Jennifer Park-Mustacchio is a funeral director and embalmer in New Jersey. She has written for the Order in the past about her first Buddhist funeral service. Here she writes about a recent client, a young woman who died far too young.
Please note that Jennifer received permission from the family to share this story.
This is Michelle Amber Johnson. She was a bright, radiant, beautiful, and fiercely independent 21-year-old young woman whose life was cut short by a tragic act of violence.
She fled to New Jersey in search of a life free from the pain and the struggles she was facing in her Virginia hometown. She was eagerly awaiting a fresh start in the tri-state area, where she tragically met her end, succumbing to the same situation from which she so bravely escaped.
When Michelle, or “Shelley” arrived in New Jersey, she was hired as a waitress at a local restaurant where her positive attitude and charm won her a legion of friends and loyal customers. Having recently ended an abusive relationship, she was hesitant to begin dating again, and instead chose to immerse herself in work and school for a few years, excelling at both.
Soon she found a man who appeared to have it all–a good job, a decent apartment, and aspirations of becoming a police officer. Shelley thought she was headed in the right direction with this new guy, but she was cautious about jumping into a serious relationship with him.
Shelley and this man began dating. Initially everything seemed to be going well, but over time signs of a controlling and potentially violent nature began to surface. Shelley eventually confessed to friends that her boyfriend was “jealous, possessive and controlling” and said she “wasn’t meant to be in the relationship because he was smothering [her].”
Friends also added that “he was known to exhibit a temper over things that others would let pass by.” Fearing for her own safety, Shelley eventually decided to issue an ultimatum: he would have to seek anger management counseling if he was serious about continuing their relationship or she would be forced to leave him.
As an act of contrition, he offered to buy Shelley gas and a bridge pass to pay for all the trips he anticipated her making to see him at his apartment in the city. Keeping with Shelley’s forgiving nature, she accepted his offer. Little did she know that this seemingly generous act on the part of her boyfriend would eventually lead to tragedy. It was during Shelley’s last trip to visit him that she met her untimely death at the hands of the man who purported to love her.
I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Shelley in life, but became acquainted with her friends and family after her death. I was Shelley’s funeral director.
I had to prepare her for her funeral and repair the damage from the gun shot wound to her young, beautiful face.
Dress her in the clothing her friends bought for her to be buried in.
Watch her mother be taken away from her viewing by ambulance because she became sick and distraught from looking at her daughter as she lay motionless in the casket.
I watched her father put on a brave face as he greeted her friends and I saw her best friends cry inconsolably as they approached the casket and touched her hand.
Never again will her family get to see Shelley’s smiling face or see her toss her wavy waist-length brown hair. They’ll never see her open that restaurant she dreamed of owning. Their daughter, sister, and friend is gone. The victim of domestic violence, at the hands of her boyfriend, who shot her and turned the gun on himself.
After the beautiful tribute to her life, which included a white casket, a plethora of roses, pictures, and scented candles, her friends immediately went to task to raise the funds to pay for Shelley’s funeral. A local flower shop donated arrangements, the cemetery donated a plot for Shelley’s final place of rest and a benefit was held in Shelley’s honor to raise the remainder of the funds. Her friends were determined to help the family of their fallen friend and keep her memory alive by raising awareness about domestic violence.
They brought an entire community together to help Shelley’s family and renew their faith in humanity. Sharing Shelley’s story and raising awareness for domestic violence is a way to honor her memory and help those suffering abuse in silence. If you would like to make a donation in Shelley’s memory you can do so here. Proceeds benefit victims of domestic violence and their families.
On average, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day. Jealousy and control should not be mistaken for love. These and other behaviors are neither healthy nor part of a loving relationship and can be a precursor to a far more damaging, possibly deadly, situation.
It is the wish of Shelley’s friends that people become acquainted with her story, and her face, and that at least one person will take heed and seek help if they or someone they know is in an abusive situation.
If you or someone you know are the victim of abuse, please tell a trusted friend or family member or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224.