Parents Make Child's Death Their Cause

Trayvon Martin's parents have been going public to bring attention to their son's death over a month ago. Melissa Block talks with two mothers, Annette Nance-Holt and Candace Lightner, who also spoke out publicly after the death of their children. Nance-Holt helped start a group called Purpose Over Pain and Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

These days, the parents of Treyvon Martin are in the news every day. In the months since their son was shot to death in Sanford, Florida, they've spoken at press conferences and rallies, addressed newspaper editorial boards and even Congress.

Treyvon's father, Tracy Martin, came here to NPR this week. On the program TELL ME MORE, he spoke about the process of dealing with his son's death, saying, it will be a long time before the healing even starts.

TRACY MARTIN: We made vows to continue to fight until we get justice for him. I haven't even started grieving yet, and I don't think I'll start grieving until I get justice for him.

BLOCK: Treyvon Martin's parents follow in a long line of parents who've stepped into the spotlight after the deaths of their child. We wanted to explore what that's like, to confront tragedy so publicly. So, we're going to hear from two mothers who would know.

First to Annette Nance-Holt, who joins us from Chicago. Her son, 16-year-old Blair Holt, was shot and killed on a crowded city bus in May of 2007, an unintended victim when one gang member opened fire on another.

Annette Nance-Holt helped start a group called Purpose Over Pain to combat gun violence. Welcome to the program, Annette. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNETTE NANCE-HOLT: Thank you.

BLOCK: I'm curious about your initial reaction when you heard about the death of Treyvon Martin who was very close in age to your own son, both victims of gun violence in very different circumstances.

NANCE-HOLT: Yeah. Actually, every time we hear about a young person that's murdered, we go back and relive our own children's death. And I just really feel for the family, because they're going to be going through and it's something you wouldn't wish on anyone.

BLOCK: And when you hear Tracy Martin say that he hasn't started grieving, he doesn't think he can start grieving until he gets justice for his son, did that ring true to you?

NANCE-HOLT: Yes. Actually, it does because you're so angry and you're so - just wanting the judicial process to take place, you know. Indeed, when you know that it's the correct person, you want them to go to jail, because even though that won't bring your child back, that's one less worry you have is that the person that murdered your child is out here on the streets.

BLOCK: And then I gather that within days of your son Blair's death, you were very public. You were giving media interviews. You were attending rallies that you hadn't even organized or got swept up in. Talk a bit about that process of what was a very private personal tragedy becoming so public.

NANCE-HOLT: I think because of who my child was, I knew the world needed to know that they lost a special child. Some people thought maybe they were exploiting us. No, they weren't. We agreed to do everything that we did and we understood what it meant. We just knew that we had done our best to keep our child safe and we needed people to know, even your best efforts will not save your child with the way that guns are flooding the streets and the communities.

BLOCK: Where there times in it when you wanted all of the public attention to go away, you wanted just private moments to be alone with your grief, which I'm sure was there all the time anyway, but that the external stuff just felt like too much?

NANCE-HOLT: I don't even think I ever thought it was too much. You know, I don't think the media hounded me like some people might have thought. And, you know, the grief process, sometimes you can be so quiet with yourself, but you're really not because you're still racing and thinking about what happened. And sometimes just being busy or trying to make a difference, activism will help you get through that.

BLOCK: Ms. Nance-Holt, I wonder if you were to talk to Treyvon Martin's parents who are just starting on this journey in a very public way what you would tell them.

NANCE-HOLT: I would basically, first, say be easy with yourself because there are a lot of sleepless nights and, you know, heartaches and tears and feelings of anger, feelings of loneliness, just a lot of different feelings. And the grief in itself is enough to make people not want to make it, to just look for people like them who they can talk to who will support them. Because people who haven't been through this, it's a little harder for them.

They can move on. We can't. We can keep functioning every day and put on this face like life is OK. But in our hearts, you know, they're broken.

BLOCK: Annette Nance-Holt, I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you very much for talking with us.

NANCE-HOLT: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's Annette Nance-Holt who joined us from Chicago. And now to Candace Lightner, who's in Ormond Beach, Florida. She founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 1980 soon after her 13-year-old daughter Cari was struck and killed by a drunken driver. Candace Lightner, good to talk to you. Thanks for being with us.

CANDACE LIGHTNER: Thank you.

BLOCK: And I was just talking to Annette Nance-Holt about what she might tell Trayvon Martin's parents as they become public advocates for their son. What would you tell them?

LIGHTNER: I would tell them to grieve. They really need to take the time to grieve. I worked a lot, as you know, with parents who joined our movement shortly after their children were killed. And we would always advise them to do the same thing. But unfortunately, in many cases, because there was so much anger over the injustice of drunk driving that they would just jump in, you know, both feet on the ground.

And the second thing I think I would caution them on is not to be taken advantage of, and to be very careful before you start jumping into this and jumping into that.

BLOCK: What would the pitfalls be there in, potentially?

LIGHTNER: Well, I just remembered that I was contacted by people who had definite political agendas and in terms of what they wanted to see. And I had to really step back and figure out is this good for the movement, will this really save lives? Is this going to promote them or is it going to, you know, promote the cause?

BLOCK: Candace, I think it was very, very soon after Cari was killed that you became a very public, very dogged advocate for change in how drunken driving was treated. Clearly, not the path for everyone. And I mean not everyone can handle the public pressure that comes with that, right?

LIGHTNER: Well, in my case, unfortunately, I was elevated to such a celebrity status so quickly. I mean, you have no idea that that's going to happen. All I was thinking of was saving lives, preventing other people from going through what I did. And the idea of loss of privacy or becoming a celebrity, or whatever, just didn't resonate with me because I'd never been through that before.

And that probably, out of everything that I've experienced in my time with MADD, which was a great deal, that was probably one of the hardest things to deal with.

BLOCK: When you did end up leaving the group that you started, MADD, Candace Lightner, about five years after you started it, what was that transition like for you?

LIGHTNER: Well, number one, I was exhausted. I just - I really needed to move on and I knew that. I needed to grieve. I needed to see my children. I needed to raise my son. I needed to spend time with my surviving daughter. So, I mean, I needed to move on. So I just remember I think being relieved. To be honest with you, I think I was just relieved. I was ready to smell the roses.

BLOCK: And it sounds like that was the time when you could finally really confront your own grief head-on, and not channel it into a political action.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIGHTNER: That's exactly correct. MADD was great for the anger for me. It dealt well with the rage and the anger. It didn't for me, at least, deal as well with the grief. And I needed to be on my own time to do that.

BLOCK: Candace Lightner, thank you for talking with us.

LIGHTNER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Candace Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We also heard from Annette Nance-Holt who helped start a group called Purpose Over Pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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