Survivors Fill Slots for New Mindfulness Program

Brenda Mitchell

The bullet that took Kenneth Mitchell’s life in 2005 grievously wounded a family. 

Even a dozen years later, Chicago resident Brenda Mitchell (pictured) still has moments when something sparks the memory of her son’s death. 

“You think that you’re healing and then there’s a trigger and you realize while the pain may subside, your ability to deal with the loss is not there. You look for the individual to be among his friends and he’s not there, and on different occasions, you look for family and he’s not there,” she said. 

Helping other parents of children killed by gun violence spurred Mitchell into action, and she is now part of three advocacy organizations supporting survivors and advocating for an end to gun violence. Now, she is adding one more tool: trauma-informed mindfulness, a meditative strategy for coping with stress and unpleasant feelings.  

Mitchell and other survivors have responded with tremendous enthusiasm to a new mindfulness-based stress reduction program born of a collaboration among Survivors Empowered; Shelly Tygielski, an author, mindfulness teacher and activist; and the University of California at San Diego. 

Survivors taking the initial eight-week session, part of a two-year certificate program, can choose from two different tracks that start in January at UCSD. They will learn how to teach trauma-informed mindfulness, and then use what they’ve learned to help survivors in their communities heal. 

Just announced in November, each of the initial 40 slots have been filled, and the program now has a waiting list, said Sandy Phillips. 

She has been “absolutely shocked” at the high interest among survivors and sees the program “as really making a difference in communities across the country.” 

“I cannot believe how many people realize they need this and are willing to not only go through it for themselves, but pay it forward to give back to their communities and other survivors,” Sandy Phillips said. 

Long after a shooting takes place, and the media attention and the trial of the perpetrators have ended, the families who survive continue to deal with emotional “potholes,” Lonnie Phillips said. 

“You go along on this nice smooth road — everything’s cool — and all of the sudden, boom, you hear a phrase or you hear someone say something about how their daughter got married, and you know you’re never going to see your daughter get married,” he said. 

Mitchell met Tygielski at a first-of-its-kind mindfulness retreat last year in Barre, Massachusetts, that brought together survivors and family members of victims from shootings in 10 cities — including the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — for support and healing in a safe space.

In addition to mindfulness and meditation, Mitchell and other participants shared their stories and talked about their challenges in moving to a better place. 

The retreat wound up being “something special” and “for many, it was the first time they didn’t have to explain themselves,” Tygielski said. 

Brenda believes the benefits of mindfulness training are dramatic, and correspond to a deep need in herself.

“I’m a person that’s always moving in my head, so to get me to stop and even be present in the moment is huge and I notice that I can control my own atmosphere if I stop, re-evaluate and get in tune to my inner self and be able to move back into a place of wholeness,” she said. 

After the Barre retreat, Tygielski organized a retreat in Chicago for Purpose Over Pain, an organization formed to help local survivors and to which Mitchell belongs. The organizers were not sure how mindfulness would be received by attendees, but “there wasn’t a dry eye in the place” during the retreat, Mitchell said. 

“I have absolutely been wanting to do it — get more into it and to be able to assist and help others,” Mitchess said. “I saw how it impacted me, to make me get into a quiet place and to pause and to be present in the moment.” 

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