The Power of Grief-Fueled Activism

The Parkland students’ turn to political action may seem fast—but protest can be an important expression of grief.

People are seen walking outside of a tent
A memorial service for Peter Wang, 15, who was among the 17 people killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MediaPunch / AP)

As she stood in front of hundreds of gun-control advocates at a rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, late last month, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Emma González told the audience that she and her peers should instead be at home grieving. Yet there González was, wiping tears from her eyes and delivering a now-viral speech demanding tougher gun laws in the U.S. A few days later, she would be questioning an NRA spokeswoman on CNN. And that was only her first week as a vanguard of a movement that’s spreading across the country with astonishing speed—and showing no signs of stopping.

That the Parkland student activists planted the seeds of their political campaign mere hours (even minutes) after the shooting that killed 17 people at their high school is, in part, what has made the movement so resonant to those watching it unfold. There’s something powerful in the fact that the people who will have the deepest scars from the events of February 14—people who would be expected to, say, be resting at home and mourning lost friends—are stepping up to do what, in their view, adults in the political sphere aren’t. It’s a response one journalist referred to as “courageous grieving.” But critics have also weaponized their emotional states to argue against the coherence of their minds and their movement. Bill O’Reilly asked on Twitter last Tuesday: “The big question is: Should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?”

Both O’Reilly’s criticism and the reverse—reactions that admire how quickly the students resorted to activism—rely on a sense that grief and political activism are not natural partners. These responses seem to imply that the Parkland students’ fervor is either so soon that it’s brave, or too soon and therefore unreliable. The students’ quick turn to action is neither uncommon in American history nor detrimental to the process of grief. But they are still grieving, and that grief could hit even harder as the buzz of interviews and rallies dies down and they settle back into their lives at school.

While the Parkland movement is for many reasons unique in the history of activism, the immediacy of the students’ action isn’t one of them. Angus Johnston, a City University of New York professor who studies the history of student activism, pointed out that American civil-rights activists would often turn to political organizing right after a lynching took place. The mother of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955, insisted on a public funeral; Till’s mother urged the public to look at his disfigured body, and the photographs and news coverage quickly spurred a national conversation on racism. Recent responses to police shootings of black men have also speedily taken on a political tone, Johnston said. The Parkland students are joining a long tradition of American mourners who channel their grief into political activism.

The Parkland students have been moving from candlelight vigils and friends’ funerals to CNN interviews and strategy sessions in each other’s living rooms. Sometimes grief and politics overlapped in the same moment, like when a chant of “no more guns!” broke out at a candlelight vigil the day after the shooting. Reading about the teens’ hectic and exhausting days, it’s hard not to worry: Can this really be healthy? Experts say it can, though they stress there are caveats.

The reasons for turning to political action in moments of grief are fairly intuitive: Humans naturally look to find some meaning in a painful and senseless event. It’s a way of continuing a story that has reached a sudden end, said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist at Duke University Medical Center who specializes in children’s trauma. Gurwitch suggested that the question of whether it’s “too soon” to undertake activist work glosses over the nuances of grief. “Whenever that individual feels like, ‘I need to do something’ ... [this action] can be very helpful to the healing process,” she said. And it doesn’t have to be an either-or choice: “It is not as simple as a binary [of] ‘I can either be an advocate or ... be grieving,’” Gurwitch said.

After a traumatic event, a person has no choice but to move forward—where she might have a choice is in where she will move. The word “crisis” comes from the Greek krisis, which means ‘fork in the road’ or ‘decision,’ noted Stephen Brock, a professor of psychology at California State University, Sacramento, who has worked on issues of student trauma and grief. “When something like this happens, you can’t continue along your same path. You have to choose a new path.” And a person has lots of roads—healthy or dangerous or something in between—to choose from.

The healthiest roads entail what Brock called “active or approach-oriented coping”: “The person identifies that something bad happened, and they try to deal with it, to do something about it.” He sees the activism of the Parkland students as an example of this approach. It’s advisable for people of all ages to take some kind of action after a crisis or tragedy, he said, although the actions will look different depending on the age. For children, Brock said, taking action might mean writing condolence cards, or having conversations about caring for one another. But for adolescents, focusing on “broader social issues” is actually a commonly recommended form of crisis intervention. Activism can also be a particularly compelling path for adolescents, who even under normal circumstances are trying to find their place in society, show independence, and play a role in important conversations. According to Brock, the most unhealthy path for grievers is “avoidance coping,” when the person “tries to deny or minimize what happened.”

Part of what makes active coping so healthy is that it offers the person an opportunity to get some control back in a situation that’s otherwise totally out of her hands. And activism has its own particular benefits: People experiencing grief can find it helpful to stay connected to other people, to help others, and to be engaged in activities and routines. As Jaclyn Corin, a Douglas Stoneman student, told The New Yorker several days after the shooting, “My coping mechanism is to distract myself with work and helping people.”

Still, experts cautioned that activism isn’t a substitute for the grieving process. What the students are doing, Brock said, could facilitate a journey that will last a long time—likely their whole lives. “It might be putting them in a better position to grieve,” he said. But they still must grieve. And that’s where the adults and peers in their lives come in. The activism is helpful “only to the extent” that family and friends are around to help ensure that the students are doing the work of dealing with the long-term grief that’s ahead of them, Brock said. Parents can also help kids avoid any pressure they feel, from their peers or from themselves, to participate in the political movement or to process their grief in one particular way, by reminding them that there’s no single “right” way to grieve. Each student will also be dealing with a different set of challenges, from the grief of losing a family member or best friend to the trauma of the shooting itself.

The Parkland student activists clearly aren’t plowing past their emotions or avoiding the vulnerability that comes with grief; reporters have noted that some students had panic attacks or collapsed in tears during activism-strategy sessions. “Unfortunately the bad feelings and the reminders of everything that’s happened are coming at all the wrong times,” the 17-year-old Cameron Kasky told BuzzFeed the weekend after the shooting.

The Parkland students don’t seem to ascribe to the notion that it’s unnatural to turn to activism in the face of grief. For them, when it comes to gun control, political activism is its own act of mourning. As the Douglas high-school senior González put it, speaking to The New Yorker: “This is how I’m dealing with my grief. The thing that caused me grief, the thing that had no right to cause me grief, the thing that had no right to happen in the first place, I have to do something actively to prevent it from happening to somebody else.”

But it will still be important for friends and family to keep an eye on the students when things start to quiet down, said Melissa Reeves, a school psychologist and professor of psychology at Winthrop University who specializes in issues of trauma and crisis. She suggested that those close to the students watch for “delayed grief reactions” once the students are back to their day-to-day lives (which will start to be the case now that classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have resumed). Reeves also cautioned that the students might be disappointed if they don’t see impacts on the national level anytime soon, which could do them further damage.

The experts I spoke with said that while the Stoneman Douglas activists are of course contending with all the normal emotional and intellectual tolls that grief or trauma inflicts, those who critique them for being too young or too emotional aren’t giving them enough credit. “These young people are not that far removed from being adults,” Brock said. “With that comes, as appropriate, this kind of activism. This is the kind of thing adults did following Sandy Hook.”

Jeremy Richman, whose 6-year-old daughter Avielle Rose Richman was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, remembers the hours following his daughter’s murder clearly. “You feel like you’re not just broken but you’re missing something that’s part of you,” he said. “You have to find some meaning or action to move, to get out of bed.” Almost immediately after the shooting, Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, started thinking about what would become the Avielle Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing violence through research and community engagement.

“In a blurry 48 hours we created the mission and the vision of the foundation,” Richman said. “We knew exactly what we were going to do.” For Richman, taking action right away filled two roles: one personal and one public. On the personal level, it “motivate[d] us to get out of bed and move,” he said. But “in an outward-facing fashion, we were profoundly committed to preventing others from suffering in the way that we were suffering and continue to [suffer to] this day.” For Richman and his family, the inward and the outward were immediately intertwined. “It was right away, and it was really valuable, because we [could] process ... the whole experience with the passion, conviction, and energy that we had,” Richman said.

Richman is a neuroscientist, and he stressed the fact that adolescents like the Parkland students make for great activists. “Their brains are literally wired right now at such an exponentially greater extent than ours are in our adulthood,” he said. “They’re the perfect people to solve problems, take action, and have the passion to do it.” Those fluctuations of stress hormones that make cranky teens annoying to their parents, Richman said, can also be “a profoundly powerful motivator” for something a bit more grand—say, a movement they’re calling #NeverAgain.