
“OK, alright, let’s talk about that.” Donna listens as the child opens up about missing his father. These kids have little opportunity to explore their emotions so openly. Donna may have only a few days with each one, so she insists on wasting no time in order to have as much of a positive impact in their lives as possible.
A mother herself, Donna empathizes with the women who seek safe haven. Most of them never imagined their lives turning out this way, she says. Even if women won’t leave an abusive relationship for their own sake, they have their children to think about. Donna knows that mothers will go to extreme lengths to keep their kids safe.
But there are times when safety is out of a mother’s control. An act of violence transformed Donna’s own family more than 15 years ago: the day her son Ricky was killed.
In the middle of the night, Brandon Davis lay awake in bed, unable to sleep. It was 2004, only a year after his brother’s murder. Often, amid the turmoil of intense emotions, fear so filled his mind that he could think of little else. What am I going to do without him? he thought. Ricky always knew what to say—he had a way of making everything seem so simple. Brandon would be finishing college soon but felt directionless. Each day, the stress of life increased just enough for Brandon to feel like a twig bending under immense weight. But now he had a sense that the breaking point loomed. Brandon knew Donna was concerned about his emotional state, and he wanted to be the ideal son.
Donna Davis attends a Bible study.
In a fevered prayer, Brandon cried out, “God, if You could just let me see Ricky one last time, somehow … Please, help me.” Though he grew up in church, Brandon had never put much thought into his relationship with Christ. But he cast his whole heart into this prayer.
That night, he had the most lucid dream of his life. In it, Ricky climbed the steps to Brandon’s attic bedroom, as he’d done countless times. Brandon jumped out of bed and ran to his brother, squeezing him like a vise. Ricky laughed and teased his little brother, telling him to knock it off.
“I woke up the next day, and it felt like a thousand pounds lifted off me,” Brandon said. “It was probably the biggest moment I could ever have, because it gave me a newfound energy.” Within months, Brandon started a nonprofit foundation dedicated to assisting young entrepreneurs. To date, he has helped hundreds of young Philadelphians realize their dreams.
Just a few days after Ricky’s funeral, Shannon Davis stormed into the cemetery office. “Where’s his marker? There’s nothing there!”
While her parents Donna and Clarence still reeled from the death of their son, Shannon took it upon herself to tend to her brother’s gravesite. When the woman at the counter asked what was wrong, Shannon pointed out that there was nothing to distinguish Ricky’s grave from the others. The woman handed her a temporary plaque—something to place while waiting for the actual tombstone to come in—but it was blank.
Brandon Davis visits an area where he helps entrepreneurs.
Shannon fumed. She grabbed a marker and wrote out his full name: Clarence Rick Davis III. He would be remembered. She couldn’t let herself imagine a future where people forgot Ricky. Everyone in the neighborhood thought of this outgoing, popular boy as helpful. Though he hadn’t pursue college like his sister, he was gifted with his hands and an extremely knowledgeable mechanic.
With the help of her fiancé Chris, Shannon had taken care of all the funeral arrangements. She also became more heavily involved in the lives of Ricky’s three small children. But it all became too much. Stress fractures emerged in her relationship with Chris, fights erupting with little apparent reason. It would be years before Shannon realized, with the help of a therapist, that she battles bipolar disorder—a condition possibly present since youth but almost certainly inflamed by the loss of her brother.
Shannon remembers the moment she decided to take her own life. Though a dedicated follower of Jesus, she couldn’t find the solace that she’d once experienced in spiritual disciplines. Knowing the stigma attached to suicide, Shannon considered crashing her car in some spectacular way that would be seen as an accident.
As she drove, contemplating the wreck, a song came on the radio: “The Battle Is Not Yours” by Yolanda Adams. In the live version, the artist speaks directly to the audience, reminding them, “There’s no sadness Jesus can’t feel / And there is no sorrow that He cannot heal.” Shannon pulled the car over and began to wail, giving her despair and anger to the Lord.
A view of Philadelphia City Hall down South Broad Street.
When Donna looks back at photos of herself from a year after Ricky’s death, she’s struck by how gaunt she appears: dark circles under her eyes, weight lost from grief—like a zombie on the television show The Walking Dead, she says.
During that time, she would regularly examine the things Ricky left behind. She remembers holding his shirt tight to her face and taking deep breaths, inhaling the scent of her missing son. For a brief flash, he wasn’t absent from the world. But the scent was fading.
Donna found herself with more time on her hands. She’d quit her job eight months after Ricky’s death, on what would have been his 24th birthday. Meaning had been sapped from everything she once cared about. “I was willing myself to die,” Donna says. “I was getting up, doing the bare necessities. In my heart, I just wanted to be wherever he was. I wanted to drift away—not commit suicide, but just drift off.”
When she couldn’t sleep, Donna would go downstairs and turn on the radio. She’d dial through the stations, hoping to find something, anything, to distract her from her thoughts. Then one day, a familiar voice came through the static. It was Charles Stanley.
The Davis family at home, reminiscing together.
Though she was already a longtime listener of In Touch with Dr. Charles Stanley, Donna didn’t immediately expect that his messages could help ease the grief of losing a child to murder. But Dr. Stanley reminded her that God—above anyone else—understands that kind of pain. She thought of God’s Son hanging on a cross, punished for something He didn’t do.
Though Donna didn’t always approve of the company Ricky kept, she felt it was important people knew he wasn’t to blame for his own death. Ricky was shot while being robbed by someone he knew. The guilty party was sentenced to life in prison.
Yet that brought only partial solace. Donna still needed something, and she wasn’t quite sure what. She returned to the notes and letters Ricky had given her throughout the years. Inside a Mother’s Day card, he’d written that he felt inspired to share with her John 16. In the chapter, Jesus comforts His disciples in preparation for His eventual death. Donna had read this message before but without really noticing that detail. Opening her Bible, she was struck by verse 22: “Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”
For Donna, it was as if Ricky had sent a message into the future, a word of comfort for just the right moment. Thoughts of Shannon and Brandon and the three grandchildren flooded her heart. They still need me.
Always carrying a burden for children, Donna decided to go back to school at an age when many people are starting to wind down their professional careers. She received a master’s degree in education, then began a teaching job that led to her eventual recruitment for the shelter where she now works. Donna understands that though her grief may never fully recede, there are people in her life, and her city, who can benefit from the love in her heart.
It’s a warm summer Sunday afternoon, and Donna and her husband Clarence prepare their house for a weekly family get-together. Now that the children have grown up and moved out, these gatherings are an opportunity to share what’s happening in their lives. Though he’s been gone 16 years, Ricky increasingly plays a part in the conversation as the Davises heal. Perhaps it’s about the many times he fixed a neighbor’s car. Or when he said he would help his little brother set up a recording studio in the attic because Brandon had aspirations for a music career. Or about how much Ricky adored his young children, the oldest of whom is now heading to college.
Donna sits back and takes it all in. On the wall above them, there’s a large frame bearing dozens of family photos taken throughout the years—snapshots of her marriage to Clarence, the children as toddlers, class pictures. Once it could have been taken as a sign of happier times. But today it’s a testament to resilience, a reminder that God’s love speaks gently to us in our deepest places of grief.
Photography by Ben Rollins