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‘Their lives were snatched away’: My family’s struggle after losing two members to gun violence | Opinion

The loss changed my family forever.

Anntwinette Dupree-Hart, far left, with her Aunt Florence "Tina" Finney-Pompey; her uncle Raymond Finney at right.
Anntwinette Dupree-Hart, far left, with her Aunt Florence "Tina" Finney-Pompey; her uncle Raymond Finney at right.Read moreCourtesy of Anntwinette Dupree-Hart

Over the last year, Philadelphia has seen a surge in chronic gun violence. The homicide rate rose 40% from 2019 to 2020, and continues to spike in 2021. And the city’s total number of homicide victims has increased every year since 2016. This is one story of a Philadelphia family who has been devastated by gun violence.

My Aunt Florence — whom we all called Tina — was planning our Memorial Day cookout. Instead, on May 27, 2017, at 5:06 a.m., she and my Uncle Raymond, her brother, were shot and killed by Raymond’s son.

Aunt Tina was kindness personified. No one would ever counter that fact. She was the person who pushed you to be a better person, to show compassion. She believed in being charitable. She gave and never worried about whether or not her generosity would be repaid in her time of need. And please don’t mistake her kindness for weakness. She wasn’t docile. She was a fighter, even if a quiet one. She fought drug addiction 25 years ago and beat it. In an age when people didn’t care about crack addicts, with the love of our family, she fought and beat it. And shared her story to help others.

When I was planning Aunt Tina’s funeral, I went to her church and asked the pastor, “Can you tell me when the church will be available?” The pastor said: “For our Tina, she can have any day you want. We’ve been standing by for our marching orders.” If you are part of the Black church, you know there is a time and a place for everything, and for them to make that time is a testament to her life. There is still a seat left empty in the pew in her honor.

As for my Uncle Raymond — he was a character. The biggest jokester you could ever imagine. His laugh was infectious. We were three years apart in age, so I probably knew him better than most. He was a feeder. So many people have told me about how, if he saw them out, he’d say: “Let’s grab a sandwich. My treat.” He just wanted you to know he cared.

Most important, he was protective of those he loved. Everyone knew his family. Why? Because he told everybody, even those who never asked. My daughter attends Temple and her apartment is in our old neighborhood. Uncle Raymond would randomly pop up, just to make sure that my daughter and her roommates were safe. When he died, his friends came to her apartment and said: “Don’t worry. We will look out for you on the strength of our brother, Raymond.” Even in death, he is still protecting her, as he did for me.

Since his death, I feel unsafe.

» READ MORE: 10 ideas to stem the tide of Philly’s gun violence crisis | Opinion

Because of this loss, our family is in pain. My uncle had to clean up the crime scene where Tina and Raymond had their lives snatched away.

I had left my aunt and uncle’s house just two hours before they were shot, to drop off another family member — the shooter’s mom, Tamika. Every night, I find myself back in the car with Tamika, listening to her side of the conversation when the shooter called to say he would kill my uncle. Did he realize I was in the car? I was tired and didn’t take his threats seriously. Who would?

But can you imagine that? Reliving the fact that two people you love dearly are dead because you were too sleepy to process a call? I have not slept peacefully since that night. I have changed my locks four times. Prior to this, I had the same key for 20 years. And I have the same nightmare every night.

But I’m the least of it.

All of my family cries every single night.

My Uncle Reggie, who was sober for years, has since been struggling with his addiction. This happens after you’ve had to clean your sister’s and brother’s brains and blood off the floors and walls.

“Among the things counselors say that we are dealing with: grief, betrayal, PTSD, guilt, near death experience.”

Anntwinette Dupree-Hart

My Aunt Rose’s MS was exacerbated by the stress to the point that she cannot leave her home without an enormous amount of effort.

And my Uncle Junie is dead, from a heroin overdose. We talked before that happened, and he told me he was tired, that he didn’t protect his baby brother and sister. It broke him.

Among the things counselors say we are dealing with: grief, betrayal, PTSD, guilt, near-death experience.

We lost our grandmother in 2014. As much as I grieve her daily, I’m consoled by the fact that she wouldn’t have to live through the nightmare of having to bury her babies.

The loss changed our view of family — what was left after Aunt Tina and Uncle Raymond were killed — forever.

Anntwinette Dupree-Hart is a 49-year-old divorced mother of two, senior real property officer for the federal government, and graduate of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. This essay was adapted from her Victim Impact Statement at the December 2019 sentencing of the person who committed the murders of her aunt and uncle.