Originally published May 5, 2022.
i often think about "healing," about how many of us who are Black—and particularly those of us who are marginalized in other ways, too—will never be able to heal completely.
there is no one-size-fits-all coping mechanism for grief or trauma. what phrase, song, prayer or ritual may work for one person may not work for another. the phrase that many lean into in times of deep sorrow that absolutely does not provide me with any comfort is "healing isn't linear." on the surface, i guess that's true. healing is erratic, indiscriminate, chaotic, and arbitrary. it knows no bounds and follows no rules. and in its wake, i've found that it often puts your heart up as collateral—leaving one unwilling to feel as deeply as they once did, or love as earnestly as they once did, or exist as vulnerably as they once did. at least, that's true for me.
in my darkest hours, in moments where my heart hurt the most, i could not feel. i don't mean that in the sense that i lost the ability to touch or the ability to feel when something touched me, but that my head and my heart encountered a disconnect. i knew that i was hurting because my brain told me so, but my heart was not in a place that allowed me to feel that pain. i had grown numb, exhausted, overwhelmed. i was both full and empty simultaneously. it's possible that if i had the ability to feel that pain, i wouldn't have survived it. perhaps it was my body's attempt at keeping me alive, or at least an attempt at retaining the breath in my lungs even as i was living as Dead.
in grief, the disconnect between my head and my heart was perhaps my body's desire to live (as Dead). this concept, to live as Dead, is known as social death.
as Jared Sexton writes, "a living death is as much a death as it is a living … Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space." in other words, as i note in my book, Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness, to live in the world as Dead is to breathe life into a world that seeks to dispose of you. it means that whiteness, whereby i am naming antiblackness, constructs Black identity through the criminalization, subjugation, and objectification of our flesh and our being; forcing us to live as fugitives because we have no home.
what do the physically dead and socially Dead hope for? healing from d/Death is, by definition, impossible.
there is no structure for how to heal, only guiding practices that may help one heal. that does not comfort me. moving through grieving, between healing, in hopes to one day "be healed" takes a lot of work, great discipline, and the desire to feel something more than the pain one is experiencing in the moment. i use the words "discipline" and "desire" here intentionally. when we are taught that grief can be so easily defined in just five stages, it is easy to internalize that how you heal is "wrong" or "undisciplined." the five stages of grief, however, "is not science-based, does not well describe most people's experiences, and was never even meant to apply to the bereaved." this model, developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, was only intended to comprehend how terminally ill patients she worked with and interviewed directly were handling their diagnosis.
there is an explanation for why many of us are desperate to experience healing "the right way." there is something desirable about healing amongst the collective unconscious. this is to say that being positioned as "healed" in the world is accompanied by a level of social currency that makes healing—particularly in this way—feel especially necessary.
"healing isn't linear" is meant to be comforting because it introduces or invites the idea—or the affirmation, more succinctly—that you don't have to punish yourself for returning to individual grief since pain doesn't exist on a line. but. and. grief is hard. Grief is hard. being told that healing is not linear feels as though a single thought, feeling, or sighting could disrupt weeks, months, or years of work i've put in to dismiss, or get past, that agony. it's daunting. but if healing can be so easily disrupted, then healing is not something we should be measured by (or that we should measure ourselves by)—particularly and especially since the concept itself is unbalanced and inequitable. and maybe both grieving and healing are a lot more complicated than many understand them to be.
We're putting together a resource that sets folks up to better support their loved ones in times of both individual and collective mourning.
i understand Grief to be a return to, escape and removal from oneself. and it's something that everyone does. Grief, in a structural sense, is not short-lived and thinking of it only as an individual experience fails to acknowledge structural grieving (Grief). for the most part, many understand grief as a consequence of, or a response to, individual loss: the death of a loved one, the end of a romantic relationship, or the loss of a friend. i understand Grief to be an inescapable part of life. we all experience loss, in one iteration or another, that requires us to grieve the life lived, space shared, or time lost. however, when we individualize loss, we remove the context under which Grief is often also experienced genealogically—which is to say that Grief, on a structural level, is also a communal experience. said differently, because Grief encompasses the loss of time and space, relegating or assigning grief to an individual experience fails to acknowledge the long life of pain, trauma, and therefore Grief itself.
what i am seeking to clarify on our understanding of grief is that total healing is not possible for Black folks precisely because we exist as the underbelly of humanity and are therefore always grieving, as we live in Grief. if we accept that to be healed means to have grieved, as opposed to actively grieving, then there is no way for Black folks to ever be healed. i don't believe complete healing is possible for Black folks in an antiblack world; in a world wherein we are experiencing "the afterlife of slavery," as Saidya Hartman names it.
these thoughts force me to contend with the fact that grief, particularly for Black folks, is often a tension held in our bodies passed down from those who come before us; which is to say that grief is a communal process and practice that is rarely problematized beyond the individual. that's what i am seeking to do here: in Grief.
trauma is intergenerational, familial, and communal. it is internalized and shared amongst our siblings, our children, our families. we carry the weight of the trauma of Africans whose shackles could not keep them from jumping ship; we carry the emptiness of Africans who refused to eat in chains; we carry the sting of slaves whipped 'cross fields in the south under the beating sun; we carry the grip of the noose wrapped around the necks of growing children hanged from the lynching tree. we know what it means to be stripped of the ability to read and write; we know what it means to be forced to care for white children and die trying to have children of our own; we know what it means to be displaced from our homes via gentrification; we know what it means to be profiled, criminalized, incarcerated, and murdered by police. we are not strangers to trauma, and that trauma doesn't die with us. it becomes ingrained into the very fabric of who we are, often passed to us by way of the teaching of antiblack respectability politics with hopes that it'll keep us alive. we know Grief. intimately.
more from grief & other loves
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A wife for nearly 40 years, Nnenna Freelon now wonders what to make of the term widow when she still feels the significance of her marriage well after her husband's death in Black Widow, the final installment in the season of Great Grief, Wailing Women.
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