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Juveniles' Deaths Breeding Rituals Of Grief for Peers

Silence by Some a Worry

By Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page C01

The pain of losing 13-year-old Michael Swann gripped Jasmin Smith so deeply that she sat in her seventh-grade class at Johnson Junior High School last week and wrote a poem:

We enjoyed his stay, now we are watching him while he lay.

A folder in the principal's office at Johnson Junior High School holds a poem dedicated to Michael Swann. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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We never thought it would happen this way.

It made us cry and had us wonder why he had to die.

Jasmin, 13, stood with a cluster of friends at Washington View apartments in Southeast Washington one night last week and recalled the funny boy whom everyone called Jughead.

"That was my friend, and it hurts," Jasmin said, holding the poem in her hand.

Michael was remembered in a church service Friday through a wail of tears and familiar calls for a cease-fire. This year, there have been 21 homicide victims under the age of 18 in the District, and the surge of violence has confounded city and community officials.

For the childhood friends left behind, many of whom attended the funeral, Michael's death has forced them to reflect on how fragile their lives can be. They have demanded explanations from counselors, and they have turned to the grim but familiar ritual of wearing a T-shirt bearing the face of a friend who is no longer alive.

Children in the District have been exposed to street violence since the late 1980s, and dealing with death has become its own ritual. In Karin Walser's tutoring program, children doodle "RIP" and write the names of their dead friends.

Mothers send their children off to school every day, Walser said, and exhort them to pray.

"They say, 'Say your prayers before you leave so that if God takes you, you'll be ready,' " said Walser, executive director of Horton's Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides services for children in Southeast.

Walser said she has attended funerals and heard young girls describe the kind of funeral they would want for an older brother. The expectation, even among family members, is that young black men will lead short lives, Walser said.

Such fatalism among children worries teachers, parents and mental health professionals. The child with the largest swagger and toughest demeanor most likely also feels the most vulnerable, said Steven Marans, a psychoanalyst and director of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, at Yale University.

"Kids find ways of adapting to awful situations," Marans said. "But the kids who may be having the most difficulty acting like kids may no longer be able to."

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