For Victims of Violence, Memorials Built to Last
How We Grieve: This the first in an occasional series exploring the ways people express their feelings in the aftermath of a death.
Some memorials to homicide victims are made of flowers, candles and photographs. Others are built to last.
Memorials to victims in the Pittsburgh region often hide in plain sight, but their message is far from veiled. Those behind the memorials say they're an attempt to turn despair into something positive.
When Jason Rivers learned his little brother Anthony had been killed, he struggled to find the composure to break the news to his mother, to hold back his other brother from retaliating and to face his own feelings of anger and despair.
This was not the first time Rivers had dealt with the aftermath of a violent death. His job at the time was working in communities to prevent violence following shootings or fights. Now he was confronting the same emotions he’d been counseling young men to deal with constructively.
“I’ve helped other people and talked to them and supported them through their grief and encouraged them to not respond with violence, but it’s a whole other story when you’re living it,” Rivers said. “It gave me an up close and personal view of those words and what I’ve been speaking."
Anthony Rivers was 26 years old in the summer of 2008 when he was shot after being robbed by two teenagers in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood. He was standing outside, visiting a friend when the boys approached him. After giving them the chain from around his neck as they had demanded, they killed him anyway. A high school junior was convicted of his murder the following year.
Jason said he was especially stung by comments from emergency responders. Rivers said they didn’t have a clue about Anthony.
“The assumption is that my brother may have been involved in some illegal activity, and it just couldn’t have been further from the case," he said. "At the time of his death, he was a recent college graduate and was waiting for some paper work so he could start a chain of day cares. He was a devoted father.”
Anthony was also a devoted basketball player. Small in stature, he idealized little guys who’d made it big in the NBA, and his normally laid-back disposition was sidelined when on the basketball court.
That's why after Anthony's death, Jason and his family decided to honor him with a memorial to his passion for basketball. They poured their grief into rehabbing a court in East Liberty where Anthony used to play.
They filled in cracks, repaired and replaced nets and backboards, and painted Anthony’s signature number 3 in black and yellow in the center of the court.
“We decided we wanted to do something we had control over to continue his legacy and write that final chapter of his life, we didn’t want that to be the lasting memory of who he was …" Jason Rivers said. "It’s doing something different with that pain.”
Crafting an alternate ending, so to speak, also propelled the Braddock's mayor, John Fetterman, to build a memorial to a different victim. On a frigid February evening in 2007, 2-year-old Nyia Page was raped by her father, carried to a vacant lot and left alone in the 4-degree night.
“Her last moments must have been beyond awful," Fetterman said. "There were little footprints in the snow. So I can’t imagine how she could have processed what had happened to her.”
Initially she was reported missing and Fetterman was a part of the search party, all the while consoling the family and the father.
“He knew he did it, he knew all along," Fetterman said. "It was just such an awful experience, that that kind of evil exists in the world … He did it to his own daughter.”
Page’s father William was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to life in prison. Fetterman said the brutality had to be battled with humanity. He named a community center after her and helped erect a sculpture of a butterfly in her memory. Its wings are a kaleidoscope of orange, red, purple and blue stained glass.
"It’s a symbol of freedom," Fetterman said. "Something so awful has been put out into the community and I wanted something as an answer to that.”
Answering a monstrous deed with something of beauty is part of the reason Betsy Dane came up with the idea for a victims’ garden.
Dane runs Washington County’s Crime Victim Assistance Program. The garden is tucked into a corner behind the courthouse, and from the courtyard you can hear the jawing of inmates at the adjacent jail, street traffic, and lawyerly conversations as officials pass through the site.
But all that noise disappears in close proximity to the garden, because there’s the constant rush of a small waterfall that cascades in between nearly 100 smooth oval stones.
“We have stones that are engraved with everyone’s name who has been a victim of homicide in Washington County," Dane said. "Some of them are very well known they’ve been high-profile type cases. And some of them you would never, ever know.”
She said it’s usually the victims of murder-suicides who tend to be destined for obscurity since their cases aren’t picked up by the criminal justice system. They add stones only after receiving permission from the victims’ families.
Dane said the garden is a comfort to them. She recalled one mother who spent time sitting by the garden collecting her thoughts during the trial for her murdered daughter.
"And it was a very spiritual moment for her, she felt very much in tune with the whole concept of having a garden, which requires attending to and symbolizes re-growth," Dane said. "It was very helpful for her."
After more than a decade of working with the program, Dane said the feelings her job elicits still unsettle her.
“It’s overwhelming," she said. "I think I take my inspiration from the families — such incredible grace under horrendous circumstances, because the criminal justice system doesn’t always do what they want it to do. It doesn’t close the book.”
Dane said they don’t use the word closure, and the garden, with its modest stones and little stream, does not symbolize the end of the story. Instead, these permanent memorials are about finding a response to a scenario no one dreamed possible. They are about giving a sense of permanency to a name and a life that might otherwise disappear from memory.