Grief therapy helps Atlanta mother cope with losing her two sons

Shirley Guyton will sometimes come into her youngest son Zechariah's bedroom in their Atlanta home, when she wants to feel closer to him.

There's a memorial quilt on his bed, and the room is much tidier than when the 19-year-old lived here.

In the last five years, Guyton has survived the loss of both of her sons.

In 2017, her oldest, Brandon, who was in his early thirties, was killed in a car accident.

"For a minute, I didn't think that I could go on," Guyton remembers. "I had some real dark days."

At the time, the 56-year-old was in recovery and counseling after struggling for most of her adult life with drug and alcohol addictions.

Then, in May 2021, she was hit with another major blow.

Zechariah was standing outside a house party in Southwest Atlanta, a week from his high school graduation, when he was shot and killed.

"My whole life changed," Guyton says.

Zechariah was buried on his graduation day, wearing his cap and gown.

Son and mother stand

Shirley Guyton of Atlanta lost her son Zechariah to gun violence when he was 19. (Shirley Guyton)

"I had an anxiety attack when I went to the funeral home to actually view his body," she says. "I could not go back in there. I could not see him no more, laying in a casket."

Guyton got help from Atlanta Victim Assistance Inc., which covered some of the cost of her ongoing therapy with Anchanese Levison, a licensed professional counselor at Thriveworks Decatur, who helps clients dealing with sudden, often traumatic, losses.

"Generally they're looking for a way to survive," Levison says. "They're looking for coping skills, to be able to just deal with the tragedy that they have been hit with, you know."

At first, Guyton couldn't talk about what happened.

"And, pain, feeling pain, is not a pleasant feeling, especially losing not one child, two childs, and then it's your boys at that," she says. "Zechariah was my little protector."

However, she knew if she didn't get help, she would likely relapse.

"I knew if I wasn't healthy and whole, I would result back to what for me was what I always did, and that was to numb my pain, so I couldn't feel," she says. "That's what I did. That's why I used drugs."

Young African American man looks pensive while taking a photo of himself.

Zechariah Guyton was shot and killed in May of 2021 while leaving a party in Southwest Atlanta.

When she came back to therapy, Guyton struggled with a deep sense of guilt that often comes with grief.

Her mother had stepped in to raise Guyton's 4 children, when she was struggling with substance abuse.

If she had been a more present mother, she thought, she might have been able to spare her son.

Levison tried to help her reframe her role in Zechariah's death.

"To get her to understand, how could it have been your fault, what about this particular tragedy, of your son being lost to gun violence, what about that particular tragedy was your fault," she asked Guyton. "It took a lot of time to get her to a certain place where it is like, 'Okay. I take some of the blame in the relationship and how things were with my son, but I can't take the blame for the bullet that actually hit my son."

Guyton says the realization that she had no control over losing Zechariah was a turning point.

"It was like an 'a-ha' moment for me," she says. "It was like, stop being so hard on yourself; there is nothing you could have did that particular day to make things any different. She helped me to stay out of the regrets, the guilt. We talk about all of that, because those feelings do come up, the shame around my mother raising them."

A suspect has been arrested in Zechariah's murder, but getting justice in a pandemic is a painfully slow process.

Levison helps guide her through what to expect.

"Understanding with the next court case, this is what will happen, this is what will be the next steps, this is how we'll be able to do it," Levison says. "So, being able to help her identify what will happen, and being honest about what she wants to see come out of the process."

Guyton says therapy has helped her let go of a lot the grief she is feeling.

Mother and son hug as they stand together in a parking lot

Shirley Guyton of Atlanta lost her youngest son Zechariah in May of 2021 when he was shot and killed leaving a party.

"I can go in there, and I can be in that place, and my therapist will let me cry," she says. "I can talk it out, I can whatever. If I just want to be in there and let her talk to me, and say nothing."

Some days, she says, she is okay with the anger she feels, and some days, she is not.

"I miss my baby every day," Guyton says. "And, accepting the fact that I will never see him on this earth anymore is still a process, because some days I want to think that he's going to knock on that door, and it don't come easy. Acceptance don't come easy."

Guyton says she will never get over losing Zechariah, but she is getting through it, and therapy is a big part of her healing.

"I never want to walk this journey alone," Guyton says. "And. I know I'm not alone because I have God, and sometimes God puts people in your life to help you along the way."