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Op-Ed: There Is No Correct Response To Grief, But Grace

August 26, 2023

The unpredictable weight of grief can creep can interrupt an entire day with something as casual as seeing a stranger or creeping through the lyrics of your favorite song. I don’t know which part is worse, its unpredictability or, the way it can hold your day hostage. What I do know for sure is that grief and grace rarely intersect for Black women and rarely is there space for us to pause for grief. Life requires us to be the balm of the world while our own hearts are broken. And since we live in a world where “capitalism rules everything around us,” we calculate what we will lose before we even decide to possibly withdraw from professional obligations. “How much money will I  lose If I call out of work  for a while?” “ Will I still have my position if I don’t work through my pain?” And for those of us who internalized the dangerous  “strong Black woman trope,” these thoughts often include “ let me keep pushing. I come from a long line of strong women and this is what we do.” 

This is why when I read Jazmine Sullivan’s IG post about her withdrawing from performing at both AfroPunk Brooklyn and Atlanta Funkfest because she is mourning the loss of her mother, I sighed in relief for her but I was immediately snatched back to a cold familiar place—my own grief. 

This season of my life has been one of extreme professional highs and heartbreaking personal lows. At the beginning of November, I was floating. I was interviewed by Tamron Hall about my debut book Ride-Or-Die: A Feminist Manifesto for the Well-Being of Black Women. My book launch was a standing-room-only event at The Strand Bookstore in NYC – My family was present as I read the intro to my book, entitled “On Ode To Black Women.” Allowing readers to understand the impact my mom, her sisters, and my grandmother had on my life. As I read to the audience, I peeked up and scanned the faces of my family – their pride was contagious. It was by far one of the best nights of my life.  Two weeks later my grandmother died; the day after her funeral my mother’s sister who helped raise me also died, about two months later my mother’s oldest sister died suddenly of a heart attack, and just as I was starting to catch my breath, this July a cousin that I’ve always been close to—the one who purchased sneakers to match my book cover to wear at my launch also died. 

Experiencing compound grief of that magnitude left me with two choices: do anything I could to numb the pain while sleeping my days away or fight for my peace knowing my life depended on it. The latter required me to postpone previously scheduled book events and  I didn’t take this decision lightly nor did the realization of the need for this decision come immediately. One day I was on a call about a previously scheduled interview with a producer. I was about fifteen minutes into the conversation and still hadn’t made up my mind about whether or not I would proceed with the interview as scheduled. I was swimming in grief. When the producer asked me “How would your grandmother want you to proceed” I opened my mouth and the answer fell out and surprised us both. “ My grandmother took great pride in her strength and she would want me to keep pushing and complete all my book events, but I need to let some things die with her. Out of all of the things she taught me, I’m burying that one with her. I’m not ok and I won’t be doing any interviews until further notice.” “Oh, wow, good for you,” she said with shock and understanding. Thank you, I responded feeling a sense of peace about my decision.  I concluded that call and sent an email out to cancel more events. It was in that moment that I understood my healing journey would require a strong understanding that I deserve to say no. 

I don’t know if Jazmine came to her decision immediately, but I know how true and powerful her actions and words were. “ Grief has its own rhythm, and it’s essential to honor emotions and moments of mourning.” 

 What Jazmine did was important. She modeled what it looks like  to pause for your own pain. She publicly rejected societal and  cultural expectations for us to demonstrate super human strength. While the stipulations of her contract with Afropunk are not public, I do know some organizations and business owners don’t always offer grace and room to grieve even during our darkest hours.  Hell, as a country  we  faced a pandemic and policies implemented by many  officials were predicated on the need to keep the economy going rather than the preservation of human life. 

“Capitalism rules everything around us” indeed. Which is why the response from AfroPunk was notable. They showed public grace and understanding while wishing her well. “We stand by her as she navigates through this moment.” 

These words can feel like balm. 

Not only is grief unpredictable but sometimes it steals the words  out of the mouths of people who love you. Oftentimes people don’t know what to say to those who are heartbroken. The truth is there is no script. If you ever find yourself at a loss for words I encourage you to simply say  “I stand with you as you navigate this moment.” 

Grief, as Jazmine stated and  I personally attest to—“ has its own rhythm.”You are never the same after you lose somebody close to you. My life now entails fighting for my peace. One of the ways I embrace this new version of myself is to swim in all the things that bring me joy. I celebrate all my wins. Even when they look small to other people, I go into overdrive and really live in the moment. Sometimes I get happy over the fact that I am feeling happy. This allows my new life to be shaped by actively centering joy instead of grief. Some days this is enough. Some days it isn’t. Healing isn’t a linear journey. It’s a journey full of peaks and valleys that will teach you along the way. 

During my journey I am learning true healing requires community, which is especially true for Black women.  We need those in our community who will offer us grace and understanding when we can’t show up. We need some people to actually say the words “It’s essential to honor emotions and moments of mourning.”   We need those who will remind us that our well-being is far more important than our labor. Finally, we certainly need those of us who will say we are standing with you as you navigate this moment.