Grieving the Murder of a Friend
CW: Domestic violence, death
“I brought these for you. I had a feeling you’d know what to do with them.” Jenna* stood at my door, 10 wildly colored pages in her hands. As I thumbed through them, I read affirmations like “Be the Best You!” and “You Are Fabulous!” I smiled. “I know just what to do with them.” 10 LGBTQIA kiddos struggling to reconcile their divinity in a conservative church each received one of Jenna’s creations.
She did things like that, my friend Jenna.
Once, she showed up with a necklace pendant featuring a tree woven out of silver. On the tree were stones in seven colors forming a rainbow of leaves across the branches. “I saw this and thought of you,” she said, shrugging off my delight. But I know she was pleased with the treasure she had found, and which she had given away. She gave more of herself than maybe she should have.
Some would say that her generosity, her ability to see good in people, brought her killer into her life. That feels like victim blaming. Women aren’t killed because of what they do or don’t do. Women are killed because some men are killers. And anyway, Jenna was no one’s victim. She landed a solid hook to his eye in her struggle at the end, and the mug shot taken after his arrest shows him in a hospital gown, testament to her ability and willingness to fight back. Her generosity was, I believe, the thing that kept her alive, that gave her motivation to push through hard things.
I want to say that her boyfriend killed her because he was wicked, abusive, destructive. Evil. But I know Jenna would be angry if I put it that way. She once told me, about a mutual friend, “She has so much pain. She just doesn’t know how to handle it. I’ll be here for her when she needs me.” She had limitless patience for our weaknesses, and gave infinite chances, even to those who hurt her. If she wouldn’t call her killer ‘evil’ what right do I have to put that label on him?
I could say that Jenna’s murderer was trapped in a system that refused mental health care to those who need it, a product of toxic masculinity that locked his emotions and trauma deep inside of him, until one day it exploded and caught Jenna in the blast.
For all I would like to be more Jenna-like, I’m full of fury. When I first wrote this, I wanted the mouth of hell to open wide for his soul. I wanted her murderer to drown in a river of boiling blood, Charon patrolling the banks. But in my mind’s eye I saw Jenna’s response to that, and it’s weighing on me. She’d stare at me, not saying anything, but sniffing in that “hmph” way she had. She’d done that before, when I suggested someone in her past who had hurt her would find justice when they met God, and that justice wouldn’t be kind to them. She didn’t believe in a God of torments. She believed that God healed, and that when we finally met divinity we would become whole through God’s love. And so I feel ashamed for hating her murderer. I’m not ready to want him forgiven in any divine sense (I’m not Jenna, after all), but maybe I can get to a place where I don’t relish visions of flames falling from the sky. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad he’s in jail. But maybe he’ll spend the rest of his life repenting, and maybe that’s enough.
Jenna thought there was too much sorrow in the world. She wore leggings with unicorns and starbursts on them. She dyed her hair pink and purple and blue. She covered her arms and back with dozens of tattoos and plans for a dozen more, all in vibrant hues, each telling a story of her triumph, her joy, her divinity. And she never left a walk, or my house, or the beach, or the school parking lot (where we stayed too long talking about our kids) without making me laugh with her irreverent sense of humor.
For my birthday one year, she dropped off a small chocolate bundt cake. “I know how much you love chocolate, and I love you, so I brought you chocolate. You don’t have to share.”
Christ said, “Lift up the hands which hang down,” and then he made Jenna who did just that. The weakest, the saddest, the most downtrodden, found warmth and welcome at Jenna’s. I count at least 13 people who faced homelessness but who found refuge for a month or two or eight in her home. She kept teenagers from the streets when their parents kicked them out. She took in mothers and children.
A few years ago, she decided she wanted to hold a garage sale for people who would not be able to afford Christmas gifts. But this yard sale would be free. So, in November, she collected new and gently used items from everyone she could and put them in her yard. And then she set about personally inviting people through facebook groups, support groups, word of mouth. She had a friend set up his portable photo studio so parents could have pictures of their children. Another friend brought a bouncy house for the kids. She had cookies and cocoa. No one was turned away. She didn’t require proof of poverty because, as she said, “If someone says they need something, then they need it. I’m not the judge.”
The yard sale became an annual tradition and everyone was welcome to give or take, as they were able. She never did like people to feel judged. Or to be judged by them.
Once in Relief Society shortly after she was baptized, the teacher theorized on the consequences of sin, like having a child out of wedlock. Jenna raised her hand, and, without waiting to be called on, simply said, “My child is not a sin. He’s a gift.” I never heard anyone in that class refer to sex outside of marriage as a sin again.
That was Jenna. Tattooed, swearing, tongue-pierced, sleeveless-tank-wearing Goddess of generosity and love. The world is covered in shadows now. Sorrow sits on my chest, pushes my heart down, makes it hard to breathe.
The last time I saw her, it was late. She was picking up her son after a nursing shift during Covid. “I love you, Jenna. You’re a rockstar,” I called as she jog-hopped to her running car. And she responded, as she always did, “I love you, too, sister.” I hold that memory to me, a gift.
It isn’t just my own loss that fills me with rage for the man who said he loved her and then held her down while he tore the breath from her body. It’s fury that there are teens who will now be on the streets. There are mothers facing food insecurity who won’t have Christmas gifts for their children. It’s a young child who needs his mom to stand between Relief Society sisters and him. And, yes, it is also my own grief, my own need to feel loved just as I am. To have Jenna, cup of coffee in her hand, stand next to me the way she did on the first day of school last year. I need her, when I start crying, to move just slightly closer to me, enough so that her shoulder touches mine. Not making a big deal about it. Not crying with me. Just sharing her warmth and her presence while I grieve.
*Names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.
Any history of strangulation in a relationship puts the person at greater risk for homicide by an intimate partner. If you or someone you know needs help, contact http://the hotline.org