How We Survived A Year of Grief
By Dani McClain
This fall, Josie Pickens lost two family members in a week’s time. Though neither of them died from Covid, both Pickens’s uncle and godmother lived and died in a small Louisiana town that’s been a cluster for the virus. The pandemic shaped how the family grieved. Pickens wasn’t able to visit her godmother in the hospital in the days before she succumbed to cancer, and she was almost excluded from the funeral. New restrictions had been placed on the number of mourners allowed, and the small church had reached capacity when she arrived.
The repast proved to be the biggest test. Pickens, a Houston-based writer and educator, knew that funerals were often super spreader events. She’d been prepared to keep a distance, but that resolve changed once she was face-to-face with her grieving family members. “We have really developed a blueprint to Black care, family care, community care,” she said, recalling how she eventually accepted and offered embraces during those back-to-back funerals. “As much as I knew, I was willing to face the danger in those moments.” Pickens took the necessary precautions, getting tested for Covid once she returned to Houston and then quarantining. But she’s still in awe of the conundrum she was faced with. “Who would’ve imagined that we would be in a place where we’d have to negotiate touch and comfort and care?”
Who would’ve imagined any of this? One way to characterize 2020 is as a year of grief. This could be said for all Americans and perhaps for people the world over, particularly in countries hard hit by Covid. But grief has blanketed Black America especially. We are dying from the virus at twice the rate of our white peers. As the pandemic rages on, the gap between Black and white unemployment has widened, with a higher rate of Black workers becoming permanently laid off while white workers disproportionately go back to work. We have learned of or watched still more lives snuffed out by police and vigilante violence, including Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain. And we have grieved as the courts engage in delays and outright refusals to prosecute their killers to the full extent of the law.
Much of the available literature on grief describes it in ways that don’t capture the enormity of what many of us are facing right now. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the five stages we can expect to move through while grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Viktor Frankl’s writing on the topic established the possibility of “post-traumatic growth,” a doubling down on one’s commitment to life in the wake of great tragedy. But there’s less scholarship that focuses specifically on Black Americans, for whom it could be argued that the “post” in “post-traumatic” never seems to come.
Instead, what we must consider alongside the acute pain that comes with losing a loved one or a disruptive period such as the pandemic is the experience of historical or generational grief, said Dr. Beverly Wallace, a Lutheran pastor and co-author with Paul C. Rosenblatt of the 2005 book African American Grief. “That trauma started with the Maafa,” Wallace said, using a Swahili-derived word that describes African descendants’ experience in the West. “It started with our enslavement from the continent and how we had to deal with the shock of being displaced.” She connects the transatlantic slave trade to the period of Jim Crow and the systemic racism and racialized microaggressions that continue to affect Black lives today.
Wallace, who is in her mid-60s, was at her home in Smithville, North Carolina on Election Day. She explained how the current political climate was tapping into harm she had experienced as a child. On her way to vote, she passed a vendor with a large display of Trump paraphernalia. The signs promoting a president who showed tacit support for the Proud Boys and white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 brought back memories of another sign. The message “This is KKK Country. Love it or Leave it” had hung over the nearby Neuse (pronounced “Noose”) River when she was a child, Wallace said. She recalled her grandmother rushing to pull down the shades in her home when the Klan rode through the town’s streets, an effort to shield a young Wallace from the terrorist organization’s brazen display of power. Just as the death of a loved one can bring up difficult, unresolved emotions around a previous loss, contemporary political assaults on Black lives remind us of past assaults. “Every grief experience is connected to another grief experience,” Wallace said.
For many, the way we respond to our chronic collective grief and our experiences with personal grief is to repress it. We compartmentalize the hurt, try to tuck it neatly away and get on with our lives. ‘What good does it do to wallow in despair?’ we might ask ourselves. But simply acknowledging our pain and allowing it to rise to the surface can help us manage our grief, said Erica Woodland, founder and executive director of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network. “As Black folks, we are conditioned to see our inability to keep it moving as a personal failing,” said Woodland, who uses the pronoun he and him. In the face of the widespread grief brought on by the pandemic, he finds himself offering clients tips on how to turn and face the reality of what they’re going through. “I’m saying to people, ‘Don’t gaslight yourself. Don’t gaslight your experience,’” he said. Instead of second guessing our sadness or telling ourselves we’re overreacting, Woodland suggests practicing self-compassion and reminding ourselves how challenging these conditions really are.
Tricia Hersey, known to followers of her work as the Nap Bishop, says making space in our lives for grief is necessary for healing to occur. Rather than powering on or telling our devastated loved ones not to cry when they’re overcome with emotion, we should give ourselves over to the experience. While in divinity school, Hersey trained as a chaplain in a retirement community and witnessed a range of responses to loss. “We really, as a culture, don’t know how to grieve,” she said of Americans. In 2016, she founded the Nap Ministry, an organization that urges people to prioritize rest as a path toward liberation. “Rest supports grieving. Like silence and like prayer and like slowing down and dreaming and napping, all of those things help to remove veils from our eyes, help us to see more clearly what’s happening,” Hersey said.
We might hear this advice and not know where to begin, given our lives many demands. In Hersey’s view, rest is central to survival, and any beliefs we hold that being still and unproductive are displays of laziness are the result of centuries of oppression. “Everything in culture is working in collaboration for us not to rest,” Hersey said. “We’ve been trained from the beginning to ignore our bodies.” For her, evangelizing rest as a restorative practice and antidote to grief is political. She talks about rest as a form of self-directed reparations for Black people. Like Wallace, she believes the violence experienced by our ancestors lives on in our bodies and unconscious habits. “We were the first commodity,” Hersey said, describing slavery as the engine of American capitalism. It was on plantations that we were pushed as “the edge of automation.”
In 2020, many of us find ourselves with more time on our hands, time we could use to nap and daydream as Hersey suggests. But in our current predicament the opportunity to relax can feel far-fetched. Instead, the pandemic has created an expanse of time stretching out before us that means lost income, a lost sense of direction, and no real sense of when it will end. November news that effective Covid vaccines may soon be headed to market brought some optimism, but the sense of disorientation remains. Pickens, the Houston-based writer, has seen how the economic fallout from the pandemic is hitting the same Black communities that were battered by Hurricane Harvey just three years ago. Back then, she worked with Black Lives Matter HTX [note: not the same as BLM Houston] to distribute basic care items, filling gaps left by the city’s recovery efforts. Now the group is involved in a mutual aid project. Pickens recalled speaking with a woman in search of support. “So much of the phone call was her talking about how hard she’s worked. She’s always had two jobs. She’s always been able to take care of herself,” Pickens said. The group doesn’t require anyone to prove their need or explain themselves. But in the woman’s insistence on her previous self-sufficiency, Pickens could hear her profound sense of loss: “this grief of the ability to care for oneself; the grief of who you thought you were and what you thought your life was.”
The woman’s desire to share her story, even with a stranger, makes sense. We want to be witnessed in these hard times, we want to be held and to hold each other. Just because we can’t safely gather doesn’t mean that yearning goes away. Funerals and memorial services mark the passing of an individual’s life. But when we get through these hardest months or years, how will we mourn the many losses we’re sustaining? How will we override shame and express our collective sense of grief?
For several years, spiritual teacher and author Spring Washam worked alongside Sobonfu Somé, a West African teacher who brought the grief practices of Burkina Faso to the rest of the world. Washam recalled the rituals she led with Somé for several years before Somé’s death in 2017.
“In Burkina Faso, [grief is] not a private issue. It’s a public health issue for everyone,” Washam said. She learned from Somé that healers and elders in Somé’s native country would be able to sense – from looking in people’s eyes or smelling the air – when members of the community needed a release valve for their grief. The traditional ritual would last days. The events Somé and Washam facilitated together at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the San Francisco Bay Area would last an afternoon and involved separate altars meant for honoring ancestors, practicing forgiveness and releasing grief. Participants built and tended a bonfire meant to consume symbols of their grief.
“She always encouraged a lot of vocal release, so screaming, wailing, moving,” Washam said of Somé. “There’s something strong about allowing ourselves to feel. The suppression is what will make us ill. We need to honor this energy and let it have its life.”
From her home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Julia Mallory is helping people grieve together virtually. Her online workshop “Can we Talk About Grief?” has reached at least 100 people since March. She is adamant that she’s a guide, not an expert. “I think they see a Black woman who has acknowledged her own grief, so they feel, ‘Maybe Julia can offer me the space to be able to work with my grief,’” she said. Mallory’s 17-year-old son Julian was killed in 2017. In the wake of the tragedy, the longtime poet deepened her commitment to writing and tapped into its therapeutic benefits. Through Black Mermaids, her creative literary arts company, she shares practices and tools that have helped her. One such writing prompt: Use the five senses to reflect on how grief is moving in your body. Reading Black writers who explore grief well can also be a balm, Mallory said. She lists Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Alexander, Zora Neale Hurston, Lucille Clifton and Jesmyn Ward among her favorites.
Black Mermaids sells a t-shirt that displays a simple sentence repeated more than a dozen times in bright, insistent colors: "We can't avoid our grief and be free." The phrase describes Mallory’s commitment to facing grief, refusing to avoid it, as so many of us try to do. “Sometimes we find ourselves collapsing because we’ve tried to put off engaging with our grief so long,” Mallory said. “I just want us to make sure that we’re really okay and not just looking like we’re okay.”