It’s December 4, 2006. A poised Nicole Paultre Bell — then just Paultre — appears calm and composed sitting across from Larry King live on CNN.
This was her first interview since her fiancé, an unarmed 23-year-old man named Sean Bell, was killed on the eve of their wedding in a hail of 50 bullets fired by five New York City police officers.
“But, why don’t you appear more angry?” King asks.
“Well, I’m actually, to be honest, I’m really not angry. I’m more just trying to be strong and we just want justice,” Bell replies.
A caller comments: “Nicole, let me first say that you are a wonderful woman and you have such grace and such calm under such great stress.”
King also tells her she has an “extraordinary attitude” in the same interview.
Yet, Bell tells it slightly differently.
“They see me in public, and say, ‘you’re such a strong woman,’ and I do believe that,” she says. “But there were times when I was weak and I didn’t want to get up… there were days that I didn’t want to go on.”
Bell explains that prayer, family support and community support helped her during those times, and that she empathizes with Trayvon Martin’s family during their loss.
“They’re mourning,” she says. “Just because you don’t see it, they’re mourning. When all of the cameras go away, they still miss their child.”
Dealing with loss
Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, says dealing with high-profile tragedy can sometimes delay the normal process of grief.
“When people are thrust into the spotlight, it forces them to deal with the grief in a way that none of the rest of us have to deal with,” says Breland-Noble, “People have to make a decision: how am I going to address this in the public eye, [in a way] that honors the person’s past and speaks to my outrage?”
Public expectations about how someone should feel and respond to tragedy can contaminate what should be a very personal and private moment of reflection, says Dr. Thomas Parham, psychologist and vice chancellor at University of California, Irvine.
“Grieving is psychologically a natural response to loss,” Parham says, “In some ways, social validation can be your worse nightmare when it expects you to act a way that you don’t feel.”
The actual process of grieving is still debated, but in 1969, psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified the now famous Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
It is felt by some psychologists that all people who grieve work their way through these phases at some point in the process, but not necessarily in that order.
“The point at which we, the public, are seeing the survivors is when they are just starting to deal with the grieving… in the first stage of shock and denial,” Breland-Noble says.
But, despite the possible distraction of the spotlight, Bell says that the grieving still happens.
“The mourning process doesn’t get put on hold,” Bell says, “After the press conference, it’s still there. You’re there with your family, but your [other] family member is still gone.”
Another risk of high-profile, controversial tragedy: Bell says their family had to also deal with the “smear campaign” against Sean Bell’s character in the midst of their grief.
“That didn’t help us one bit,” she says. “It harmed us.”
The strong, black woman
What we often see in the national spotlight is a woman emerging who’s extremely strong and becomes an advocate for the cause, says Breland-Noble, “This idea of the strong, black woman.”
She wonders, however, how powerful any cause would be if the survivors were not able to remain that stoic and strong.
“Imagine if they had to hold her up and she was falling apart, which would be a normal response,” she says of Trayvon Martin’s mother. “I wonder how that would impact.”
Breland-Noble wonders the same about other stoic, iconic mothers who lost their sons tragically, such as Viola Wallace, mother to Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace, who was killed at age 24 in a Los Angeles drive-by shooting in 1997; and Kadiatou Diallo, mother to Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant shot and killed at age 22 by four New York City police officers in 1999.
Parham agrees that there is a significant connection between the public’s response and a family’s public face.
Advocacy or denial?
Psychologists, and even religious figures, say there is no “right way” to grieve, because each culture has a different set of norms surrounding death and grief. Then, each individual has different needs.
“What you see often, especially in people of African descent, is learned helpfulness,” Breland-Noble says, “Survivors say, ‘I can help myself and I can help others so they don’t have to go through it.’”
African-Americans also have a “keep on keeping on” mentality, says Parham, who has authored several textbooks on African-American psychology. The most recent is the 4th edition of The Psychology of Blacks: Centering our perspective in the African consciousness.
He says it’s important to know that African-Americans show symptoms of depression differently than their white counterparts.
“Some show classic signs [of depression]. But others, instead of slowing down, they speed up,” he says, “It’s how we manifest depression sometimes.”
Increased energy and the ability to perform multiple tasks is sometimes a reflection of internal pain that the person has not deal with, Parham says.
This concept raises the question of whether a survivor becoming an advocate in the wake of their loved one’s death is positive or negative.
Bell says for her, it helped.
“People were coming from everywhere just because of the injustice and not because they knew Sean or knew me,” she says, “That helped me to stand up and to fight, knowing that there’s community support, national support and world support from people who don’t know us.”
For any family, it is appropriate to seek justice for their child as a way to express anger, outrage and grief, Parham says. He believes if the family doesn’t find a constructive way to deal with it, the pain crops up in other ways.
“The advocacy will be a tremendous support for them,” says Parham, “In their private moments, I bet it hurts like hell. But, in the public moments, what you see is them channeling, directing their pain and anger in ways that become very vocal. They can help to change something because of that.”
Breland-Noble, however, suspects that the full grieving process is still delayed until the loved ones can get to a safe space to express it.
When the cameras go off
“You don’t ever bring the grief over a loved one to a close,” Kübler-Ross and co-author David Kessler write in On Grief and Grieving.
When the phone calls stop and no one asks for interviews, when they’re not in the newspaper every day and they’re not really advocating anymore, there’s a withdrawal period, Breland-Noble says.
“When all of that goes away,” she says, “you’re back to your regular life, and at that point you really have to decide: well how do I want to move forward?”
Bell continues to raise her and Sean’s two daughters; she is a full-time student; and she runs the foundation created in his honor, When It’s Real, It’s Forever.
“Every day is a struggle,” Bell admits, “When you see people losing their lives to senseless killings, it automatically triggers a memory. It takes me right back to Sean.”
Last week, the New York City police detective who fired the first shots at Sean Bell was fired, and three other officers were forced to resign.
Bell says she feels no relief.
“There’s no way you can take back what happened to Sean,” she says. “They deserve a harsher punishment. These men got off with murder. You killed an innocent man. And, there was never an apology.”
The Sean Bell Annual Summit: Minority Men and the Police will be held on April 27 at 7pm at York College in Queens, NY and is open to the public.