What I Learned From Trayvon Martin’s Mom

Finding meaning in grief.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Mike Bayer
Source: Mike Bayer

As a life coach who has worked with hundreds of folks from all walks of life, I know one thing for sure: Everyone has felt the pain of loss, trauma, and tragedy. Everyone’s experience is extremely personal, and sometimes a loss can be felt so deeply that it takes root, haunting us for years to come, or even the rest of our lives.

Research shows a correlation between the sudden death of a loved one and the onset of alcohol use, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Oftentimes we try to mask our pain with substances, or we get stuck in cycles of grief when it feels like there’s no way out.

That’s why it’s so inspiring to meet someone who has endured unfathomable hardship and survived with a renewed sense of mission for their life. I was first introduced to Sybrina Fulton when she came on my podcast, Always Evolving. We instantly hit it off and got lunch in Miami a few days ago. Amazed by her outlook and perception on life, I was reminded of the power of resilience, and what happens when we choose to work with our pain rather than fighting against it.

Sybrina Fulton became an author, speaker, and social justice activist after the fatal shooting of her son, Trayvon Martin, in 2012. Trayvon’s death sparked outrage and a national conversation about racial profiling, gun violence, and human rights. Sybrina, who is now running for political office in Miami-Dade County where she resides, told me about moving forward while still allowing space for her sorrow to be felt.

When we talk about mourning, we aren’t just talking about the death of a loved one. It’s important to recognize that “loss” comes in many forms—we might be processing the aftermath of a broken relationship, a car crash, a difficult conversation, or an event in the news that altered our perception in some way. Even positive things, like a move or a career change, can stir up a sense of loss within us. We might find ourselves missing the way things used to be, or the way we used to be before certain circumstances disrupted our lives.

When we’re in the depths of grief, the only way to get to the other side is to put in the mental, emotional, and spiritual work. Even then, we may not completely recover from the effects of our trauma. Sybrina shared that she is not “over” Trayvon’s death, and likely never will be. “I still have my rainy days where I’m sad about my son not being here,” she says. “I’m gonna have them the rest of my life. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, that’s just not the truth.”

Some of us may wrestle with grief for long stretches of time, and even feel unable to carry out daily activities. It’s important to acknowledge when you’re struggling, and perhaps even work with a therapist to help you address your loss in a safe and supportive environment. When we approach any painful situation with authenticity and honesty, we are much more likely to create positive and lasting change. In fact, research shows that bereaved parents who approached the loss of their child with a renewed sense of purpose and direction found meaningful recovery in their lives.

But what does that look like? For Sybrina, it started with her mindset. “I had to make a conscientious decision that I did not want to be depressed,” she says. “I decided that since I live my life 95 percent happy, I just did not want to be the person I was becoming. Trials and tribulation [don’t] build character, it reveals it. You’re simply seeing who I really am.”

But since grief never really goes away, we have to be mentally and emotionally prepared to recognize it. When depression, anxiety, and confusion is triggered, sometimes it’s a sign we’re not supposed to do anything except sit with it for a while. That’s why I find rituals to be a valuable part of my mental health toolkit. We can find solace in repetitive actions that bring us comfort and a sense of normalcy. We might meditate, go for a walk, journal, call a friend. We might find meaning in our loss by creating a scholarship foundation in memory of a loved one, or by volunteering in a hospital or other community organization.

When Sybrina feels a “bad day” coming on, she visits the spa or beach, listens to music, and has dinner with her family and friends. When we allow ourselves to recharge, we make room for productive action in our lives. Sybrina says: “I know that when I’m crying and I’m sad, and I’m thinking about my son on those bad days, that a brighter day is coming. It might be the next day, it might be two days later ... and so I can’t just sit in my sorrow and pain. I have to keep moving forward.”

If you are dealing with any kind of loss at all, know that you have the freedom to feel sad while simultaneously moving forward with clarity and determination. And you don’t have to do it alone. You can invite a trusted friend or mentor to mourn with you, or even seek guidance from a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional if you choose.

With the state of our world right now, many of us are grieving parts of our lives that have changed or feel uncertain. While it’s tough to accept, my hope is that each of us will find strength within ourselves to move forward with intention and perseverance.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory. 

References

Keyes, K., Pratt, C., Galea, S., McLaughlin, K., Koenen, K., & Shear, M. (2014, August). The burden of loss: Unexpected death of a loved one and psychiatric disorders across the life course in a national study. Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4119479/

Rogers, C., Floyd, F., Seltzer, M., Greenberg, J., & Hong, J. (2008, April). Long-term effects of the death of a child on parents' adjustment in midlife. Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841012/