For Buffalo shooting victims’ kin, Mother’s Day is a reminder of loss, a lesson in navigating grief

May 11, 2023, 10:06 PM

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Tirzah Patterson will dedicate this Mother’s Day to the hardest part of a mother’s job, trying to help her child make sense of tragedy.

Patterson and her husband had divorced but remained close for the sake of their son. Then Heyward Patterson was gunned down along with nine people in a racist attack at a Buffalo supermarket a year ago Sunday.

Tirzah and 13-year-old Jaques “Jake” Patterson recently opened up about coping with immense grief after a mass shooting, an unceasing story across the nation.

Jake’s compass through grief, his mother has told him, should be his faith and prayer. That guidance would serve so many mothers and fathers as the death toll from gun violence in America climbs and spreads, she said.

A beloved church deacon known for offering rides home from the supermarket for people without cars, Heyward Patterson made a heartfelt call to his ex-wife last Mother’s Day, telling his ex-wife what a great mother she was and how happy he was about how she was raising his son.

“He poured his heart out to me and, a week later, he left,” Patterson said. “He gave me closure.”

“He probably didn’t know why he was doing it,” she said. “God knows.”

The May 14 assault-rifle attack on Tops Friendly Market was one of the most brazen race-motivated atrocities in modern U.S. history.

“What I’ve been doing with Jake is constantly reinforcing and reiterating that this is a healing process,” Tirzah said while seated next to her son in their East Buffalo home.

“You will never forget (your dad). He may not be here physically, but he will always be in your heart.”

Heyward Patterson, 67, had two adult daughters. Jake, his youngest child, was his only son.

“He used to call him, ‘Boy.’ He never called him by his name,” Tirzah recalled as a wide grin spread across her son’s face.

“I would say, ‘You’re going to make that boy think his name is Boy!’”

“He’s truly missed,” she added.

Heyward was at the Tops Friendly Market assisting a shopper with groceries when he was shot and killed by an assault-rifle-toting white supremacist. The nine others killed, all Black, ranged in age from 32 to 86. The attacker, Payton Gendron, was 18 when he drove more than 200 miles from his home in rural New York, looking for Black people to kill in Buffalo’s largely minority and working-class East side.

In February, Gendron was sentenced to life in prison without parole after pleading guilty to murder and other charges brought by local prosecutors. A federal criminal hate crimes case is still pending, as U.S. Justice Department officials weigh whether to seek the death penalty if Gendron is convicted.

The city of Buffalo will pause Sunday to mark the passing of one year since the attack. Events include a moment of silence and the chiming of church bells. Tirzah said she and Jake hadn’t planned on participating in events locally.

She hasn’t burdened Jake with details of the criminal cases. Tirzah is much more focused on her son’s mental health.

“Right now, he’s being very fearful, very low key. He doesn’t really like to go out,” she said. “So I’m trying to teach him that that one incident doesn’t mean it’s going to happen all the time, or if you go out, something’s going to happen.

“I want him to grow up and be the best he can, because he’s very smart, very gifted.”

Nearly a year ago, during a press conference with the Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights attorney Ben Crump and other shooting victims’ families, a grief-stricken Tirzah wondered whether she was cut out to raise Jake without her ex-husband’s help.

“His heart is broken, he half eats, he half sleeps,” she tearfully told reporters, with Jake, then 12, at her side, his face covered with his hands.

“As a mother, what am I supposed to do to help him get through this? I need a village to help me raise and be here for my son,” she pleaded.

In the AP interview, Jake said his appetite is much improved. His go-to McDonald’s order includes a crispy McChicken sandwich, a large fries and a large Coke.

He’s an avid gamer. On the weekends, his older brother, Tirzah’s son from another relationship, takes Jake to kickboxing lessons. And the teen is interested in becoming a musician.

Heyward Patterson had a talent for singing in church. His son still cries when he hears certain songs during Sunday service. But other memories bring smiles and laughs.

Heyward was not a talented cook, Jake said laughing, recalling how his father once badly burned Spam, the canned meat. Jake’s trips to the movies with Dad and Mom were always funny, because Heyward would spill so much theater popcorn around his seat that you’d be forgiven for thinking children had been sitting there.

Still, there are moments where grief and sadness hit Jake unexpectedly. As an adolescent, he copes the best way he can and has advice for others his age grappling with the same feelings.

“I would just say, don’t really think about it too much. If you feel like it’s about to come, if you feel you’re about to cry or something, play (a game) or listen to some music to escape. Get your mind to escape from it.”

Jake paused and then added, “Just keep moving on.”

At Tirzah and Jake’s home, an apartment located just a few blocks northeast of Tops Friendly Market, several award plaques honoring Heyward lean against a TV stand. A large picture of the church deacon, displayed on an easel, overlooks the kitchen. The placement of these reminders of him are all deliberate, Tirzah said.

One memento that Jake cherishes more than others is a large woven blanket that bears an image of him and his father: a smiling Heyward sporting a black skull cap, a pair of tinted glasses, a salt-and-pepper goatee, a tan colored check patterned suit with pink necktie and handkerchief.

An inscription woven next to Jake and his dad reads, in part, “My Father taught me everything I know except how to live without him.”

“I haven’t slept with this cover yet, Mom,” Jake said, holding the blanket up for display. “It’s just on the bed.”

This Mother’s Day, the 13-year-old has a glowing review, or rather a score, for his mom. Nine thousand points out of a possible 10,000, he said.

Tirzah grinned.

“What keeps us going is the joy, the memories, the good memories we have, the laughter,” she said. “So, anybody that experiences this: Pray, keep God first and just take one day at a time. Because after a while, it’ll get better.”


Aaron Morrison is a New York-based member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison

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For Buffalo shooting victims’ kin, Mother’s Day is a reminder of loss, a lesson in navigating grief