Their grandfathers died in gunfire in the ’90s. Then their fathers did, too. Now they must carry on.

Chase Shorter, 3, visits the Washington National Cemetery to see the gravesite for his father, DeWayne Shorter III, and his uncle, Isaac Aull Jr., in Hillcrest Heights, Md., in August. Both men were killed this year by gun violence, which has now left both of their sons to live without their fathers. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Chase Shorter was all smiles and giggles as he recently celebrated his third birthday at a trampoline park in suburban Maryland. He bounced with friends, dunked a mini basketball, and threw giant yellow and green blocks in an endless pit. Finally, it was time for cake and presents.

As everyone began singing “Happy Birthday,” Chase took a step closer to the Spider-Man cake on a table. His 13-year-old cousin, Jeziah Rivers, sensing a moment of silly fun, lifted Chase toward the cake as Chase’s 15-year-old aunt, Layla Cobb, squished his face into it.

“I want my daddy!” Chase suddenly cried out, white and red frosting on his ear and shirt. “I miss my daddy!”

The burst of anger and sadness from the little boy, whose father, DeWayne Shorter III, was shot to death on a District street in January, was all too familiar to the people who surrounded Chase during his August party.

Jeziah’s father, Isaac Aull Jr., was killed in a shooting in D.C. in June. Roxie Jefferson, the doting grandmother of Jeziah and Chase, is the mother of both their slain fathers. And decades ago, when her sons were toddlers themselves, both their fathers were also fatally shot.

Homicides in the District are on pace to hit a 17-year high and the growing number of victims —154 as of Sept. 22 — has led to urgent debate among officials, residents and activists about how to prevent shootings. Lost in that annual toll is that the trauma for some families has been compounded by multiple losses to gun violence, sometimes over years, sometimes over generations. The pain has been concentrated in many of the region’s Black communities.

For the victims’ loved ones, moments of anxiety can come frequently, often provoked by the most routine things. The ring of a phone. Someone leaving the house alone. A drive in a neighborhood where a shooting occurred. The devastation can feel inescapable.

“When they killed my sons, they took away the responsibility of them being a father, a brother, a son, a friend, a cousin, everything,” Jefferson said. “It’s not ever going to be the same. Don’t tell me it’s going to be okay because it’s not.”

Jefferson, 52, now worries about how her grandsons — who live with their mothers but stay with her frequently — will cope with losing a father and uncle just months apart. And she worries about how to keep them safe.

Two generations lost

Nearly 30 years ago, Jefferson was a young mother, pregnant with her second child. She was also preparing to bury her husband, Isaac Aull Sr. He was shot and killed at 29 as he sat in his car in Southeast D.C. in December 1992.

As his Christmas Eve funeral neared, Jefferson did whatever she could do to calm their two-year-old son, Isaac Aull Jr. She hoped that “Little Isaac” would not forever connect death and Christmas.

“He’s still asking for his daddy and waking up crying for him,” Jefferson, who then went by Roxie Aull, told The Washington Post in a 1993 story about fathers slain in the city.

After her husband’s death, Jefferson for a time moved back in with her mother in Brentwood in Northeast Washington, where she had grown up. Her first daughter was born. She began to build a life for her family and began to date again.

In 1998, Jefferson was expecting her second son. Her brother, Derek Jefferson, 33, was fatally shot that June.

A month later, DeWayne Shorter III was born. And 13 months after that, his father, DeWayne Shorter Sr., was shot and killed outside a wedding where he had served as the best man at the age of 31. Jefferson was shot too, bullets breaking bones in her leg.

Jefferson spent the next two decades focused on her kids. She went to Isaac’s basketball games and DeWayne’s football games, calling herself a “team mom.” She later had another daughter.

She thought leaving the District would help her family escape the violence, so she moved to Maryland and eventually bought the Temple Hills house where she still lives. She settled into a job working at Metro.

Her sons grew into men, but the family had its struggles. Aull Jr. had run ins with the criminal justice system over the years and, after the first one, Jefferson sent him to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. When he was 17, Jeziah was born.

In 2018, while Aull Jr. was awaiting sentencing in an assault case, and Jeziah was nine, Aull’s lawyer told the court he was “feeling more optimistic about the future” and ready to work “toward making positive changes.”

During the fall of 2020, the family was hopeful even in the midst of the pandemic.

Aull Jr. had been released from prison and started working with Project Empowerment, a District program to help those with barriers to employment get back to work, his mother said. He had been thrilled to reunite with Jeziah, with whom he loved going to Six Flags and playing video games.

Shorter III, who had been a football star in high school, was hoping to return to the sport as a coach and had a job at the D.C. Department of Public Works. While no longer together, he and Chase’s mother, Mia Taylor, were sharing in parenting responsibilities.

Then, in late January of this year, Shorter III was fatally shot in Northeast D.C.

For weeks, Jefferson couldn’t bear to be near her bedroom, where she had learned about her son’s killing, or his room. Instead, she slept in the living room.

In June, another call came. Aull Jr. had been shot and killed. A generation of the family’s men were gone in a span of six months.

That loss is all too familiar to some Black families in and around the District. The Wendt Center for Loss & Healing, a District nonprofit that helps people in the community work through trauma, said it’s not uncommon for their clients to know more than one person who has died from homicide.

Last month, Washington resident Seditra Brown’s son, Kalif Brown, 28, was fatally shot in D.C. He is the third son she has lost to gun violence.

Thousands of bullets have been fired in this D.C. neighborhood. Fear is a part of everyday life.

Research on the region and nationally shows a similar story. Young Black males in East Baltimore, for example, know on average three people who have died from homicides, according to Jocelyn Smith Lee, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and founding director of the Centering Black Voices Research Lab.

That kind of trauma can have a deep impact on communities, causing many to be hypervigilant or aware when leaving their homes, Smith Lee and other experts said.

“It’s hard to think of Black life in this country without also thinking about having to manage and navigate experiences of traumatic loss and bereavement,” Smith Lee said, adding that “the invisible wounds and layered consequences of the health disparity of homicide … ripples across generations of Black families.”

Still, Jefferson doesn’t feel like anyone can understand what she’s going through.

She had panic attacks, so she went to the doctor to get medication to calm her nerves. She had visions of her sons talking in the house, replaying some of her last conversations with them. She rarely sees her grief counselor because it no longer eases her anxiety.

Yet she feels she has to put on a happy face for the people who rely on her, especially her grandkids.

“The responsibility of their daddies is on me,” Jefferson said of her grandsons. “It’s going to weigh on me for them just like it did for my sons when their dads died.”

‘I’m never doing this again’

On the Wednesday morning of his father’s funeral in July, Jeziah, nearly six feet tall, stood at the sanctuary’s entrance wearing a yellow Moschino shirt and white pants, surveying the scene.

Roughly a third of the mourners were children or teens. Some comforted older grievers as the youngest ran around the sanctuary. Loved ones dressed in yellow, which represented divinity and purity, held funeral programs with photos of Aull Jr. and Shorter III under the words, “I am my brothers keeper.” Life-size cardboard cutouts of the slain brothers bookended the open casket where Aull Jr. lay.

Jeziah did all he could to take the pressure off Jefferson, whom he and Chase call “G-ma,” so she could take care of herself. He greeted mourners, making sure to find out how they knew his father. He handed out the programs. He even scooped up Chase, who had been running around the sanctuary, as Jefferson, wearing a yellow dress, tried to take a moment for herself. “He was just trying to hold it together and keep moving,” Jefferson said.

At times the sadness of the day took over. In a rare quiet moment for Jeziah during the viewing, he turned to Dani Skinner, who helps run Compassion and Serenity Funeral Home. “I’m never doing this again,” he told Skinner, as if to say there would be another funeral. “It feels like everybody getting shot these days.”

Skinner, whose own nephew was slain two years ago, wanted to help.

The funeral home employs several men, and Skinner isn’t the only one who’d lost friends and family to gun violence. He hoped they could become part of Jeziah’s support network and asked the teen if he wanted to volunteer during services to fulfill his school’s community service requirements. Jeziah did.

“I want to make sure he don’t go down the wrong path,” Skinner said. “He’s lost all the older men around him. I’m trying to show him another way.”

Even as he grieves, Jeziah is trying to just be a kid. He doesn’t want to talk about his father’s death with his friends. He’s trying to get into photography and loves making people laugh. Maybe he’ll play football this year.

In May, the teen posted an Instagram highlight remembering his uncle. “It hurts so bad,” he wrote. “Looking at his pictures make you wanna cry.”

Six weeks later, in June, he made a separate Instagram highlight titled “I Love you,” with two broken hearts and a dove with an olive branch. “We love you dad,” he wrote. A week later, he posted another photo, this one of his father with his arm around him. “Happy Father’s Day I miss you,” he wrote, adding a heart emoji.

Jefferson sees volunteering at the funeral home as a good opportunity for Jeziah. She drives him there when she can and arranges for Uber rides.

Since his father’s funeral, Jeziah has helped out with more than 10 funeral services. He often comes home excited to tell Jefferson about the guys at work and the laughs they shared.

Before one recent service, Jeziah bantered with employees in their early 20s and 30s as they prepared for a family’s arrival. Once they did, the mood turned somber. Jeziah was ready to work, handing out tissues and later leading the pallbearers to the hearse.

‘You coming back?’

On a Thursday evening in July, a few weeks before his birthday, Chase rolled his mini toy trucks along the hardwood floor of Jefferson’s living room, scooting and hollering with joy.

Behind him, the orange wall was filled with family photos hanging between white-lettered words, “Family is … love, kind, special, smiles, joy, sweet, patient, laugh.” There were photos of Jeziah and Aull Jr., Chase and Shorter III, Jefferson and her kids at Thanksgiving, Jefferson’s brothers. There was one of her mother, who died just days after Aull Jr.’s funeral.

The buzzing of the fan behind Chase was drowned out by sounds of play. “Vroom! Whoosh! G-ma!”

The toddler looked up from his adventures to see his aunt, Iyawna Aull, 28, getting ready to leave. Still recovering from a car crash that landed her in the hospital, she limped past the posters of her brothers that had been brought home from the funeral. She was headed to the door.

“Love you, see you later,” Iyawna said to Chase. “See you later,” he said, repeating Iyawna’s words back to her. He only realized what those words meant once they were out of his mouth. He stood up, tossing his mini truck to the ground.

“Don’t, don’t leave us,” Chase said, pronouncing the “v” as an “s.”

“I’m coming back,” Iyawna said, trying to console him halfway out the door.

Holding his hands together and looking up at his aunt, he furrowed his brow. “You coming back?” he said, walking closer to the door.

“Yeah, she be coming back,” Jefferson said, turning around in the loveseat to face the door and Chase. The door, which has a glass panel at Chase’s height, shut behind Iyawna. Chase stood and watched her get into a car. “You coming back?” he said again, his voice trailing off.

“That’s all he tells people now when they leave,” Jefferson said.

As they all process this year, Jefferson knows some days will be harder than others.

Iyawna and Shorter III have the same birthday, and she wrote on Instagram that she did not know how she could celebrate without her “birthday twin.” Father’s Day will be tough for everyone, especially Jeziah and Chase. Jefferson said her daughters are already talking about spending the Christmas holidays away from home, where there are so many memories.

She understands. Since Aull Sr.’s Christmas Eve funeral nearly 30 years ago, she still can’t bear to put up a Christmas tree. Her family, most recently Jeziah, has stepped in to do it for her.