June 25, 2018
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Grief counselor’s family tragedy is a teaching tool

By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times

LaQuita Suggs always had a fascination with the way people deal with death — even if her mother thought she was a little morbid.

While studying social work in college, Suggs volunteered to go to hospitals to talk to families in the moments after they had lost a loved one. When she later became a counselor, she worked with clients whose grief was sometimes difficult to comprehend.

There were the children whose father had shot their mother to death. In one grim moment, five siblings lost both their parents.

The eldest girl witnessed the killing, and Suggs worked with her to process the grief. Suggs encouraged her to keep a journal of her thoughts. The two did an exercise called the empty chair, in which the client speaks to the space as though it were the lost loved one.

Although Suggs had never experienced the traumatic loss of a close family member as the children had, she was confident that her compassion and knowledge could help her clients.

But only through her own grief would she be able to realize her strength in helping others.

On April 29, 2007, a Sunday afternoon, Suggs, then 35, wasn’t feeling well. She napped on and off in the Compton home she shared with her two sons and her mother, Ella.

When she woke about 1 p.m., her youngest son, Cameron Young, told her that Grandma — who was known for being punctual — still wasn’t home.

Ella Suggs, 53, liked finding trinkets, and on that day, ventured out to pick up groceries and to check out thrift stores. Around her neck was a necklace with a charm in the shape of a turtle shell. Ella thought turtles were good luck.

Suggs began calling Ella’s cellphone. She felt panic rise with each ring. After calling everyone who would know of Ella’s whereabouts, Suggs, Cameron and her oldest son, Atwan Williams, got into the car.

They drove by a nearby shopping center that Ella liked to visit. Yellow tape blocked off an area near a bus stop, but it looked like the scene of a car accident.

After the evening dragged on, Suggs became more desperate. She called out Ella’s name. “Where are you?” she yelled.

She called hospitals, drove the streets again and stopped at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Compton station to file a missing persons report.

“What happened in the shopping center?” she asked.

Instead of answering, the deputy at the desk told her to go home.

At 10:25 p.m., two detectives in pressed suits knocked on her door. All it took was a single question for her to know.

“Was Ella Suggs your mother?”

The killing seemed random and senseless. To cope, Suggs focused on the details of the crime.

Ella had gone to Ralphs to do some shopping. She bought turkey breast, Texas toast, two tomatoes and Salisbury steak, among other items. About 1 p.m., she walked to a nearby bus stop and sat down.

That’s when 31-year-old Charles Leon Elmore walked up to her and stabbed her with a sharpened paintbrush, authorities say. He might have been trying to rob her. The turtle shell necklace was never found.

Elmore walked back to the bus stop about 10 minutes later and was identified by witnesses who were being interviewed by deputies. It took four deputies to subdue Elmore, who screamed, “I didn’t do it.”

The next day, Suggs drove to the bus stop. Were there bloodstains on the sidewalk? Would she be able to see evidence of suffering? Did her mother leave anything behind? There was nothing to see.

Suggs was lost, unable to apply the strategies that she had used to help others.

Her mother was quiet and thoughtful. She had left Memphis with her daughter, then 10, to escape an abusive husband. For this strong woman to have survived that relationship only to end up being killed by a stranger was incomprehensible to Suggs.

She read everything she could about the crime in “investigative mode,” she says. She visited the cemetery on a near-daily basis with her children, until someone said she might want to leave the kids at home. She attended each court date, no matter how insignificant.

Deputy L.A. County District Attorney Allyson Ostrowski, who prosecuted the case, knew that Suggs needed to be there.

“You could tell she was going through something,” Ostrowski said, “and this was part of her process.”

After Suggs’ mother was killed, she questioned her skills as a therapist. She had always wanted to help people but wondered whether she had been blind to matters of grief.

Now, perhaps, her own pain could help her clients.

The first patient Suggs saw after her mother’s death was a woman whose daughter had been killed in an altercation. Suggs remembered the hollowness she felt after her mother’s stabbing, so she asked, how do you deal with the emptiness?

The woman gasped. How do you know about that, she asked. Suggs told her her story.

“Everything I felt like I needed, I apply in my sessions,” she said recently.

She’ll ask, how many times have you forgotten to breathe? How many times have you seen the person in your dream?

When a client is anticipating a trial or another phase of the judicial process, Suggs will remember how much patience it took to get through the two years of proceedings in her mother’s case.

On March 6, 2009, Elmore was found guilty of first-degree murder and later sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. No one prepared her for the resurgence of emotions she felt after the verdict and eventual appeals, so now, she tries to brace her clients for the inevitable delays.

After the trial, Suggs decided to seek therapy. She didn’t connect with the counselor. She then went to a support group where the others in attendance were dealing with the natural death of a loved one. The facilitator told her she didn’t belong there.

“I became angry immediately because I was already feeling like I didn’t belong, I was already feeling lost,” she said.

Suggs took to writing in a journal and blogging to document her experience. When memories of her mother began fading, she wrote them down. Now, she tells her clients it’s OK not to remember everything; it doesn’t mean you love them any less — a realization Suggs had to make.

Gradually, she began specializing in grief. Suggs quit her job with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health and began working with a nonprofit agency in South L.A. that aids homeless adults and families. She signed up to work with victims of crime through the district attorney’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program and was honored for her services in 2009.

“She’s just a caring, patient person,” said Donna Burns, a victim service representative with the county, who nominated her for the award.

Ostrowski, the attorney, said that since the trial, she has kept in touch with Suggs, and has recommended her services. Suggs is trying to turn a negative — her mother’s death — into a positive by helping others, Ostrowski said.

“She can completely understand where someone’s coming from,” she said. “That’s what people need.”

On the anniversary of a death, Suggs knows, clients can have a difficult time deciding what to do with their day. Sometimes, they feel guilty that the anniversary is becoming a normal day.

On April 29, Suggs did something different. For the first time since her mother’s murder, she went to work.

Her supervisor, who typically marks the day on her own calendar, was shocked to see her.

“I’m OK,” Suggs told her.

In the afternoon, she took a break to visit the cemetery.

She hadn’t been yet this year, so she took a pair of scissors to scrape off any dirt that had accumulated in the marble gravestone’s words: Loving Mother & Grandmother Ella L. Suggs.

“The grave is always a reminder that it’s real, it’s not a dream,” she said.

Beside her, her older son, Atwan, 23, planted yellow and white roses.

Before 3:11 p.m . — the time her mother died — Suggs left the cemetery. Then she went back to work.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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