Mothers who have lost a child to gun violence feel "the same pain, the same hurt," says Fulton
In the years since her 17-year-old son, Trayvon Martin, was shot dead in 2012, Sybrina Fulton has become a leading activist in the gun violence prevention movement.
But for so many mothers like Fulton, change has come too late — as many as 100 Americans are killed by guns every day, and hundreds more are shot and injured, according to gun safety group Everytown. In response, Fulton created an annual weekend retreat that focuses on bringing companionship, empowerment and understanding to women as they navigate their anguish, just as she did in the days following Trayvon’s death.
“A lot of times when you’re going through something so tragic, it feels like you’re just alone,” Fulton tells PEOPLE. “It feels like you’re by yourself. So the retreat gives them a sense that somebody else is giving their support, somebody else understands, somebody else can be there to comfort them, because they completely understand because they’re also going through a tragic event in their life.”
Circle of Mothers is provided for free for first-time attendees thanks to contributions. It doesn’t matter whether their child was killed by someone black or white, a man or a woman, or a police officer or civilian, Fulton says, these mothers all feel “the same pain, the same hurt.”
For Fulton, the gathering represents the fulfillment of a dream she had two years after Trayvon was murdered.
“There was nothing in place when I went through my tragedy, no Circle of Mothers when I went,” she explains. “But this program came to me in a dream. I got up and I started writing. It felt like I had already experienced the Circle of Mothers when I woke up. I saw purple, I saw a lot of moms, I saw laughing, crying, hugging, and those are some of the things that I incorporated with what I do now.”
Dozens of women have participated in the retreat since its inception in 2014, and Fulton says while she “still has her bad days,” helping other mourning mothers has allowed her slowly heal from her own emotional wounds.
“It feels good that I’m able to help… I think it kind of takes the pressure off of what I actually would experience if I was not helping people,” she says. “But I still have my days where I cry. I still miss my son. I still … all of those things.”
“Sometimes I have to take a step back and have a beach day, or I have to have a spa day, I have to have an alone day, I have to have a wine day, I have to have a girlfriends’ day, all of those things, just to make sure that I keep things balanced and making sure everything gets moving forward,” she continues. “Because it’s so easy to be sad.”
In the time that followed her son’s death, Fulton said she felt like she wouldn’t feel “happy again,” and felt herself slipping into depression, and that is something she wants to help guide other mothers through as they experience a journey she knows far too well.
“I didn’t feel like I would ever enjoy life again, but slowly I started incorporating the things that I used to do before into my life again, and I started to tell myself it was okay for me to enjoy life, to continue to enjoy life,” she says. “Yes, I lost my son, but I had to keep living or I would have lost my son and lost my life, too, because it would have been like I’m walking around with no life.”
In December, Fulton received an honorary doctorate degree and the Key to the City from Benedict College and the city of Columbia for her activist work, and in 2017, she and Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, co-authored a book that turned into a six-part series called Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, produced by Jay-Z.
“I’m really just continuing my life, my second part of my life,” she says. “I mean, nobody knows what the future holds, but these are just the cards that I was given and I’m just playing the hand that I’m given.”
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In this chapter of her life, one marked by the death of her beloved son, Fulton has slowly found herself again by confronting her pain and sadness head-on and using it to heal others in the grander hopes that no other mother will feel the sorrow of the death of a child by gun violence.
“For a lot of moms, we kind of stay in that position of loss, of disappointment, of sadness, of hurt, of pain, but we need to move to the next chapter,” she says. “I always tell them that if you wrote a book about my life, you could not leave out Chapter 5, the chapter that my son was shot and killed.”
“But it’s also important of what happened in Chapter 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 about my advocacy work, about me putting time and the energy in myself and making sure that my mind is right, making sure I’m right spiritually and making sure that I’m helping others,” she adds. “You can’t leave out those chapters, just like you can’t leave out Chapter 5.”