Five Stages of Grief: Another Minority Teenager Gunned Down

Michael Brown Shooting

J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Michael Brown Shooting

The senseless murder of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, over the weekend provides yet another opportunity for us to grieve the loss of a young person at the hands of police. It is only natural that we should express our sorrow especially given the circumstances of his death.

Five stages of grief accompany such a shocking and tragic loss. They include Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. I fear, however, that in recent years, especially involving the death of young minority teenagers, we anesthetized ourselves to three of the stages and as a result, remain caught in an endless cycle of cold denial and callous acceptance.

Despite the protests and discussions that have already commenced trying to win justice for Michael Brown, the discourse of denial has begun as well. Within hours of the killing, the cruel chorus of acceptance began churning out the standard denial and acceptance to which we have all become painfully accustomed. Predictably, they deny the humanity of the victim by attempting to shift the conversation in other directions. “We don’t have all the facts.” “The police acted according to protocol.” “We should be discussing black on black crime.” They all merge in the blender of modern media, reducing the loss of the college-bound 18-year-old to just another unavoidable consequence of urban street violence.

However, Michael Brown was more than that. He was a son, a student, a friend. He clearly aspired to make something of himself, not that any of those things protected him from being stopped and ultimately killed by police.

His killing makes me angry—a normal part of the stages of grief—yet we are told not to get angry, because that anger might be misdirected. Police greeted people demonstrating in the streets in Ferguson with a show of force. They came to vent their resentment and frustration characterized by certain news outlets as “outrage.” Yet, anger and frustration motivated some of the most important social movements in world history—especially when they moved people to love. We should all be angry about the killing of Michael Brown and moved by love to shape a world where we do not merely claim to care about urban youth but actively work to protect them from the most pernicious dangers that haunt them daily – violence and poverty.

If only, some will dubiously posit, Michael Brown stayed off the streets, where his presence, like that of minority teens from New York to California, invited fear and suspicion and ultimately, an officer’s bullets.

Instead of addressing these issues directly, along with accompanying racism and classism that feed them, we witness a great deal of bargaining — another form of harsh denial. It is a bargaining to justify and forget. As we saw with the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin and will likely see in the case of Michael Brown, it takes shape in a perverse form of victim blaming. The typical responses to the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness that frequently accompany the killing of unarmed minority students often manifest themselves in statements that seek to reclaim our sense of security while failing to confront the underlying realities that facilitated the killing:

  • If only Trayvon Martin had not been wearing a hoodie
  • If only Oscar Grant had not been at Fruitvale station
  • If only those kids were not playing their music so loud

We have become so adept at “if onlys” and this line of reasoning that even in cases like Michael Brown’s, cut down by police gunfire on a sunny afternoon, we find a way to deflect responsibility and shift the blame. If only, some will dubiously posit, Michael Brown stayed off the streets, where his presence, like that of minority teens from New York to California, invited fear and suspicion and ultimately, an officer’s bullets.

Finally, society as whole also seems less inclined to accept the inevitable feelings of depression that one hopes would continue to touch the hearts and minds of all people when confronted with such a senseless act of violence. Out of expressions of mourning and sadness often come the spirit and resolve to fight for changes. Denying persons the space not only to grieve, but also to contemplate ways to ensure that others not experience such pain is important and necessary. I mourn for and with the family of Michael Brown, but more importantly I long to engage with others similarly touched by his death to work toward changes that can prevent such tragedies in the future.

yohuru williamsThis means that we cannot merely accept and move on. I do not encourage an endless cycle of mourning but the more difficult acceptance of a collective responsibility to approach this and other problems that plague our youth with a stamina and conviction that emphasizes the depths of our human compassion. It is an earnest desire to have young people no matter their race, creed, or persuasion live, learn, and grow up in the world where their humanity is valued.

Yohuru Williams


  1. Huckleberry says

    I think anger is the prevailing emotion. Although we are not a monolith, I will venture to say that generally, black people are “sick and tired of being sick and tired” (Fannie Lou Hamer).

  2. Todd Peterson says

    Grieving definitely occurs right away; and must . The tough part is answers to the shooting take time. Immediately calling the shooting unjustified is premature and shows bias. This shooting (any shooting) is NO excuse for looting. I have heard no denial that Michael Brown fought with the officer. If true, he took his life in his own hands (i am NOT saying this, in and of itself justifies the shooting but it raises the risk). I do not hear the so called community leaders say anything to young people about obeying orders of the police officer. If the person feels the stop / treatment by the officer was inappropriate, they can file acomplaint .

    I find it ironic that race hustlers like Al Sharpton only focus one police shootings (and occasionally whites shooting blacks) of young black men when 96% of black men mudered are killed by other black men. Black on black crime needs to be addressed! My thoughts and prayers are with the Brown family and the officer and his family. There are no winners here.

  3. Luis L. says

    Where there is no justice there is no peace. This killing is so wrong on so many levels. No other community or group in the U.S. have ever experienced the hate, violence and prejudice as the black community. It is up to all of us to demand justice and a stop to this.

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