Surviving the death of a loved one is rarely easy. When that loved one is killed by the hands of another, the burden can be nearly unbearable.
The Rev. Dr. D. Najuma Smith-Pollard, pastor of Word of Encouragement Community Church in Los Angeles, experienced that agonizing pain in October 2019 when her son Daniel, was shot down in Las Vegas.
In the following edited interview with the Sentinel, she recalls the tragedy and shares how her faith continues to help her deal with life as a wife, mother, pastor and program manager for the USC Murray Center for Civic Engagement.
You recently lost your son to violence. What were your thoughts and actions upon hearing the news?
When we got the call, from Daniel’s friend, all we were told, is that Daniel had been shot and rushed to the hospital. Because [his friend] was so frantic, I barely got much out of her except that “he was shot, and come to Trauma Unit at Vegas Medical Center.”
I actually had to get the address and phone number of the Trauma Center from Google because she was simply inconsolable. I was terrified, but hopeful. I know a number of people who had been shot and many are alive today. So what went through my head was, “Shot is not dead! He will be okay!”
I immediately began to make arrangements for my church and for my other children to get picked up and looked after because we had to fly to Las Vegas. Next, after several attempts to get information, I finally spoke with a nurse in the trauma unit. She could not give me details, but when I asked, “Is he conscious,” she replied sternly, “No! Get here right away!”
At that point, terrified shifted to panic! This was not good. I prayed all the prayers and spoke all the words of faith and life that I had in my arsenal.
Sadly, when we arrived, we were faced with the stark reality that Daniel was (in the words of the top surgeon), “A very sick boy and his chances for a quality of life,” were not good. On Monday, Oct. 29, at 4:25 p.m., he was officially pronounced deceased.
What are some of the most difficult challenges or questions you faced in your effort to make sense of his death?
The first difficulty was that there was no making sense of his death, especially once we learned about the details of the incident. It didn’t make sense to see the Las Vegas News report titled, “Man Killed Over a Cell Phone.” This didn’t make sense. It will never make sense. To make sense of this would be to suggest that people should die over cell phones.
The second challenge was watching him die, hour-by-hour and as a family of faith, who believes that God can do anything! Witnessing nothing, we saw no sign that it could go another way. So you ask questions like, “Why aren’t we getting the miracle?”
The third test was preparing to let him go! At some point, we were going to have to let him go. Daniel was on full life support and if his brain died, then we would have to let him go. I walked outside by myself and screamed, “What do you mean, God, that we have to let him go.”
It felt very cruel, but it was the right and loving thing to do. Sadly, but graciously, his body took a difficult turn, which let us know what to do next.
After his services were over, what steps did you take to maintain your life as a mother, wife, pastor and working executive, despite the sadness?
Well, I’m still taking steps in order to do all of the above, because every day it is still hard to get up, get focused and get moving. I go easy on myself; and don’t have a whole lot of expectations.
I lightened my load and immediately got rid of a few tasks and to-dos. I let people help (which hasn’t been easy), but it has proven to be a blessing. Most importantly, I don’t try to hide my sadness or grief. There are several people who have called when I’m in the midst of a crying spell; and they sit with me on the phone while I cry it out. I try to be honest when I’m asked, “How are you?”
I’m selective about whom I talk to and who talks to me. I have taken a deeper dive into meditation practice daily. And oddly enough, sharing my raw emotions, feelings and grief on my social media has been quite therapeutic; it allows me to get “it” off my chest! But I still have work to do. I have plans for therapy, doing some grief writing and sabbatical time away.
How did you keep your faith in the midst of grief?
Truthfully, God kept me! I didn’t keep the faith. I wanted to give up. I had that moment when I told God, “Take everything,” but the Spirit in me wouldn’t let me let go.
I’m now able to hold on to my faith, but that’s only because God was faithful first and held me up when I couldn’t hold on. The way God held me up came through the nurse, who God used the first day in the hospital to direct me to, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” and all of the people who prayed and put their lives on hold to make sure I would make it.
What faith-based lessons, practical conclusions, and steps for healing can you share to help others who experience the loss of a loved one?
First, community – you need to have community. Second, self-care – you must do what you need to do for you, not for other people. (I cut my hair off, dyed it pink and then got a tattoo).
Third, go easy on yourself. Don’t put a whole lot of pressure on yourself to get it all together. Fourth, have boundaries. Not everyone had or has access to me, even in the name of “condolences” or “checking on you.” It’s okay to establish whom you want in this delicate space.
Fifth, discover what spiritual practice allows you to reconnect to yourself and reconnect with God (or whatever higher power one chooses to honor).