A Grieving Mother, Her Faith Tested, Finds Purpose

Home Brooklyn Life A Grieving Mother, Her Faith Tested, Finds Purpose

By: Danielle Hester

Marva Braithwaite and 16-year-old daughter Shannon Braithwaite, before Shannon was murdered by her cousin on Sept 30, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Marva Braithwaite)
Marva Braithwaite and 16-year-old daughter Shannon Braithwaite, before Shannon was murdered by her cousin on Sept 30, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Marva Braithwaite)

Marva Braithwaite, 37, cupped the New International Version of the Bible in the palm of her petite maple-brown hands.  She thumbed through the pages to the Book of Isaiah and began to read aloud, starting at verse 49:13. “Shout for joy, O heaven,” she intoned on this day during the late summer of 2010, “for the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.”

At verse 15, Braithwaite paused for a moment. She inhaled deeply, as if the words were her only supply of oxygen. She continued to read down to verse 19: “Though you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste, now you will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away.”

Braithwaite, who is Pentecostal, has a yellow post-note that bookmarks the exact page of the scripture. She reads it regularly for motivation, and she believes that God guided her to Isaiah to bring purpose to her life.

The words serve as comfort for her since coming home two years ago to find her only child—Shannon Braithwaite—dead, lying in a pool of blood on the living-room floor of the one-bedroom Crown Heights apartment the two had shared for more than 10 years.

The night before Shannon’s death, Braithwaite, her daughter, and their 15-year-old cousin, Tiana Browne, had read the Bible together. Yet no amount of prayer could have prepared Braithwaite for the unexpected loss of her child, allegedly at the hands of the very same cousin who had worshiped with them that night.

The events leading to Shannon’s killing began at 5 a.m. on Sunday, Sept 28, 2008, when Marva Braithwaite was awoken by the buzzing sound of her teenage daughter’s Sidekick cell phone. The phone had been a constant annoyance to Braithwaite, who did not like the idea of Shannon always talking on it. So she had taken the cell earlier that day and put it in the top drawer of her dresser.  When Braithwaite answered, it was Tiana Browne, Marva Braithwaite’s third cousin. Browne was calling from a pay phone to tell Braithwaite’s daughter that she had run away. According to later news reports, Browne had run away several times previously.

Considering that Tiana Browne was family, and that Braithwaite and Browne’s mother had a close relationship, Braithwaite decided to invite the teen to stay with her and Shannon for a while. “I was offering her a chance to experience a sturdy lifestyle that would encourage her to turn her life around,” she explained. According to Braithwaite, Browne’s mother felt she could no longer control the teen.

Marva Braithwaite – who had been an optometrist’s assistant and now ran her own day-care center — felt that Shannon would be a good influence on Browne. Sixteen at the time, Shannon was described by her mother as smart and creative. On her former Myspace page, friends adorn her wall with comments like “an angel sent from heaven,” and “we love you angel.” She was an honor roll student at Vanguard High School in Manhattan, who loved to dance and write poetry. She wanted to work in the fashion industry, even though her mother said she would have been a teacher. And like many teenagers, she was in love with material things: cell phones, clothes and shoes. “Oh she loved shoes so much,” said Braithwaite smilingly. “Every time we would go to the store, to Macy’s, she would be like “Ma, Ma, look at these shoes Ma.”  But most of all, Braithwaite said her daughter was a Christian. As Braithwaite proclaimed numerous times, Shannon knew the Lord.

When Browne arrived at the apartment on Sunday, Braithwaite and her daughter sat and talked to Browne about the direction her life was headed. Braithwaite told her she could stay as long as she abided by certain house rules like going to school and not having houseguests. That same night, Braithwaite also styled Browne’s hair for the next day and ended the night with a reading from scripture.

On Tuesday, Sept 30, the young ladies were off from school due to the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah. Braithwaite asked her daughter if she wanted to go with her to do errands. But Shannon was tired from school and her weekly extra-curricular activities, so she decided to stay home.  That would be the last time Braithwaite saw her daughter alive.

According to a police report, Braithwaite arrived back to the apartment at around 4:30 p.m. She tried opening the door and had to struggle with the lock. When she finally jarred the door open, Braithwaite found her 16-year-old daughter covered in blood. Shannon Braithwaite was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy later revealed that Shannon Braithwaite had been slashed 32 times with a kitchen knife. There were cuts to the face and a laceration to the neck also.

Arriving at the crime scene, Detective James Coffey of the 71st Precinct reported that Browne had fled the scene. In the official police complaint, it was documented that Browne had, indeed, grabbed a kitchen knife during an argument with Braithwaite and did cut her.

For Braithwaite, the tragedy was a pivotal point in her faith. She had been tested before with financial hardships, among other things. But this was something different. The murder of her daughter was a test, more so a crisis, in her faith.  And though she said she never considered backing away from her religion, the experience has made her question God.

Yes, I’ve asked questions and I’m still waiting on answers,” Braithwaite said. She later added, “There’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like losing your child especially the way I lost my daughter.”

Crown Heights teen, Shannon Braithwaite, loved to dance and write poetry. She Also loved attending church with her mom. (Photo courtesy of Marva Braithwaite)

Braithwaite admitted that there was a period, right after Shannon’s death, when she would be driving and see young teens hanging out on the streets and misbehaving, and would think to herself, “Why my daughter, who was a good child? Why not someone else?” But she would also keep in mind that “God never told us we will not experience trials and tribulations, what He promise is to always be there with us, to comfort us and to be our strength.”

In hindsight, Braithwaite feels a conversation with Browne that morning was a subliminal clue. Before Braithwaite left the house, the young ladies were cooking breakfast in the kitchen. “She kept asking, ‘Marva, what time you coming back?’” Braithwaite recalls. “She asked me that question like five times. I said, ‘Why? You planning on running away again?’ She said, ‘No.’ She said, “Even if I try, I have to go through Shannon.’” Braithwaite continued, “I wasn’t thinking like that. Why would you ask me like five times where you going, what time you coming back? She said ‘Even if I do, I have to go through Shannon,’ because she knew my daughter would’ve talked her out of it.”

Two days after Browne allegedly murdered her cousin, she was arrested. With her, she had the Coach brand sneakers Shannon Braithwaite had received as a birthday present just 21 days prior to her death. She had also taken Braithwaite’s Sidekick cell phone, an mp3 player and some clothes—leaving Braithwaite to believe that Browne was jealous of her daughter’s material possessions.

When Browne was arrested, news footage showed her wearing a white t-shirt and denim jeans, handcuffed, with her face covered by what appeared to be a black pillowcase. She was brought out of the 71st Precinct by police, and taken to Kings County jail. An article in the New York Daily News described Browne as “unrepentant when she was arrested.”

The Daily News also reported that in 2007 Tiana Browne’s mother—Jennifer Browne—had gone to Family Court for help. In court proceedings, the mother charged that Browne was “mentally ill, a truant and a chronic runaway,” according to the Daily News.  No direct quotes from Browne, or her mother, were included; nor reported on in other news coverage of the murder.

“Tiana’s mom and I had a very good relationship,” said Braithwaite. “She’s my second cousin and we grew up together. Now, we no longer speak, they didn’t reach out to me until now. And because of me losing my daughter, our family will never be the same again.”

In the aftermath of her daughter’s death, Braithwaite said her view of life changed. She began to “really see the world and the problems going on.” One major issue brought to her attention was the large number of troubled teens in her community and at her daughter’s school. “The first thing I did after my daughter’s death was went to her high school and spoke with the kids in the auditorium,” she said. And there she was astonished at the overwhelming “cry for help” she received from many of her daughter’s peers.

“There’s two things happening to our children, “ Braithwaite said. “They are either dying or being locked up in prison. Either way, both are loosing their lives. If all our young people are dying or in prison, then where is the new generation going to come from?”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, homicides are the second-leading cause of death among persons ages 10-24. A study conducted in 2005 by the CDC reported that an average of 16 young adult homicides occur a day nationally.

In 2008, around the time of Shannon’s death, New York City murder rate was increasing from the previous year’s level. NYPD statistics showed murder rates rose nearly 77 percent to 46 homicides from the beginning of the year through Sept. 28 of 2008, compared with 26 through the same date in September 2007; it was not specified how many involved teenagers.

Braithwaite feels that if she could create a space for young adults to express their anger and understand self-worth, she would be saving a life and fulfilling God’s purpose for her.

She said the passages in the Book of Isaiah are God’s way of telling her that even though her own child is gone, her work as a mother is not done. “So even though my baby is gone, I know God is saying, ‘You did a good job, Marva,” she softly said. “Because my baby knew the Lord. ‘Now go out and help those who don’t have what Shannon had.’”

Marva and Shannon Braithwaite on their way to church in the summer of 2008. (Photo courtesy of Marva Braithwaite)
Marva and Shannon Braithwaite on their way to church in the summer of 2008. (Photo courtesy of Marva Braithwaite)

Braithwaite, who is working on starting a non-profit foundation in her daughter’s name, now speaks to youth at local high schools in Brooklyn and at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, where her daughter worked. She also goes around the city to vigils to speak with mothers who have to deal with the same kind of tragedy she has been for the past two years.

When speaking to the teens, Braithwaite said she never prepares a speech because she wants to connect with them as much as possible. She talks to them about a variety of things, including, “loving yourself, accepting yourself, being a leader and not a follower, choose your friends, don’t have them choose you, education and the seriousness of it, and, of course, relationships, sex, etc.”

“Some of them had problems at home where maybe they are not receiving love, miscommunications at home,” Braithwaite explained. “Many of them I know are going through personal situations, struggling with identity.”

She continued, “What I do know to be a fact, our kids are so talented,” she said. “They’re gifted, but there’s nowhere for them to really go and express their gifts, express their talent. Even to express their anger and their frustration in a positive way.”

Vanessa Rodriguez, a resource specialist for the New York City Department of Youth and Development, said there is a perpetual need for teen outreach programs, especially ones geared toward violence-prevention. “There are some programs, but not a lot,” she said. “Our agency, in particular, has what we call Teen Action, which teaches youth about positive values. But that’s really about it.”

When Braithwaite goes to vigils, she offers words of spiritual encouragement to grieving mothers. She tells them, “Losing a child is the worst feeling in the world. In this life, we will all experience hurt, disappointments, rejection, you name it. But instead of allowing that situation to make you cold, bitter, wanting to give up on your hope or life, ask yourself, ‘What can I do with my hurt, pain to help others? And what can I learn from it?’”

But she also knows the words are “better said than done.” “I’ve spoken to one mother who also lost her only child, a son,” Braithwaite recalled. “She told me she has lost her belief in God along with her family. Another Mom, who also lost her son four years ago, told me she knew someone who said the same thing.”

Braithwaite admits the experience has been trying on her own faith, “but everyone’s faith will be tested one time or another.”

“The first thing we must do,” she continued, “is forgive those who have done us wrong and find healing whether it’s through praying, letting others pray for you or seek personal help, which I also did at my church.”

Since 2008, Braithwaite has been to State Supreme Court in Brooklyn 14 times for her daughter’s murder case. Each time, adjournments have been granted and the case remains open.

While Browne, who is now 17-years-old, has been indicted on two counts—second-degree murder and possession of a weapon. Her attorney, Douglas Rankins said he is pursuing an insanity defense for the defendant, and needed more time to run medical test.

The teenager, who is being charged as an adult, faces 25 years to life in jail.

“This is a very serious charge.  It seems to be a very complex case,” said Seymour James, the attorney in charge of the criminal practices for the Legal Aid Society, a private, not-for-profit legal services organization based in New York.  “Even though the suspect is known, there may be a little evidence that still has to be determined. No one was in that room but the two girls.”

After attending a court hearing in March, the trial was rescheduled for September 9th, which would have also been Shannon Braithwaite’s 18th birthday.

The lack of resolution especially pains Braithwaite. “I just want closure and it’s making it hard,” she said.  Braithwaite has not spoken or seen her cousin since leaving her apartment that Tuesday morning nearly two years ago.  “I never spoke with her, nor do I want to talk to her to find out why,” she said. “There is no answer she could give me to justify. Have I forgiven her? Yes, because of my religious belief I know I have to. But for me to sit with her, absolutely not, absolutely not.”

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