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Grief of the Black Mother


DeNean Hardman

Saybrook University

MBM5517: Mindful Approaches to Grief and Loss

Dr. Gina Belton

March 3, 2024

 

Abstract


For as long as I can remember, I was consistently reminded of my skin color, and what it meant to be a “brown” girl. The color of my skin came first, my gender came next, and all expectations that came with both followed. I was never permitted to forget that my identity was based upon both my color and gender, which meant that I had to be both strong and resilient. This also carried over into the way that I was permitted to grieve. Despite the level of loss, the expectation was that the weight of those feelings was not displayed in public, nor could it be an excuse for not being exceptional. This critique explores the strengths, weaknesses, and contributions of various theoretical paradigms related to Black girl grief.

            Keywords: bereavement, grief, African American mother, healing,

 

Introduction


Born in the summer of 1980, the youngest child, and only daughter of a dark-skinned, African- American father, and a light-skinned, biracial mother. My father was 20 years my mother’s senior, the son of a coal miner and housewife, from rural West Virginia during the 1930s. My mother was the second daughter of a Protestant minister and a NYC civil servant, raised in Spanish Harlem, during the 1950s. My parents’ worlds were vastly different, which had a huge impact on the way that I was raised.


My mother lacked a sense of racial identity, while my father, a few generations out of slavery, was well aware of what it meant to be Black in America. My father’s family held a larger influence on the way that I was raised, and what it meant to be a “Hardman”. With greater expectations placed on the females, we were expected to be the backbone of the family, and there could be no sign of weakness, or the family would fall apart. We held the grief that continued from our ancestors, we carried the grief of my father’s brother who died during his youth, we carried the grief of our lineage who was not permitted to mourn. Life went on and we were expected to excel despite the events that took place while we were dying to live.


Black Girl Grief


Johnson (2022) shared the questioning of her mother when she wondered whether she could find peace in the death of her young sons because they escaped living in this world as a Black male. I recall a conversation with my cousin, a professor of African American studies, Dr. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders told her young cousin, that Black mothers parented from a place of fear. They feared that their husbands and sons were at risk of never returning home, so they were coddled and revered. A byproduct of that fear, unfortunately, the Black daughters were parented out of discipline and expectation, because they needed to protect and caretake their entire family.


According to research, homicide and accidental injuries are the leading cause of death within the African American community for children between the ages of 1 – 19 years old (Al’Uqdah & Adomako, 2018). African American mothers are not only mothers to their biological children, but they tend to be community mothers, which increases their risk of abuse and subjection to a variety of forms of trauma (Al’Uqdah & Adomako, 2018). According to Al’Uqdah & Adomako (2018), it is a combination of these factors that makes their experience with grief and loss greatly different in comparison to their Caucasian counterparts. Racial disparity and systemic racism are not a new concept, though it is often overlooked concerning the disproportionate experiences of grief, loss, and bereavement that impact the African American experience (Wilson & O’Connor, 2022).


With the consideration that African American women tend to be community caretakers, their grief experience also often includes a collective grief experience not just based upon the personal loss of a loved one. As described by Wilson & Connor (2022), collective grief occurs when the collective or the community experiences a monumental loss. The most recent experience of this within the African American community would be the murders of both Trayvon Martin in 2012 and George Floyd in 2020. Their deaths are prime examples of what my cousin was sharing about the Black mother’s fear that their child or father may not return home. It could be said that every Black mother felt their mother’s pain and mourned their loss. A collective grief that will be mourned again and again as these experiences continue to repeat themselves.


Strengths


Strengths were found within the research that was reviewed for the exploration of the African American female’s experience with grief and loss. One major strength is the aspect and impact of empowerment that is found within this mother. Al’Uqdah & Adomako (2018) pointed out there are healing qualities that can be found in empowerment and these qualities combined with social activism reduce the likelihood of depressive symptoms. It may be that fighting for the cause of something greater than oneself contributes to a sense of purpose, a sense of empowerment, and the belief in impacting social and societal change (Al’Uqdah & Adomako, 2018). Despite experiencing grief and loss, the way of coping and healing through acts of social activism and social justice cultivates a sense of community and social support (Al’Uqdah & Adomako, 2018).


Johnson (2022) expressed the belief that the experience of pain and loss within the African American community has historically been minimized though there can be steps taken to correct this injustice. Acknowledging the disparity is the first step, then followed by individual action to ensure that one does not continue to propagate the belief that this is not a community that deserves the right to mourn or grieve. The strength in this research is the acknowledgment of the strength within this community system, whether that be the resilience that has been forced upon them, or the sense of collective unity since the African American woman has always been the community mother. Not only mothering themselves, and their children, but extending this mothering to other mothers, and their children.


Weaknesses


The main weakness of this research is the lack of research, not just of the grief within the African American community, but grief specifically related to the Black feminine. Not only is there limited research specifically related to this cultural group, but specific research related to grief may also not be in alignment with the African American experience with grieving. Johnson (2022) pondered how Kubler-Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief are hardly applicable to the African American community and their experience with grief. Johnson (2022) stated that African Americans are not afforded the stage of denial due to the disproportionate rate of their community member’s death, as well as not being afforded the stage of anger, due to already being stereotyped as angry.


A subsequent weakness that relates to the African American’s experience with grieving, loss, and mourning, is the lack of knowledge within the community related to psychological stressors and compound grief, as well as the lack of resources that would or should be readily assessable to those who may seek mental health or grief related supports. Wilson & O’Connor (2022) stated that there is a lack of representation within psychological research related to what it means or how it feels to live as an African American within the United States, and this lived experience directly relates to and impacts their grief experience. If the hardship of their life is not acknowledged, the hardship of their losses is even less likely to be acknowledged, which contributes to the cyclical impact of lack of research.


Contributions


May there be the acknowledgment of the research that recognizes that an individual's ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and historical and geographical factors do directly impact grief and grieving (Wilson & O’Connor, 2022). With this recognition, it may be deduced that not all individuals experience the emotions of grief the same way nor may all individuals place the same degree of weight on the experience of death and dying.  Wilson & O’Connor (2022) expand on these differences regarding the response to loss to include gender and marital status, citing research by the Yale Bereavement Study (YBS). Despite the study showing evidence of disparity within the breakdown of ethnicity, gender, and marital status, specifically about the DSM-5 diagnosis of Prolonged Grief Disorder, results remained generalized, as opposed to considering the above-identified differences.  


Conclusion


Echoing the assessment made by Wilson & O’Connor (2022), grief does remain understudied within the African American community. It is unclear as to whether this is done by design due to systemic racism, due to the subject matter being so vast since it extends beyond an individual or personal experience, or whether exploring cultural grief in this capacity would involve acknowledging ancestral actions. Whatever the reason may be, refraining from placing blame, more research is needed to understand what is being grieved, why it is being grieved in that manner, and how to hold compassionate space for those who are grieving. It should be applauded that even despite individual and collective grief, African American women, along with their African American community, and supporters, find healing power within activism.


While this call to action was not related to grief or grieving, Guy-Sheftall & Sanders (1996) called for female Black students to prepare themselves for participation in community and world transformation. This call to action continues to ring out within this marginalized community, who are not only fighting against cultural stereotypes and institutional racism but simultaneously fighting through their feelings of grief and loss which have been both minimized and suppressed, resulting in the magnification of anger and pain.


 

References


Al’Uqdah, S., & Adomako, F. (2018). From mourning to action: African American women’s grief, pain, and activism. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 23(2), 91–98. https://doi.org/10.1080/15325024.2017.1393373


Guy-Sheftall, B., & Sanders, K. W. (1996). Educating Black women students for the multicultural future. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 22(1), 210–213. https://doi.org/10.1086/495145


Johnson, K. A. (2022). A mother's tears: Contemplating Black grief. Annals of Family Medicine, 20(4), 381+. ttps://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A712558421/HWRC?u=dall6191&sid=bookmark-HWRC&xid=c699f02c


Wilson, D. T., & O’Connor, M.-F. (2022). From grief to grievance: Combined axes of personal and collective grief among Black Americans. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13, 850994–850994. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.850994

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