Home > Counseling, Race > Trayvon Martin and Compound Grief

Trayvon Martin and Compound Grief


For many reasons, the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy and trial has been on my mind and heart.  There has been much written and said, from a broad spectrum of our society.  But for me personally, what’s been on my heart more than who’s right, who’s wrong, what actually happened, and stuff like that is the strong emotional reactions from people.  Above all, that’s what this post is about.  But, before I get going, there are a few disclosures I would like to make that give a broader context into my thoughts and comments:

  1. I’m Biased:  I am incredibly indebted to African Americans.  From teachers to coaches, musicians to authors, co-workers to neighbors, shipmates to teammates, professors to colleagues, family physicians to dance instructors, pastors to congregants, pediatricians to counselors, mentors to role models, from girlfriends to the best man in my wedding, I have been so influenced by black folks that without these relationships, I would not be the man, husband, father, friend, citizen, pastor, leader, counselor, educator, musician, or cook that I am today. So, in the same way that I hurt when family members hurt, even if I don’t entirely get it, I hurt when stories like this come up and it impacts a community of people that are so endeared to my heart.
  2. I’m White:  Having said all that, I still don’t or can’t understand what it’s like to be African American.  To a certain degree, I get it. BUT… I don’t live it.
  3. I’m Opinionated:  Personally, from my very limited vantage point on the trial, I think Zimmerman should have gotten a manslaughter charge.  That’s not the point AT ALL of this post, but I think it’s important contextually.
  4. The Intended Audience: Mostly me, and others like me who are wrestling with things like ‘Why is there such an outcry from the African American community on this particular story?”
  5. Why Bother?:   I have found that black people usually talk to black people about black people/white people things and white people usually talk to white people about black people/white people things, but black people and white people don’t usually talk with white people and black people about black people/white people things.   I guess this is my attempt to have such a conversation.

So… here’s what I think the biggest issue is with the story.  Not race, though that is part of the story.  Not the justice system, though I think most of us agree something, somewhere needs fixed.  It’s not even the verdict, gun control, the media, or a host of other things that are relevant to the story. Although I think each of these are very, very important, I think they get in the way of really wrestling with the heart of the reaction to the story – COMPOUND GRIEF.

Let me illustrate

Let’s say I invest $100 a year for 10 years with no interest.  After 10 years of this kind of investing, I have $1,000.  If I don’t make another investment, in 30 years, it’s still $1,000.

Let’s say you invest $100 a year at 10% interest.  After 10 years of this kind of investing, you would have $1,753.  Most people would say, “What, that doesn’t make sense mathematically?”  But, it’s not $1000 x %10 x 10 years, it’s the interest calculated on the principal amount invested, which is then added to the principal amount, and compounded again.  Simply put, your $1,000 made over $700.  If you never put another dime into the account, after 40 years at 10% interest, you would have $30,588.44.  All from a $1,000 investment.  Negatively, that’s why it is so hard to get out of credit card debt.  The compound interest of the debt becomes larger than the minimal payment, which makes it impossible to get out of debt making minimal payments on a large debt, even if you chuck the card, but that’s another story for another time.

Compound grief works the same way.  One tragedy plus another tragedy plus another tragedy doesn’t equal 3 tragedies on our hearts, it’s compounded.  It’s more like 9.  Or 81.  Or 6,561.

Here’s some other ways to look at compound grief.  If you have ever eaten food that has made you sick, the next couple of times you smell that same food, it makes you nauseous all over again, even if it is perfectly fine.  Or, how about the solider who did a tour in a combat zone?  When she comes home, something as simple as a person working on a roof, that I might not even see, could bring on a full fledge anxiety attack.  Or, let’s take a dog with an invisible fence.  After a few zaps, the fence is no longer needed because the dog won’t get close to the line that we can’t even see or touch.  Have you ever cried because a song, a place, or holiday brought back memories of a deceased loved one?  It makes the loss as fresh as yesterday.  Have you ever been hit by a pitch and flinched the next time a ball was pitched to you, even if it wasn’t close?  Have you ever been scared upon arriving at an intersection where you had a bad accident, although there is not any traffic?

Somehow, our bodies react physically to something that ‘reminds’ us of a trauma in our past.  These things are not exactly rational, but that doesn’t mean they are irrational.  And, it doesn’t necessarily matter if the new thing is good, bad, right, wrong, real, perceived, evil, racist, unjust, or whatever,  because it ‘feels’ just the same as the wrong thing in our past.

So… I am wondering if this Martin/Zimmerman tragedy:

  • Smells nauseating – like ‘liberty and justice for all’ during slavery
  • Causes anxiety – like ‘all men are created equal’ during Jim Crow era
  • Feels like being zapped – like ‘separate but equal’ during segregation
  • Brings back memories – like white flight, voter oppression, and desegregated busing
  • Makes people flinch – like at banks, schools, job interviews,  purchasing  homes, shopping, vacations, being ‘articulate’, or getting pulled over by the police.
  • Scares people – like the overwhelming stats in the African American community on people murdered, in prison, undereducated, underemployed, or the crazy discrepancy between verdicts for black people and white people in the ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law.

stand your grand stats

All that to say, I think the reaction to the story is more about compound grief than anything else.  The kind of grief that’s compounded in the African American Community’s emotional bank account.  Even when good ‘deposits’ are made by the government, churches, communities, good people, or whoever, they don’t come close to  equaling out the original deposit and the negative interest of compound grief that comes with being black in the United States.

So… yes, our society isn’t the same racially as it was in 1619, or 1789, or 1865, or 1954, or 1964, or 1968, or even 1993, but to too many people, the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman sure smells too similar, looks too similar, feels too similar, sounds too similar, and seems too similar to not be sick, anxious, tentative, or to cry, flinch, or just avoid the whole mess.

Here are a few articles, from varied perspectives, that I have found helpful.

  1. Edited articles
    1. The Verdict Is In… and We All Lost
    2. The Issue is Justice, Not Race
    3. 3 Things Privileged Christians Can Learn from the Trayvon Martin Case
    4. Black Racism Killed Trayvon …
    5. We Should All Be Terrified
    6. What Does A Black Parent Say To Their Child After the Zimmerman Verdict
    7. Dear White Folks
    8. Open Letter to George Zimmerman
    9. Why This Verdict
    10. Obama Issues Statement
    11. If Our Black Brothers and Sister are Hurting, Why Can’t We Just Shut Up, Listen, and Mourn With Them
    12. That Doesn’t Mean It Doesn’t Sting Any Less
    13. You Are Not Trayvon Martin
    14. Is There Racial Bias In  ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws?
    15. Charles Barkley said he ‘agrees’ with George Zimmerman verdict

And… by the way

  1. 1619 – First slaves came to America
  2. 1789 – When American Constitution went into effect
  3. 1865 – Thirteenth amendment that abolished slavery
  4. 1954 – Segregation in schools deemed unconstitutional
  5. 1964 – 24th Amendment abolished poll tax and Civil Rights Act ends Jim Crow Laws
  6. 1968 – Fair Housing Act
  7. 1993 – Rodney King verdict and riots


Categories: Counseling, Race
  1. Pamela Daniel
    July 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Hits the nail on the head! thank you for this.

  2. Bryan
    July 18, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Thanks. And… you’re very welcome. Hard stuff to process.

  3. July 19, 2013 at 6:14 am

    Can you check your links to articles you found helpful? I’m preaching “Original Fear and Final Freedom” Sunday and will be using the Martin/Zimmerman events to illustrate. Your suggested biblio looks helpful. In addition to compound grief, I also find the the compound fear factor a major element in the story. See The Science of Fear http://www.amazon.com/The-Science-Fear-Culture-Manipulates/dp/0452295467/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374244884&sr=8-1&keywords=science+of+fear

  4. Bryan
    July 19, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Ron – thanks for the heads up. Didn’t realize the links weren’t linking.

  5. Byron
    July 25, 2013 at 4:04 am

    For some, I suspect this is becoming old news. The intensity of the debate seems to be dying down, replaced by more urgent themes like the naming of the new prince or whether MIchael Wiener should drop out of the race for the NY mayoralty because he can’t seem to resist taking inappropriate pictures of himself and texting them. For some of us, however, who have lived and continue to live with the “compounding” experiences you discuss, I think I can say without reservation that there is a wound that never completely heals. At best, it scabs over until the next experience rips the scab off. As I have observed some of the reaction to the President’s comments about the common experience of AA men being followed in stores (just one example of profiling…there are many, many others), I can’t help but think that a lot of the negative reaction are attempts to deny the reality of someone else’s experience. Classic conflict avoidance! Jesus was right about the ability of truth being able to set us free, but I also think Mark Twain or was it James Garfield (not sure to whom this should be attributed) was right in saying “but first it will make you miserable.” I don’t think freedom from racial mistrust, disgust, or divisiveness for any of us stands a chance without the misery of talking about this stuff at individual, group, organizational, and national levels without it having to be prompted by a tragedy. I confess, I’m not all that optimistic. Thanks again for your metaphorical brilliance.

  6. Bryan
    July 25, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Byron – Thanks for the comments. I too confess less optimism around the topic of race than I have had in the past (which wasn’t exactly too high to begin with).

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