If asked for one word descriptions of Kemiko Lawrence, “Outgoing,” “Exuberant,” “Talkative” and “Positive, ” without hesitation would top my list. A self-care advocate, Chief Joy Officer and lover of nature, she has lived in Douglasville for the past 19 years and raised five children alongside her husband Mark.
But an unusually subdued voice on the other end of the phone last week caught me off guard given that I’d grown accustomed to a normally exuberant person I’d gotten to know over the years. After she mentioned a recent Douglasville tragedy that resurrected an experience from her own life we agreed to meet.
Two days later I sat across from the desk from a misty-eyed Lawrence. Over the course of the next hour, I was introduced to a side of Lawrence that I would never have imagined. I learned about personal loss, pain, guilt and shame. Above all I learned how one person put inevitable painful realities in life in context and emerged a better individual.
“When I heard about the murders of those two teenagers at a Douglasville house party recently, it was a painful reminder of a tragic memory from my childhood,” she began.
What follows are questions I posed to her.
Tell me about the incident you refer to.
The incident took me back to Queens, New York, when I was a high achieving academic 16-year-old girl who pressured my parents to host my graduation party. My poor judgement led me to inviting kids I didn’t know. Well over 100 kids showed up. Unfortunately, a fight broke out and a boy pulled out his gun and shot the 17 year old he was angry with at point blank range in the head. My five year old sister and 11 year old brother were all witnesses to this tragic event. The teenager died, five were wounded and countless others emotionally traumatized and scarred. That was 43 years ago. So here we are decades later and the images of what happened they day are etched in my head.
What happened afterwards?
Literally 24 hours after the tragedy and worried about retaliation and our safety, my dad loaded us up and sent us all to Tuskegee Alabama, where I was planning to begin my freshman year in college. My grandparents had owned property there. Once there I fell into a spiral of bad behaviors.
Yes. I was filled with fear, shame, guilt and anger because of what happened. First it was an avoidable car accident caused by mental disorientation. This was followed by alcohol and drug abuse, an abusive relationship with a young man 5 years older than me, arguments and disconnection with my family and much more. Because of the lack of awareness regarding mental health and therapy I did not possess the necessary support and coping skills to navigate my feelings of guilt, shame, and anger. I felt responsible for what happened at my party.”
Talk about the impact on those who attended the party in Douglasville and in yours in 1980.
What we may lose sight of when something like this happens is how far-reaching and how many people are impacted. I mean for the children and adults who were present at this party, even if they were not physically injured, they were emotionally injured. Even those throughout the community who weren’t present are emotionally moved by tragedies like these. The mere thought of the lives of kids this young being snuffed out is hard to shake.
If you had an opportunity to sit down with members of the families who lost their teenagers in Douglasville recently what would you say to them?
I would first want to give that 16-year-old girl and her family a big hug and let them know how much I can identify with what they experienced and are going through. Next, I’d strongly suggest that the entire family seek counseling. Reach out for support. Above all, to seek ways to take care of themselves and each other, both emotionally and physically.
How best should someone deal with the pain and shame about something beyond their control?
What I learned from my personal experience in dealing with shame is to shed light on it. Shame only lives in the dark and shrivels up and dies when you spotlight it. I believe that it’s critical to unpack the shame we harbor based on negative life experiences. Although we cannot escape or elude pain and shame in life we have the power to move through it and become a better person because of it. It’s important to not allow shame to hold you hostage. Like it ornot, experiences in life, including tragedies, become part of our stories. We don’t ask for pain and suffering. It is a natural part of the human experience. How we navigate it is up to us.
Say a bit more about personal stories.
My stories define who I am today and I’m able to draw so much inner strength because of what happened in my life. Stories are part and parcel to our journeys in life and pain is a part of those journeys. The point is that we do have control over what happens along that journey. So rather than ask “why me,” the better question is what can I learn from this and how can I become a better person as a result?
Any parting advice?
We only have the privilege of life for a short period of time, so develop a healthy relationship with pain. Prioritize self-care and gratitude as daily habits. Practice living in the moment, being kind and speaking kindly to yourself and others. Forgive yourself and others. Find your joy and embrace it. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. Spend more time being more and doing less. The present is a gift. What will you do with it? The body keeps the score. Even if our memories fade, our bodies hold trauma until we heal from it.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning speaker, writer and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, The Waynesboro News Virginian, TheBlackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.