When Colleen Jones delicately hung a metal ornament bearing her son's name on a tree in the St. Mary's County sheriff's office lobby recently, it was not the first gesture she had made in his memory.
Since Matthew S. Jones, 22, was fatally shot outside a Lexington Park pawnshop in April, Colleen Jones has made a weekly trip to his grave in Laurel. For the trial of her son's killer, she wore a pin featuring the beaming face of her son.
But on Nov. 30, when Jones and the families of 31 other St. Mary's County homicide victims gathered at the sheriff's office to hang angels bearing the names of victims on a decorated tree, it was the first time she had grieved with others who know the sorrow of a mother whose son was lost to violence.
"It was nice to meet some of the people who had gone through pretty much the same thing," said Jones, 59, of Laurel. "Of course, it brings back a lot of hurt. I don't have a day go by that I don't hurt."
Jones and about 80 others came together in Leonardtown that day for the first annual Silent Angel Memorial, a tribute to the victims and families of all St. Mary's homicides in the past 10 years.
Each victim was memorialized with a metal angel placed on a garland-draped tree in the sheriff's office lobby. Before leaving, everyone who came was supposed to talk to someone they did not know and share their thoughts about their lost loved one, said Andrea Girimonte, the sheriff's office victim services coordinator.
The event's purpose was simple: One of the best ways to cope with a great loss is by sharing your experience with others who understand your grief, said Eileen Bildman, who came up with the idea after her son Kevin M. Clarke was fatally shot a year ago.
"We need to do something to pull these families together," Bildman said. "Sometimes, it's just nice to talk to somebody who has to deal with these same things every day."
The name Silent Angels is based on Bildman's belief that those who die stay with the living as silent guardian angels. She began working on the project a month after her son's death when she was looking for ways to deal with her own grief.
After speaking with sheriff's officials, she persuaded a St. Mary's Technical School teacher to donate the angels, which were made and painted by students. She contacted other victims' families to get them to attend the event during the holiday season, often a tough time for families dealing with loss.
"This is the hardest season," Bildman said. "Last year, I was totally numb. We surrounded ourselves with friends and family."
Jones said Christmas will be difficult. She and Matthew lived on limited means, and their Christmases were special not for the gifts they gave, but for the time they spent together.
She said she will decorate a tree at his grave with candy canes and garlands in purple, his favorite color. And she is trying to follow Bildman's example, staying busy with work and organizing quarterly candlelight vigils on Great Mills Road where her son was shot.
Events like the Silent Angels Memorial also help, Jones said. Bildman said there will be one every year in St. Mary's, and she wants to expand the program to other counties.
"But that's my next-year goal," Bildman said. "I have to get through this year first."