COVID, Race, and Collective Grief in the Black Community

As a therapist at the Center for Grief Therapy and Education, I wish to acknowledge the grief and pain of the friends and family of George Floyd as they mourn the loss of their loved one. Their suffering is compounded by the fact that Mr. Floyd did not die of natural causes, nor was his death accidental, nor was it an isolated incident.  George Floyd’s death was another episode in, what James Baldwin referred to as the “racial nightmare” in this country. At this unique historic moment, all professions should focus the lens of their expertise on the every-day experience of racism endured by the people of color in this country. My hope is to shed light on the insights that the field of thanatology (study of grief) can bring to this important conversation.

Grief therapists and educators recognize that personal losses are compounded by persistent threats, such as the dangers facing families of color and the anticipatory grief of future losses. How many minority mothers and fathers carry sadness in anticipation that some number of them will lose a son or daughter to police violence?

Heartbreakingly, Floyd’s name now joins the long list of victims of excessive force used by police and law enforcement officials in America.  To name only the best known cases, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Meagan Hockaday, Michael Brown, Alexia Christian, Philando Castile,Mya Hall, Walter Scott, Miriam Carey, Tamir Rice, Shelly Frey, Alton Sterling, Tanisha Anderson, Stephon Clark, and Michelle Cusseaux, not to mention Trayvon Martin, have joined the list of people of color killed by law enforcement officers. Between 2013 and 2019, a total of 7,666 people in this country have been killed by police. In only 99 of those cases were charges brought against the killer, and in only 25 cases was there any conviction. Statistics show that the darker the color of a person’s skin in America, the greater the likelihood of being victim of police violence.

We at the Center for Grief Therapy and Education feel compelled to speak to the pressing issues of police violence and racism in our country and how they provoke profound experiences of grief. Would that the problem of excessive force were only a story of rogue police officers in the occasional police force.  Unfortunately, the case of police violence against minorities is only one symptom of a much larger disease, that of persistent racism.  COVID-19, which should, in theory, affect all people equally, has killed people of color at a rate more than three times higher than that of white people. Why? Because, in America, the darker the color of your skin, the more likely you are to: grow up poor; lack adequate health care; be denied loans and promotions; live in a community with polluted air and water; suffer from type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.  

Many people of color are experiencing grief for indirect, as well as for the direct, losses born by their communities.  Yet our society tends to “disenfranchise” their grief, refusing to openly acknowledge or accept the legitimacy of their feelings of loss.  Grief is regularly reserved for the loss of a “blood relative” excluding those who cannot claim a family tie to the deceased.  Minimizing or even ignoring people’s grief experience, expecting the bereaved to “get over it”, can lead to a wide range of complicated emotions, as well as mental and physical health challenges. It is equally important to acknowledge the trans-generational grief that the African American community suffers. Even though a particular individual may have never suffered enslavement, KKK terror, or lynching under Jim Crow rule, profound feelings of fear, trauma and grief are passed down to each successive generation.

The social unrest following the death of George Floyd is an invitation for all Americans to stand in solidarity with everyone who is a victim of racist practices and institutions.  The Center for Grief Therapy and Education will continue to educate the wider community about disenfranchised and trans-generational grieving, and welcomes people of all races to contact us for support with their feelings of loss.