I learned in a social work course about grief, loss, and bereavement that the stages of grief do not exist. I watched my classmates’ eyes widen as the professor explained with an irreverent toss of hand that there is no slow, steady progression through the realms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief is a river hitting bends and drops; it is an ocean in thrall and then unexpectedly placid. No expectations should be imposed on the grieving process by an outsider-even a social worker-because no one will experience loss in the same way.
This knowledge galled me. I am used to fixing things–the vestiges of my teenage savior-complex coupled with a once insatiable thirst for perfectionism. Asking questions like bullet points and preparing conclusions on lined paper, I bask in the certainty and security of what is known to me, what I can figure out and puzzle solutions to address. People can be understood for anyone with the willingness to listen, and the effects of any problem can fit neatly into a preexisting model.
My practiced patterns fly apart on the night before I’m headed back to the U.S. mainland from vacation abroad, and I see the Alton Sterling video. Until that point, I had avoided seeing videos of any previous police shootings. I see this one, and my heart sinks like lead.
I return to the U.S and the Philando Castile video materializes. Though an inner voice pleads with me to stop looking, I watch news segments where white lawyers and political agents with stone faces try to find some way to justify these men’s deaths. As my Facebook feed becomes an endless sprawl of articles, posts from my friends of color about the racism in this country, posts that vibrate with rage and sorrow, grief in that moment means a simmering anger triggered by every word related to race. Beneath my smiles and daily living routines, I rattle with fury.
Not again. Not again…
Then, suddenly, the overwhelming weight of everything wrong with my country drags me down, down and there are no words, nothing to make it disappear. I’m still on vacation, but I lock myself in a bathroom in a Texas mall and try to stifle the sound of my tears. Afterwards, I crumple toilet paper to rub the evidence away and re-enter the world a composed black woman.
This past week, these past years have awakened me to the reality of what being a black, a Latina woman in this country means. Before, determined to view my surroundings with a brightened lens, I would have downplayed what I see in the news. Surely it’s not as bad as it seems. But I have listened to those far wiser than me and those who have experienced more than me, and I am taking the time to learn my history; I know now that the sepia-tinged America never existed, and black lives do not matter here in the way our Creator intended them to be valued.
Anger propels me. I must write something–everyone is writing something. Everyone is posting a response, laying out arguments, spilling out the storm inside them. I cannot be silent when I know that injustice will not end with this latest shooting; this story began long ago and there are no brakes in sight as it throttles into the future. But after sharing every post that strikes a chord, ruminating every new headline (then Dallas happens), I am emptied out, hollowed. I am tired.
Psychologists and sociologists have been conducting more research lately on the concept of race-based trauma, where exposure to race-related horrific events and/or discrimination experienced by you or members of your racial/ethnic community result in emotional and psychological stress. NPR labeled it “coping while black,” struggling along the path of resilience when you are constantly battered by the news of yet another example of racism in your country or encountering the markers of racial oppression in your daily life.
The microaggressions pile up, the little rhetorical gestures that subtly invalidate the pain of your community and remind you of your position of inferiority, even if you are a middle class black girl whose family member has never been shot (the they could be speaks louder). Enforced silences bind your throat because no matter how many carefully structured responses you provide, you will inevitably encounter the same questions from a white colleague, friend, or acquaintance another day. You are taught to resign yourself to the perpetual play of question-answer-apology or take shelter in silence. Find a good enough hiding spot and even in predominantly white spaces, maybe no one will seek you.
Some members of the black community call it “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” and they’re not far off. The multigenerational nature of racism in my country is such that the impact is experienced in both invisible and blatant ways now. We may never know what it is like to be in chains, whipped and sold, but we do see sons and daughters incarcerated in record numbers and stripped of the right to vote, get a job, maintain a stable family. We may never know what it is to sit on the back of a bus or use a separate bathroom, but we do see our under-resourced city schools that serve black children, the red lines around “bad neighborhoods,” and we see our community lampooned in the media, made into minstrels for viral videos and sassy baby mamas to incite laughter and wise negro friends to aid white enlightenment. We have inherited generations of unaddressed suffering, and our bodies pulse with the familiar rhythms of it, even when we are young and cannot name it.
There is a spiritual ache that heavies your limbs when you sense the strongholds of division and national blindness that prevent your communities from flourishing. It feels like masochism at times to keep drawing near the articles and and scholarly treatises and news updates and even movies because each is one of a thousand cuts and my heart bleeds.
What is most wearying is the expectation to respond. A race-related event occurs, and the person of color is on-air 24/7, ready to defend themselves and their community or ready to contextualize events to ease the blow for the mainstream. What I think many white people do not grasp is that to be a person of color signifies that you are a public body in almost every space you inhabit–with the exception of the company of other people within your ethnic/racial community. Outside of that kinship of experience, I am conscious of my skinned walk in the world, and the world has taught me that I will be explaining my skinned life until the Lord’s new kingdom unfolds in fullness.
There are those who complain that as people of color we are “whiny” and “holding ourselves back” by raging against racism so much. There are white people who accuse people of color of “playing the race card.” But this is not a game. We are not trying to manipulate events in our favor or writing about abuses allowed against our communities to garner pity and make white people feel bad. The stakes are death and life, imprisonment and freedom. There are insidious crimes against people of color being committed on American soil; the matrix of privilege and ignorance can only envelop the public for so long.
I can speak, should speak. There are facts to unveil, histories to be re-evaluated–but I am tired. I am sad because so many people, black, white, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, are hurting right now and racism is a demonic stronghold gnawing at my country’s roots. I am angry that the pain of people of color does not merit as much attention on Sunday mornings as the losses of white people. I am in denial that the same police shootings keep happening. I am overjoyed to see the those of the diaspora, black people around the world, chanting “Black Lives Matter” in their cities. I find peace in praying for my broken Church even as the lament ends in tears. I am all these things at once, grief un-staged and shifting form.
Isaiah 40:28-31 provides a vision for the brokenhearted: a God who is relentless when we are weary of doing good and experiencing evil. It reminds me that I don’t have to be strong, even when the impulse to be strong and endure all this sorrow persists. The media, my neighbors are not entitled to my response wrapped in words when words fail me. I can’t avoid what is happening around me (and neither should I), but finding rest does not equate to running away.
So many expectations are placed upon people of color to explain current events and historical realities to those outside of their racial/ethnic communities. We are brought to the stand to defend, justify, ease tensions, deny hate, express condolences and listen to the well-intentioned and passionate rants of white allies. I am inured to creating space for others to rise and feel better even as my wings are clipped.
When numbed by grief and overwhelmed by the injustice made all too real everyday, I encourage my brothers and sisters of color to rest. I tell myself to rest, to take time to breathe for a moment. I take breaks from social media, spend time with my family, spend time alone, spend time with God. I try to make it clear when I cannot talk about the news with white friends. I could write a series of posts decrying racism and calling people to action, but I choose to come to God as my hurting self and ask for relief, trusting that He will reveal for me quiet waters after the shadow of death has touched me. I seek security in the presence of the One who does not falter even when I am weak and beyond words.
I rest when I accept my grief for what it is: ongoing and reflective of God’s heart for the marginalized and oppressed. I am right in feeling this pressure; it is pointing to a spiritual reality of systemic and individual racial sin. The world is not the way He designed it to be, and when I allow myself to process the weight of that, God frees me from the anxiety of conforming to other’s expectations and directs my attention to Him, the one who transcends the atrocity and doggedly redeems it. In this space created for me by Christ, who understands human frailty intimately, I can rage and weep and laugh and wait to re-enter the fray when equipped to do so. The world does not offer people of color enough space to be themselves untethered from explanations, but in the presence of Christ, we have the opportunity to renew our strength in communion with Him and see our pain validated and comforted in every way.
Friends, allies, co-laborers in the Church who are not black: I encourage you be conscious of what you ask of people of color in your conversations and even your efforts towards justice. There are times when I appreciate your intentions but am too tired to thoroughly respond. There are times when the people you care about need your listening ear and quiet presence as well as your consideration when solitude is vital. This is not your moment to prove how great of an ally you are, but rather to grieve with them and be present. Mourn with those who mourn without defensiveness, for there is a time to extrapolate and a time to simply acknowledge black suffering and lay it before God as your loved ones rest.
The causes of grief are not erased. Injustice jaunts through the nation, unconfronted. But between the headlines, I find my haven. The trauma of living black in a broken world that obsesses over analyzing my communities’ losses is not forgotten by Christ; in fact, He pursues the weary ones and gives them what few remember to offer: respite.
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:28-31
Take rest and let no one shame you from choosing to remove yourself from stifling spaces. Immerse in the little things that bring you joy and rejuvenation, and allow God to minister to your soul by providing comfort without anxiety to perform and love without obligation to justify yourself. The world will not fall apart in the pauses where you exhale.