Last weekend, Jennifer Pinckney sat down her two young daughters individually, including the now-7-year-old who hid beneath a desk with her as a gunman executed their father on the other side of a thin wall.

The school librarian explained to each what had gone on the previous week. The man who reportedly killed her husband and their daddy, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was on trial. They didn't know yet what would happen.

But soon they would.

Late Thursday, Pinckney drove home after a jury found Dylann Roof guilty of all 33 charges against him, including hate crimes and religious obstruction. She prepared to speak with her girls again. This time, she could tell them that a jury had found the man who killed their father guilty. At the least, he would spend his life in prison.

"The first step is over," Pinckney said. "It gave us at least a little bit of closure before the holidays and before we get going again in January."

She hopes the penalty phase of Roof's trial, set to start Jan. 3, goes as quickly as the first. 

"This has been a very tough time, a very emotional time for all of us," she said. "It all still seems unreal."

The Rev. Kylon Middleton had been best friends with Rev. Pinckney, Emanuel AME Church's senior pastor, since they were children. In Pinckney, he found a man of deep thought and deep faith. And in the void of Pinckney's death, Middleton remains a key support for the pastor's widow and two little girls.

Middleton sat with Mrs. Pinckney in court during every day of testimony. He saw the horrific crime scene photos showing his old friend lying face-down and bleeding heavily, head toward the fellowship hall's altar.

But then came the verdicts - and relief from the unceasing anxiety that had built since the first days of Roof's trial when another high-profile case was wrapping up in a state courtroom next door.

Middleton had been following closely the trial of former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, charged with murder in the shooting death of a black man, Walter Scott. The case against Slager, who is white, ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury, rekindling debate over issues of justice and race.

Roof's verdict, however, offered relief.

"We were able to exhale, at least little bit," Middleton said.

Many of the nearly 50 family members who packed the courtroom over six days of testimony, and others who filled overflow courtrooms, released similar pent-up breaths of waiting, of fear and worry. Now they can spend the holidays with loved ones and mourn those who died with less stress.

"Unfortunately, our loved ones will not be here to share in that holiday spirit," said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, a friend of Pinckney's who served in the Senate with him. "However, the government presented a sound case that helped reveal the facts to the public, and justice was delivered by a jury today."

The Rev. Sharon Risher also sat through the gut-wrenching days of testimony. She saw her mother's lifeless body. She saw all of the bodies. But she'd seen those before.

Hearing the pathologist's report devastated her most.

"Seeing those six bullets in my mom - right as I seen them, I felt those bullets in the same spot. My body had a jolt, and to realize the pain and destruction that happened in that church was nothing I could have ever imagined in my mind," said Risher, an AME minister who worked as a trauma chaplain in Dallas when the shooting occurred.

Yet, over the past almost 18 months since the massacre, Risher has found a support system, a silver lining of love in the devastation that struck each of the nine families. When she cried in court, someone passed her tissues. Another reached over a courtroom bench to grab her hand. And another held her tight during recesses.  

"This has brought us together for life. We will be a group of people that have a bond that will not be broken," Risher said. 

The guilty verdicts provided relief to the unrelenting grief over the loss of her mother, Ethel Lance, the church's 70-year-old sexton. From here, Risher said she can leave Roof's punishment in the hands of the judicial system.

"If he spends the rest of his life in jail, I pray those nine angels visit him every night," she said. "Maybe one day he'll call on the name of Jesus."

Once the penalty phase of Roof's trial begins, representatives from each family will testify about their loved ones, their lives and dreams, along with the enormous void their deaths have left behind. That's when jurors will decide if Roof should get life in prison or a death sentence.

At a press conference, survivor Felicia Sanders also said she had turned that phase of the trial over to the judicial system to handle.

"I'm not worried. I'll just trust it's in God's hands," said Sanders, whose son and elderly aunt were among the nine killed.

However, she disputed a defense notion that Roof had no friends, traveling alone to Charleston to stake out the church and take selfies of himself at Confederate sites. If Roof had just waited until the Bible study ended, everyone in the room would have spoken with him. They would have learned what he needed — and what they could do for him.

"He had 12 friends in that room, if he had only reached out," she said. 

Kevin Singleton went to Roof's trial during one day of testimony. On a courtroom TV, he saw his mother, Myra Thompson, lying face down on the floor of a church where he attended Sunday school as a boy. He saw Pinckney and Sanders' son, Tywanza, sprawled in pools of blood.

Singleton didn't go back.

"The evidence is just so excruciating, so heart-rending," he said.

However, the verdict offered some relief heading into the holidays.

"It doesn't change anything. It's just closure. But it's no hooray moment," Singleton said.

The first time Singleton's stepfather, the Rev. Anthony Thompson, saw Roof was at the bond hearing barely 48 hours after his wife lay dead. Thompson told the killer that his family forgave him. But he also warned the young man to repent.

Seeing Roof yet again show no emotion in court wasn't the hardest part of the past week; the toughest moments of the trial came during testimony from Polly Sheppard, a close and longtime friend of Myra's. Sheppard recalled that after Roof sprayed the church's fellowship hall with bullets, she could hear Myra say, "Lord, have mercy." 

Thompson didn't know his wife had said that, likely her final words. Then to hear Sheppard's desperate 911 call, it all became too much. The tears came as he listened, thick and grieving ones for all that so many of them had lost. 

Thompson, a Reformed Episcopal minister, returned to court again Thursday morning to hear closing arguments only to find that prosecutors again showed the gruesome crime scene photos, including the one of Myra. He held their daughter's hand as the verdicts were read. The entire row of loved ones beside them joined in, too, a chain of understanding. Of hope.

When the verdict was read, "I wasn't surprised at all," Thompson said. "They even came back a little faster than I expected."

Family members hugged. Some smiled. Others simply nodded with each of the 33 charges: guilty.

Next, on Christmas, Thompson will gather a small group of family at the home he and Myra shared. Despite the emotional rigors of the trial, he became determined to decorate their brick bungalow in the regal silver and gold decorations that Myra loved.

"You know what you've gotta do this year ..." Myra used to tell him each year. And he knew what that meant. She expected him to create festive centerpieces for their dining room table and their mantle out of gold poinsettias and silver and gold marbles, all lit with white lights. Her favorite colors. 

Myra won't say those words to him this year. But he made the centerpieces anyway — to remember, to mourn and to keep that essence of her with him always.

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556 or follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."