By Alicia Forneret
My work in the world is dedicated to helping people access grief resources. Recently, I received an email that read, “Why is your site only for people of color? I guess you must grieve differently than an old white woman … disgusting and racist!”
This question came up many times in the last year, in “nicer” and not-so-nice ways: Why do you think POC need different support? Isn’t death the one thing that impacts us universally? Is a Black mother’s grieving really different from another’s? Does a Black man’s death in Minnesota really impact Black people in California that much?
And my response is and will forever be this: Yes, we all share the experience of grief, but people of color can grieve differently. Providing them with unique support is not disgusting and racist ― it is necessary.
These days, collective grief and acts of public mourning are present in our lives from every angle. The amount of shared grief is overflowing within our households, our workplaces, our newsfeeds and our communities, and goes into every inch of public and private life.
“Grief is not optional, it is the price of admission,” Michelle Williams, the co-founder and managing director of Being Here, Human, told HuffPost.
Despite the fact that we all grieve, “this does not mean that the reasons we grieve, or our access to mourning, is shared,” Williams said. “And this is where marginalized communities are impacted differently.”
Here’s how, according to experts in this space who have also personally had to navigate this issue:
People of color are often grieving a loss of hope and safety in addition to someone’s life.
A sense of safety to move about your life without any threat is vital to a person’s well-being. For many people of color, that comfort isn’t always a given.
“Black folks feel like their lives are precarious, to say the least,” Williams said. “The realization that no place is safe — not on the street, not in your car, not in your yard, not even in your own home — is taking a significant toll on the emotional and physical well-being of Black folks. When Black people can’t even find a sense of security in the warmth of their own beds, something immeasurable has been lost.”
Grief is a huge shared experience in communities of color.
Black, Indigenous and other people of color rely heavily on human connection — both with other individuals and on a community level — in order to survive, said Sarah Chavez, founding member of the Collective For Radical Death Studies.
“Shared traditions, cultural practices, language, and especially death and mourning rituals all serve to reinforce and define both the identity of self and community, culture and beliefs outside of whiteness,” Chavez said. “In a society where whiteness is the most prevalent representation, many folks must seek reflections of themselves within community. This can cultivate a sense of wholeness and connectedness. So when there is a death, the whole of the community is incomplete.”
“We have a saying in the Latinx community, ‘Tu lucha, es mi lucha,’ which means ‘your struggle is my struggle,‘” Chavez added. “Loss is deeply felt, as this is not a ‘stranger,’ a but loss of self ― a piece of the whole is missing.”
That grief is also felt among many communities of color when someone dies because of racial injustice.
“Black people everywhere are unified through our shared struggle against the forces of oppression and racism. This shared experience deepens the pain we feel when we learn of the murder of another Black person,” said Taryn Thrasher, a mental health advocate at Ayana Therapy. “We grieve for the community, for the family, which includes the countless lives that were touched by the individual who was robbed of their life.”
“When I look at George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, I see my sister or my uncle. When I hear Jacob Blake’s family on TV I see myself,” Thrasher continued. “I recognize the kind of raw pain that I would feel if that happened to my family. Each devastating loss is yet another blow to our extended family, be they blood or not.”
Grief can also activate other layers of trauma for people of color.
For many people of color, the fear, exhaustion and constant grief that all come from regularly dealing with various forms of discrimination are compounded when additional trauma piles on.
“What is unique to the African American experience of grieving is that whatever it is that we are grieving is happening on top of the trauma residing in our bodies from the daily lived experience of existing within a system that has historically and continues currently to assault us in a myriad of ways,” said Oceana Sawyer, an end-of-life doula who helps people navigate death and grief. “People with Black bodies are already traumatized to varying degrees. When you add to that the standard losses that all humans experience when someone dies, then it can quickly get overwhelming.”
The scale and frequency of loss in communities of color have been on public display ― especially over the last year.
While most people get to grieve in private, many people of color are forced to witness and contend with loss in front of the entire world. Videos of brutality and hate crimes ― like the video of Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police ― often inundate social media feeds, offering no escape.
“The sheer volume of grief, loss and emotional trauma we are having to navigate and process is, in some ways, unprecedented,” said Tembi Locke, actor, advocate and author of ″From Scratch.” “The scale, frequency and way we are inundated with images of Black pain is relentless. That near-constant threat of loss and the activation of grief, public and private, is inescapable. So, in that sense, our grief is heightened and ever-present as we watch the losses keep rolling in.”
The fact is, most people don’t have to frequently witness violent deaths of those in their own communities. When that loss is so publicly displayed, it requires targeted care.
“In the instances in which we witness the violent death of someone in our community, it also activates our own fears of death and the vulnerability of what it means to be Black in America,” Locke said. “These are powerful emotional weights we carry unseen out into the world each day.”
Grief over a death can intersect with multiple parts of someone’s identity.
“Queer, trans and intersex Black people are barely given space to process our own personal trauma before a new tragic, violent death hoisted upon us as a collective,” said Naomi Edmondson, a grief-focused death doula, model and artist.
Bottom line: Grief support isn’t one-size-fits-all.
Though grief is nothing new to Black, Indigenous and other people of color, this year in particular has prompted many to seek support that acknowledges and serves the uniqueness of their identities and cultural practices.
“As much as the western culture tries to teach us that our pain and suffering should be dealt with in private, it is quite the contrary. Grief is meant to be felt collectively,” said Sonia Fregoso, a Latinx psychotherapist and grief and loss specialist. “Your death or mine will impact more than one person. Thus, numerous people grieve the same person simultaneously. This collective loss calls for collective grief.”
That’s why it is important to find spaces where everyone feels safe expressing their grief, such as digital gatherings, support groups and meetups with others in the community. This can make the grieving experience easier and more accessible in many ways. And those spaces are going to look different for communities of color.
“There is an enormous benefit to tapping into the practices that healed your ancestors,” said Sundari Iana Malcolm, director of BIPOC well-being for The Dinner Party and founder of Sundari Bliss. “To sit, learn and hold space with those who mirror you can often open up a pathway to vulnerability and authenticity that so many of us don’t feel permission to access in mixed company.”
Mental, emotional, spiritual and health practitioners can help people of color explore ways of addressing grief, supporting their communities and caring for themselves.
Resource databases can point you in a specific direction based on your needs. Support groups, such as Sawyer’s virtual death cafes and Malcolm’s events with The Dinner Party, can help you connect with others going through similar experiences. Being Here Human offers a grief writing course for people who may find it easier to heal through creative endeavors. Digital platforms including podcasts, apps and newsletters can also offer insightful advice and even meditations. You can also follow POC grief influencers like The Grief Safe Space, Grief Tips, Spoken Grief, LatinxGrief, Naila Francis and The Imaginary Library for support.