A young Black woman, who we’ll call Dana, walked into my office a few years ago after scheduling an appointment to address symptoms of grief following her mother’s sudden death. Over the course of an hour, she shared the depth of her sadness, the physical consequences of loss, and the toll her mother’s death had taken on her marriage. And while each of these issues deeply concerned her, Dana’s most pressing question to me, as she offered details about her children, was “Dr. Harris, how do I parent and grieve at the same time?”
Unfortunately, Dana isn’t alone. Nearly 60 percent of the population has experienced the death of a loved one throughout the past three years. Among Black Americans, health inequalities contribute to an even higher loss percentage. In addition, this data does not even account for the array of invisible losses experienced by those who are grieving — loss of wages, employment, family role, social connections, etc. Black parents also face an additional burden — that is, navigating seemingly competing roles as provider and caregiver to their children and as a grief-stricken individual navigating life after loss. Managing the unpredictable ebbs and flows of grief alongside never-ceasing parental duties naturally poses quite a challenge.
With Dana and others, I have reflected on the importance of prioritizing grief processing and self-care – in particular, focusing on practical and manageable coping tools to promote health and well-being. Within the Black community, this is an even more critical charge, related to healthcare access issues, impact of generational trauma, the prevalence of structural racism and discrimination, and stigma associated with receipt of mental health services.
I would argue that Black parents do not need to be “strong” as they grieve. They need to be seen.
This begins with creating space to see themselves and acknowledge the fullness of their pain. Experiencing symptoms of grief — be they emotional, physical, and/or spiritual — is normal and anticipated in the face of loss. On the contrary, attempting to bypass the significant impact of a loss as a means of ‘saving face’ or ‘just moving on’ can lead to a host of physical and psychological consequences. This, in turn, has the potential to not only prolong Black parents’ suffering, but also make it difficult for them to adequately acknowledge and address their children’s pain.
“Black parents do not need to be ‘strong’ as they grieve. They need to be seen.”
Whether in community or one-on-one with a caring support person, it is essential for grieving parents to intentionally prioritize their needs. Audre Lorde’s declaration that “caring for [oneself] is not self-indulgence,” but is on the contrary, a reflection of “self-preservation … and an act of political warfare” provides the foundation for grieving parents. If parents do not take intentional steps to care for their own well-being, they will not have the capacity to be present with or fully care for their children. Research supports the critical nature of radical self-care and its role among parents facing racial and overlapping stress, including grief.
A few ways Black parents might care for themselves include: seeking out professional grief support, partnering with a trusted spiritual adviser, leaning more into faith practices, connecting with things that bring them joy, or establishing healthier personal boundaries. Of course, focusing on quality health decisions, carving out time to physically move the body, and engaging rest will also help facilitate stability along the grief journey.
Once Black parents embrace the idea that self-care is not a luxury, but a necessity, they can then take steps to foster healthy communication with their children in the face of loss.
All too often, grieving parents express concerns about sharing their thoughts and feelings with their children, fearing that doing so may cause emotional upset or dysregulation. Nevertheless, the opposite is often true. As parents begin to vulnerably and openly share their own perspectives and responses to loss, their children typically begin to feel less emotionally isolated. “Grief islands” no longer pervade the home environment as parents give their children permission to also openly grieve. Of course, parent-child conversations must flow in a developmentally appropriate way and be delivered in a manner that does not overly burden the child.
Last, but certainly not least, accepting help from others is essential.
Rooted in contemporary fears and historical difficulties with trust, some Black parents may perceive this concept as foreign or even burdensome to family, friends, and community members. Yet, the capacity to truly engage community and embrace a communal perspective when it comes to parenting, is actually culturally anchored. For example, the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” has its roots in Africa and conveys the reality that it takes touch points from others throughout a child’s life to create and cultivate safety and security. In other words, Black parents do not have to parent alone. Further, they definitely do not have to parent and grieve alone.
Along the grief journey, it is important to assess and access community resources that can lighten the load that Black parents carry. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” This profound quote serves as a gentle reminder to Black parents who grieve.
Grief is the inevitable equalizer, the tie that binds humanity together in its nakedness and vulnerability.
Navigating grief is challenging and exhausting on the best of days. Parenting is much of the same. Grieving and parenting offers additional complexities that naturally force Black parents to pivot yet again. And while the shifts will also be challenging and exhausting, possibilities will also arise to support parents as they confront seemingly competing roles.
“How do I parent and grieve at the same time?” Dana asked that day.
My response, “One compassionate step at a time.”
“Will it be perfect?” she added.
“Absolutely not,” I shared. “But it will be enough.”
With grief as a lifelong companion, the more that Black parents become equipped with practical tools to help themselves, the more likely they will experience healthy ripple effects alongside their children.
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