The New York Times
By N. R. Kleinfield
May 26, 2017
Irene Gowins-Sowells watched her husband die nearly 17 years ago after he was fatally shot in front of their Brooklyn home. And no one can tell her who killed him.
Kimmi Herring had just begun this work. She was a case manager in the Families of Homicide Victims Program at Safe Horizon. It contacts survivors to offer help. “A life has been turned upside down, and we need to let the person know their reactions are normal,” was one way Ms. Herring explained some of the things she did.
Shortly after the killing, the file landed on her desk: Irene Gowins-Sowells. Ms. Gowins-Sowells was crumbling in solitude in her bedroom, lost in herself. Relatives brought her food, begged her to eat, even got a nurse to visit. She cried continually. She was about to start work as a school safety agent but no longer felt able to solder her life back together.
When Ms. Herring finally heard from her, she was still disconsolate. “She articulated this sense of being lost,” Ms. Herring said recently. “She was concerned about how she was going to move forward and raise three sons.”
Some members of her family — she was one of seven children — were hardly supportive. For reasons she didn’t understand, one sister circulated rumors that maybe she had something to do with the killing. Her sister wrote her: “You know who killed Bernard.” Her sister wrote: “You need to get a real job.”
Ms. Herring needed to help her put her story — a mysterious death, a woman alone with three boys caught in the echo chamber of grief — in the context of all of the stories circling around her. They met weekly. “Grief is not linear,” Ms. Herring would tell her. “I think of it in waves. You have to ride the waves.”
The small steps in life were overwhelming, and Ms. Gowins-Sowells shared them with Ms. Herring. She told her about registering her 5-year-old for school. “It was crowded and I had a number,” she said. “All of a sudden I started crying. Because my husband would have been with me. So I didn’t register my son. I didn’t do it for two weeks.”
Ms. Herring didn’t know how this one would play out. So many cases go unsolved. Since 2006, according to the police, 1,693 homicides out of 4,911 remain unsolved in New York, more than a third. For relatives left behind, Ms. Herring saw a difference. They seemed to have a harder time fixing themselves.
“Those who have had an opportunity where there is a conviction, it closes out that phase of their grief,” she said. “Most of the families I work with don’t have that. Their grief leaves them somewhat in a state of torture. I’ve heard some say their loved ones have no value. ‘My loved one doesn’t matter. No one cares.’”
Months flickered by. And? Well, nothing. No arrests. Neighbors dissociated themselves from the killing, giving the police little to work with.
For 16 years, Ms. Gowins-Sowells has lived without her husband. She was 32 when he was killed, and now she is 49. She has not remarried. She had gone on a grand total of three dates, love proving elusive. “I don’t mind dating,” she said, “but there are all these knuckleheads. I’m not picky, but I want someone who I can hold an intelligent conversation with.”
Money is short. Her sons and relatives pitch in, but she knows she needs work. She was polishing some film scripts, hoping one might sell. She had done a pilot for a C.I.A.-themed sitcom featuring a set of strong-willed women. She drafted a horror movie script centered on the son of Freddy Krueger, the fictional serial killer who slew teenagers in their dreams. She was taking online courses to get a doctorate in psychology; she had a couple of years to go. And she was arranging to do Keyz workshops.
She was in contact with Kimmi Herring again, getting comfort there.
A confident Ms. Herring walked up front and got the session going. It was several months after Ms. Gowins-Sowells had had her respite on the bench in Madison Square Park, and now it was spitting rain outside. She was at the Brooklyn office of Safe Horizon, there for training new staff members: how to address the needs of survivors of homicides. Often Ms. Herring asks a survivor to come.
When her turn came, Ms. Gowins-Sowells told of some of the dark tunnels she had visited. She spoke about mundane events after her husband’s killing that shook her. The thoughts that drummed their way across her mind. How to crawl back into life. On top of everything, a nephew had recently been fatally shot. A close friend had just had a heart attack (he soon died).
And so she said: “I’m looking at your faces. You’re hearing my story. I know it’s emotional for you. I’m happy. I’m extremely happy. My boys have turned out well. Even though we are survivors, we do go on. We do laugh again. We do get to travel and drink wine. I like to travel and drink wine. It’s not all sadness. We do get to live again.”
She continues to visit her old house, stare at it as if it contains her answers.
She doesn’t know what will keep her from seeing things and not knowing if they are real. On a sun-warmed day not long ago, she was visiting a friend in her old neighborhood. When she left for the subway, she didn’t want to walk on her old block. She took the next street. Thirsty, she wanted a bottle of water. She thought of the La Vega Grocery on Fulton Street that she and her husband had patronized.
As she approached it from across the street, she noticed another, newer store and on an impulse figured she would check it out. Then she froze. She saw him. The man with dreadlocks. Older, of course, but it was him. There were those broad shoulders. Yes, it was him. Wasn’t it? And she thought, I’m seriously losing it. What are the odds? He glanced her way and entered the new store. Shaking, she turned and walked to the old store. She got her water and caught the subway.