May 07, 2016
The tender moments and parenting milestones are often Kassy Alia’s alone to savor.
When 1-year-old Sal Alia said his first word – “dog” – this winter, Kassy wished her husband could have been there. It was the same when Sal took his first real steps on March 31, his first birthday.
The seven months since Kassy’s husband, Forest Acres police officer Greg Alia, was shot and killed while responding to a call at Richland Mall have been “challenging, bittersweet, beautiful – all at once,” she said.
It’s unlikely Kassy’s first Mother’s Day since her husband’s death will be any different. But she hopes her response to the tragedy of Sept. 30, and the way she carries herself every day afterward, will serve as an example to Sal as he grows.
“Horrible things happen, and we can’t change those, but we can control how we respond,” Kassy said. “I hope that if nothing else, my commitment to focusing on the positives can serve as a role model for (Sal) as he moves forward in life, to focus on love and bring that into the world.”
Love, not pain
People don’t typically grieve the way Kassy did when she lost her husband that Wednesday morning. Hours after the shooting, Kassy was on the phone with a reporter, sharing her husband’s story and stressing that he embodied the best of law enforcement.
She was on local TV news the next morning, wiping away tears as she carried 6-month-old Sal. She encouraged friends and family to share Greg’s memory, wanting her son to grow up with stories about his father.
Her message was never of hate, never of anger nor retribution. It was remarkably positive, even if the words came between sobs.
“We can control our response,” she said. “We can choose to love other people, to rise to the occasion. We can choose to reject hate.”
The day after Greg’s death, Kassy launched Heroes in Blue, an initiative that raises money for the families of police officers killed in the line of duty and seeks to strengthen relationships between police departments and the communities they serve.
The organization has flourished, with Kassy spearheading its efforts. On Kassy and Greg’s Dec. 14 wedding anniversary, she and Heroes in Blue worked with 10 restaurants around the Midlands to feed 210 officers and raise $3,500 in gift certificates for them.
A Heroes in Blue event in December at the Soda City Market in downtown Columbia prompted scores of people to write letters of appreciation to police.
When a Greenville police officer was shot and killed in March, Heroes in Blue raised more than $192,000 for his family.
“Every action I’ve taken is trying to throw more love into the world to overcome that pain,” Kassy said.
‘I’m going to make this come true’
Carly Eklund remembers one of the first moments she realized Kassy was going to be OK.
Eklund had driven down from Raleigh after Greg Alia’s death to stay with her best friend. And in the days before the funeral, she was sitting with Kassy in the Alias’ living room.
“She looked at me with this expression of determination and said, ‘Sal will grow up in a happy home,’ ” Eklund said. “It was that mindset of, ‘I’m going to make this come true.’ ”
Kassy’s friends and family were in awe of her transition from grief to strength to activism – all while adjusting to life as a single parent.
Forest Acres Police Sgt. Lori Tumlin, who trained and worked with Greg Alia, said she wanted to be there for Kassy after Greg’s death. But it turned out it was Kassy who helped Tumlin.
“She’s extremely motivational,” said Tumlin, now a board member of Heroes in Blue. “You can be having a bad day, and you call her, and she’s very uplifting. She always has positive things to add to every conversation.”
‘It’s all a process’
It hasn’t been easy. Some days are harder than others, and during those special “little moments” with Sal, Kassy sometimes lets her mind drift, picturing that moment with Greg around.
She said rebuilding her life and family without him has been the greatest challenge of her life.
“It’s all a process,” Kassy said, “and there are days when I just have to repeat to myself over and over again that I will not break.”
Eklund recalls seeing Kassy wake up early and put together to-do lists for each day, nailing down problems to solve and Heroes in Blue ideas to explore in the month after Greg’s death.
One day, enrolling Sal in daycare was on the list. Another day, she needed to transfer the family’s bills into her name.
Adjusting to life as a single parent took time, Kassy said, but she had plenty of support.
Friends, family and Sal’s daycare have stepped up to care for Sal when Kassy needs time to grieve.
“She has an amazing network of friends that she’s able to call,” Eklund said. “She’s not bottling anything up. She’s not trying to block emotions.”
Alexis Alia, Greg’s mother, called Kassy “a special young lady” and said Greg’s family is proud of her work with Heroes in Blue.
“I think she puts on a good face, and she’s moving forward, which she needs to do,” Alexis said. “That’s what Greg would have wanted her to do. She’s a strong young lady, and she’s got a tough job.”
Just as Kassy has lifted up others after Greg’s death, parenting Sal has given her purpose and a bright future.
“Often, it would have been the easier road, probably, to just stay in bed all day and cry,” Eklund said. “I know there were days where that was what one part of her heart wanted to do. But the bigger part of her heart got up out of bed and took care of her son, and took care of other people as well.”
Recently, Kassy said, she has started to turn a corner, learning to celebrate new milestones in Sal’s life while coping with Greg’s absence.
“I had a beautiful seven years with Greg, and they were the best seven years of my life. But I can’t let my life end there. I have Sal,” Kassy said. “If I’m constantly living in the past … then I can’t give Sal everything he deserves.”
For Kassy, Mother’s Day this year will be another milestone, sure, but also just another day she can take Sal to the park.
“It’s not about the gift I would receive or the breakfast in bed, but it’s about being with my baby,” she said. “I’m looking forward to that.”