I used to think my mom got cheated by having a birthday three days before Christmas.
We’d be so busy putting up our tree, shopping for gifts, and celebrating the holiday that we often overlooked her special day — not that she ever complained about it. She loved Christmas. Her entire focus would be on giving to us and what we were doing with no expectation of receiving anything in return, even from our dad.
After she died back in 2012, I struggled to recapture the joy of the season. A season that had always been so happy suddenly seemed bleak. Anne Armstrong had always been the one to put out the Advent wreath and get things started. Suddenly, I was left with no real traditions of my own. So, I started scheduling my annual holiday gift giveaway around the same time as her birthday on Dec. 22.
I would think of her selflessness as I handed out huge prize packages featuring Macy’s gift cards, Lagos jewelry, and other goodies to lucky readers. It gave me something upbeat to focus on.
So, when I learned that the mother of a 21-year-old killed at Philadelphia Mills Mall in March planned to host a Christmas Day dinner for siblings of other victims, I felt hopeful for her. Maybe this could help Nakisha Billa through the agonizing experience of Christmas without her beloved firstborn son.
Then, in October, Nakisha Billa watched her 15-year-old come from school after a shooting at Lincoln High School in Mayfair with his shoulders slumped and his eyes full of pain. She recognized those sad eyes. She had seen them herself looking in the mirror.
“He was just like, ‘Mom, the pain won’t stop.’ He said, ‘There’s just so much going on,’” she recalled. “He was just weary. Really down.”
That’s when Billa, a former SEPTA bus driver, got the idea for her Christmas Dinner for Grieving Siblings.
“I decided to do this because I recognize that the siblings are struggling just as much as the mothers are,” she said.
Billa told me she has often gone to events where mothers of victims are able to be together to console each other and to talk about what helps them get through the day. She would ask her 15-year-old to come along, but he would understandably decline because he knew it would be a gathering of adults. Billa really hated leaving him behind like that.
She reached out to other mothers of homicide victims who told her their remaining children were going through the same thing. So, Billa booked a caterer and a decorator and bought a shipment of journals to gift attendees.
The event, geared toward people ages 10 to 19, is scheduled for Dec. 25 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Venetian Club, 8030 Germantown Ave. One speaker will be Brett Roman Williams, whose father was killed when Williams was 11 in 1996. Registrations can be made via Eventbrite. Donations of such items as clothing and gift cards are being accepted. Email email@example.com.
“I didn’t only lose my brother or my father. I lost my cousin, my best friend to gun violence in Philadelphia in 32 years,” said Williams, who chairs the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia.
That’s a whole lot of trauma — something that some attendees sadly may be able to relate to.
As for me, we no longer do the holiday gift giveaway. But I’ll always be grateful for how it helped get me out of my head during some particularly difficult holidays and reconnect with the joy of Christmas.
Granted, losing a mother who survived nearly 20 years after her cancer diagnosis doesn’t come close to the pain of losing a child because of senseless gun violence. But it’s my sincere hope that hosting a Christmas gathering for young people who are grieving during the holidays will help Billa create a new tradition in which she — and they — will find meaning as well as comfort.