Exactly 30 years ago, four freshmen women met at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. They shared a love for athletics—several had been given track scholarships—but what bound them together was a sisterly love they developed that was deeper than sports.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rita Whidbee, Kennetha Wright Manning, and Star Overton Miller loved each other through college graduation, building careers, marriages, children, and almost all the challenges life can bring. Their bond was unbreakable, until a hate-filled stranger named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015.
While the rest of those present were in prayer, Roof pulled out his weapon and began to shoot. He killed nine people that evening: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Myra Thompson and Sharonda, the best friend of Rita, Kennetha and Star.
Rita learned about the shooting at about 9:30 that night while scrolling through Facebook posts. She sent Sharonda a text.
“Hey, little girl,” she wrote. “Is that your church? Are you in church tonight?”
When she didn’t get a reply, Rita began to worry. “She always responded,” she said, her voice beginning to break.
“I just remember just praying,” Kennetha recalled. “We were all up, waiting to hear something.”
“About 11:05 I actually got in my car,” Rita said. “One way or another, I was driving to Charleston.”
Nearly two hours into her trip, Rita’s cell phone rang. It was Robert Porcher, another college athlete and friend.
“When I answered the phone he wasn’t saying anything,” Rita said. “I kept saying ‘Hello, hello.’ And then I could just hear him crying.”
That’s when Rita knew that one of her three best friends had been killed.
A moment like this can redefine a person’s life. It can trigger what Dr. DaNella Knight calls traumatic grief. Knight, a psychology professor based in Huntsville, Alabama and the owner of Restoration Psychotherapy and Consultation, believes the biblical story of Job has an answer.
“Job’s friends often get a bad rap,” Knight said. But she advises that we re-examine the interaction between them and their righteous friend.
“When they first got there, they sat on the ground and wept with Job for seven days,” Knight explained. “Most of us can’t stand seven minutes with someone, just allowing them to weep and being in the grieving process.”
Knight also believes that some well-intentioned friends and family members may try to rush the survivors through the grieving process, telling them that everything will be alright long before they are ready to move past their pain.
“That’s probably not what that person needs to hear at that moment,” Knight said. “Human beings don’t handle trauma or grief well. We’ve equated vulnerability with weakness.”
Sharonda’s best friends can relate to the struggle that some may have with the way they grieve. Nearly two years after the massacre, the loss of their friend still rubs their hearts raw.
“There’ve been some really bad days,” Rita said.
“Really bad days,” Star echoed.
“It can be out of the blue, that you just start crying, thinking about Sharonda,” Kennetha added. “Wanting her to be here.”
“I can’t call some of my other friends because they’re not going to understand,” Rita said. “But I can call Kennetha and Star.”
David Person is the owner of DavidPersonMedia, LLC. He is a broadcaster, journalist, documentary director, and media consultant. David writes columns for USA TODAY and for the Ministry Matters website. He also writes news features for Message Magazine. He writes from Huntsville, Alabama.