Adapting, Accepting And Finding A New Normal After Losing A Loved One — Again
When 28-year-old Gracyn Doctor thinks about her aunt, Bethane Middleton-Brown, a smile quickly spreads across her face.
"She's always been my favorite aunt, just my favorite person," Gracyn said. "Her and my mom were super close. She was so smart. I feel like she really kind of stepped into the role almost that my mom was a little bit."
Gracyn Doctor is a reporter for WFAE. She remembers one day when she ran out of batteries for her recorder — which is a very real source of anxiety for a radio journalist on a deadline. Panicked, she called her aunt.
"She was just like, 'It's OK, just calm down. I have plenty of batteries, just come over!'" Gracyn said. "And I went over and she gave me some. It’s little things like that made me feel so much better and helped turn my day around, you know?"
She knew she could rely on her aunt for the small and big events in life. From a pack of batteries, to carrying the family when tragedy struck.
On June 17, 2015, Gracyn's mother, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, was killed. She was one of nine Black parishioners killed by a gunman at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The family didn’t have time for the shock to wear off to figure out next steps.
"Especially when death happens, you don’t know how it’s going to change the family dynamics, but it does," Gracyn said. "My aunt and I had to realize that I was an adult now. And no longer the kid or the teenager she was used to. It was really stressful in the beginning."
Gracyn, the oldest of four daughters, was heading into her senior year at Johnson C. Smith University when she suddenly became that adult in her aunt's eyes. Her sister Kaylin was enrolled as a freshman at Johnson & Wales University. That left the youngest sisters, Hali and Czana. Her aunt stepped in and gained custody of them both.
In recent years, her aunt encouraged Gracyn to think about getting custody of Czana, who is now 16 years old. Since her mother’s death, multiple family members had health issues, including her aunt.
"My grandma got sick, my granddad lost his vision and my aunt got really sick," Gracyn said. "She had diabetes, but everything just like progressed and got a lot worse over five years."
In March of 2021 her aunt was scheduled to have a routine medical procedure.
"It was supposed to be in and out," Gracyn said. "She came out, she was doing OK. And then that night, it was a Monday, and like really early Tuesday morning, she had a seizure and went to the hospital."
Her aunt died at the age of 50 on March 18.
"Another really big person in our family gone," she said. "My aunt and my mom were just, I feel like they held everything together. And so when you don't have two people like that, it's just the whole family now really has to adjust."
Before Gracyn's aunt died, obtaining custody of her younger sister Czana was a possibility down the road. Now, it needs to happen — during a pandemic when court systems are slow and during a time when the family is once again grieving.
"It’s just really crazy because I’m like, 'Oh, I still don't feel ready,'" Gracyn said. "But I don’t have a choice. It's not a feeling that's like, 'Oh, I don't want to do this.' You know, it's just more so of a feeling that I have to grow up really fast, you know, because now I'm like a mom. It’s different; it is."
Gracyn's other sister Kaylin and Kaylin’s two children also moved in. During this interview, the door behind Gracyn slowly opened. It was her 2-year-old nephew, wandering in to say hi.
"I don't know if it's any easier or harder than it was the first time, but I definitely feel like I'm going through the loss of my mom all over again," she said.
It’s easy she says, to slip into a dark place when there’s been a loss. It’s something she’s actively fighting against.
She's also working on finding her way back to her spiritual side. And she's trying out a new therapy — equine therapy.
"And for me, it's really a lot of, like, reflecting and just being still," she said. "I don't know what it is when I go out there. I think it's because it's a farm ... I feel like it gets so quiet and I really have that moment to just finally be at peace."
And she’s also working. It’s not always easy to work while navigating grief and it can be frustrating to not feel focused.
"Emotionally, there’s so much going on in my mind right now," she said. "And with anything, it’s hard to do it how you were before whatever happened, happened. But it’s not even trying to get back to that point. It’s really trying to get back to a new normal — again."
And part of that new normal will be remembering her mom — and now, her aunt. Something she thinks about more and more as June approaches is the anniversary of her mother’s death.
"Normally I have my aunt that I can depend on and we can get through it together," she said. "So, this year it's just going to be really hard. I'm never looking forward to it, but I'm really not looking forward to it this year because my aunt and I really help each other get through that."
In the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death, there were conversations around forgiveness and if that would ever be possible. Before her aunt died, Gracyn recalls conversations they had regarding the person who took her mother’s life.
"She had said she found herself even praying for him sometimes just because, I don't know, I think just that's where she had gotten to," Gracyn said. "She was like, 'I must have forgiven him because I don't even think about him anymore. I literally just think about my sister and think about what his actions have caused for me.'"
But Doctor is not there, yet.
"I know I have not forgiven him, but I also don't think about it," she said. "You know, I just I don't know. I guess it's a level of acceptance."
Acceptance, she says, is part of being resilient.
"It definitely is because I think once that acceptance really sets in, that's when the shock kind of ... when the reality is setting in more," she said. "I had that moment with me for my mom, and I guess, in a way, that was a part of being resilient because that was me acknowledging, 'OK, this did happen. You know, my mom is not here and this is just what it is from now on.' So now what am I going to do about it?"
Her aunt was laid to rest next to her mother in a cemetery in Charleston. She plans to visit their gravesites soon.
Both matriarchs continue to hold so much space in her world, which she’ll hold onto as she continues to tell the stories of others — and her own.