St. LOUIS — Lesley McSpadden waits for the crowds and the cameras to leave before she turns back to her son's casket to kiss it goodbye.
Her moment to pay her last respects to her son, Michael Brown, came after his death from a police officer's volley of gunshots, three autopsies and violent demonstrations in nearby Ferguson. It's been two weeks of balancing grief with responsibilities. The teen's parents have struggled with constant crying fits and sometimes paralyzing despair.
"It's tough," said Eric Davis, a cousin of Brown who has been supporting Brown's mother throughout the ordeal. "My cousin Lesley has not been able to speak. She's kind of been dazed, numb from everything that has been going on. Those are the times where I just hold her, talk to her, and try to comfort her."
While the country has remained fixed on the vivid, tear-gas laden confrontations between police and angry residents in Ferguson, Brown's family has been trying to cope with the media spotlight and a world without their son. The family granted a USA TODAY reporter exclusive access to Michael Brown's funeral and memorial services.
Davis said that just before Brown's death, the family had been in a celebratory mood. Lesley McSpadden, 34, got married about a month ago. A few weeks later, Michael Brown graduated high school.
Then, Aug. 9 shattered everything. Brown was shot and killed in an altercation with a police officer in Ferguson. Questions have been raised about what happened. Few have been answered.
A few days later, Davis said he, Lesley McSpadden, Brown's mother, and Leslie McSpadden, Brown's grandfather, sat in the mother's bedroom listening to a man who said he witnessed the shooting. The man said he saw Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson empty his gun into Brown even as the teen tried to surrender.
The man's story jolted emotion through Brown's mother. "She just started running around the room and crying," Davis said of the moment she heard the account.
Since then, Brown's parents have been constantly on edge. Phones constantly ring with reporters asking for interviews or family members offering support. Last week, as demands reached a tipping point, both parents moved into hotels to shield themselves.
In the days leading up to the funeral, Brown's mother continued to cry and spoke in whispers as she tried to explain her feelings.
"They say tomorrow is going to be the hardest day, but I think today was — just seeing my baby laying there, cold," Lesley McSpadden, 34, told USA TODAY. "It did something to my heart. It's too much. It's too much."
Monday, cameras captured Lesley McSpadden as she sobbed in front of her son's casket. Away from the public's eye, moments later, she took time for rest and contemplation before going on to bury her son. When she made her way to St. Peter's Cemetery, she walked calmly to seats placed just before the casket.
There, several family members wailed and sobbed as the teen's casket was placed into a bronze case. At the moment the casket was lowered into its final place, shouts began to ring out into the air. Michael Brown, Sr. let out a loud yell, leaning back in his sorrow. "Take your rest," one person said loudly. "Good bye, Mike Mike," another offered.
The Rev. Charles Ewing, Brown's great-uncle, tearfully led the crowd in the Lord's prayer. Afterward, at a private family meal following the funeral, Ewing urged his loved ones to use Brown's death to bring changes to policing.
"Don't let the dust settle," Ewing said. "We have got to go forward. "
The message was delievered to dozens of Brown's family members who gathered around long tables in a space donated to the family by a fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. People shared comfort food like macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and roasted chicken. As they ate, they shared stories about Brown--his gentle nature, his Christian beliefs, and his dreams of making his parents proud.
Nearby, Michael Brown, Sr. sat on stage at the center of the family meal saying little. He ate his food while staring blankly into space. After some time, he began hugging and talking to family members who offered their condolences.
While the family meal began around 3 p.m., two hours later Lesley McSpadden had not arrived. Davis said his cousin was taking a break, looking still for privacy to deal with the weight of burying her oldest son. "Sometimes she just wants to sit still and be alone," Davis said.
Brown's father while not in constant tears has seemed to be in shock. He has also been juggling accommodating family members—even allowing his loved ones to ride in a limo to the church for the funeral while he drove himself, said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Brown's family.
Michael Brown, Sr. arrived at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church some thirty minutes before the 10 a.m. service. To get inside, he and Lesley McSpadden walked through a throng of photographers. Yet once inside, the father took a break from the press and walked into a private side room. There, Michael Brown, Sr., while clutching his youngest daughter, Mi-Kelle Brown, 1, hugged and kissed his family members.
When asked how he felt a day before he buried his son, Michael Brown, Sr. struggled to come up with words, his face yet again blankly staring into space.
"I can't really explain how I feel," he told USA TODAY. "I'm torn, hurt, upset and angry. I can't explain."
Leslie McSpadden, Brown's grandfather and Lesley McSpadden's father, said he has watched his daughter control her sobbing for television cameras only to quickly be wrecked with grief after the interviews.
"She cries all the time," he said. "Then she comes out and makes these appearances and sheds a tear or two. But she cries constantly."
The grandfather said he has tried to support not only Brown's mother, but a number of cousins, uncles and aunts who also are dealing with a great loss. At times, that means he must urge his own family members to stay calm in spite of the temptation to join in violent protesting.
"My job is to make them know and understand that if they go out there and do something stupid, then all that does is hurt this case," said Leslie McSpadden, 61, of Cahokia, Ill.
Crump said his clients want their grief to be used to make changes across the country.
"Even though we buried Michael Brown today, his life will continue to live on in the fight to change the system of how we get transparency," Crump said. "This is how we pay our final respects to Michael Brown, Jr., by passing statutes to get mandatory body cameras and mandatory dash cam videos for every police department in the United States."