The Trauma of Living While Black (Part I): Why Black Americans Don’t Experience the 5 Stages of Grief

Mamie Till Mobley at the funeral of her son, Emmett Till, in Chicago in September 1955. Credit...Chicago Sun-Times/Associated Press
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Navigating a State of Perpetual Grief

It is now June 2020, and for six months the United States has been inundated with COVID-19; the deadly disease that has killed more black people than any other race in this country. In fact, over the past few weeks we have been embroiled in protests passionately expressing our frustrations with racism and police brutality towards black Americans. In the midst of this heightened state of cultural suffering as a people, Ryan Guzman – an actor on the show “9-1-1,” has been caught using the N-word and other stereotypes while talking with friends. Yahoo News got ahold of it, and reported it on national platforms. His black “9-1-1” co-star Aisha Hinds was asked by a fan how she felt about what he said. Her response was: “How I feel daily is a perpetual state of grief.”

Her statement made on June 2, 2020 is reminiscent of statements made by Job found in chapters 16 and 17: “Though I speak, my grief is not relieved; and if I remain silent how am I eased?  (vs. 6). I have sewn sackcloth over my skin, and laid my head in the dust. My face is flushed from weeping, and on my eyelids is the shadow of death; although no violence is in my hands and my prayer is pure. Oh Earth, do not cover my blood, and let my cry have no resting place. Even now my witness is in Heaven, and there is evidence on High. My eyes pour out tears to God, my spirit is broken” (Job 16:15-17:1).

Memorial Day Weekend: When Black Humanity Was Assassinated

November 22, 1963 and August 4, 1968 are dates forever etched in our minds as the respective moments in history when JFK and MLK were assassinated. Now, added to that etching will be May 25, 2020 when George Floyd, and the basic humanity of black people in the United States, were assassinated.

I began the 2020 Memorial Day weekend watching Bill Gaither’s Gospel Band singing words from the famous national hymn, “I’m Proud to Be an American.” I followed this with the National Memorial Day Concert on Monday evening, as it celebrated the heroism of those who fought wars on foreign soil. This weekend was violently contrasted on Tuesday morning as I watched George Floyd put to death in the street without hesitation, without fear of recrimination, and without fear of criminal accountability. George Floyd, with Derek Chauvin’s knee in his neck, appealed to hearts of stone and minds of evil declaring, “I can’t breathe.”

In that moment, unbeknownst to Derek Chauvin, Satan was using him to accurately depict the experience of black Americans in this country for over past 400 years. A people that have never been given the opportunity to realize their full potential, and have had its accomplishments and value buried, has always had a proverbial American knee in its neck. We have been aggrieved, and we grieve. The statements made by Job, speak our feelings so vividly.

Watching all three of these events during a time that has been set aside by the nation to mourn death and dying for reasons related to the protection of our freedoms, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, had the emotions of many in this country – regardless of race – roiling. And it set off an explosion.

For myself, there was no way that I could be proud to be an American. There was no way that I could sing “America the Beautiful”, while celebrating the symbolism of the military, a system the President was threatening to send to fight and disperse peaceful protesters. And quite frankly, there was no way that I could believe that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were values offered to the lives of black Americans.

I have come to realize that mourning, death, dying, loss and grief as Black people in this country are perpetual. And the grief process/model developed by Kubler-Ross, implemented in caring and counseling for over 60 years, and viewed as the gold standard, is not helpful. In fact, I believe it is unfortunately not applicable for healing the perpetual black grief that is oftentimes related to racial trauma.

The Process of Loss and Grief

In 1969 Dr. Elizabeth KublerRoss published a book entitled, On Death and Dying, which outlined what she referred to as the 5 stages of grief. Her work – a form of qualitative research conducted at the University of Chicago Medical School – was based on her reflections of the grief process of patients who had been diagnosed with terminal illness. These stages later came to be applied to all death experiences, and other forms of significant loss. Her five stages of grief are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

While scientists have critiqued her model, she herself has stated that going through the stages is not a linear process, and she would add another stage – Meaning – in revision. In addition, she saw her work as showing ways of how people cope with illness and death. Although scientists have offered critiques of the Kubler-Ross model, it is still used to teach students in the fields of health care, psychology, theology, chaplaincy, pastoral care, and other professions, about the way in which human beings in general cope with mourning, death, loss, and grief. Because to some degree it is still viewed as the gold standard for dealing with all forms of loss and grief.

Forty years later, George Bonanno (2009), Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, published a book entitled The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After a Loss. In his book he summarized peer-reviewed research based on thousands of subjects, over two decades. He concluded that a principal component of grief is a natural psychological resilience; and that there are no stages of grief to pass. Bonanno’s work also demonstrated that absence of grief or trauma symptoms is a healthy outcome.

Then 10 years later, in 2019, Charles Corr documented concerns with the Kubler -Ross ‘Stages of Loss and Grief’ model, based on the evaluation of other experts in the area. One such person was Robert Kastenbaum. In 2012, Kastenbaum stated among other things, that “the resources, pressures and characteristics of the immediate environment – which can make a tremendous difference in how someone processes loss, death, and dying – are not taken into account with the Kubler-Ross model.” In other words, the lived experience of poverty, unemployment, and a state of perpetual death and grief make Kubler-Ross’s model of grief insufficient in dealing with the pain felt by blacks in America.

The Inefficacy of Kubler-Ross’ Model For Black Grief

As we see, feel, hear of, and experience the trauma blacks Americans are faced with each time a life is taken through police assassination, and other forms of racism, the gold standard used to describe coping with death, loss, and grief by Kubler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, does not work.

This model cannot be applied, because no time is available for the stage of denial. Our lives are being taken by disease, stress, poverty, and police brutality so quickly, unexpectantly, and harshly that it does not afford Blacks as a people, the opportunity to experience the first stage of ‘Denial’.

As it relates to the second stage of Kubler-Ross’s model of death, loss and grief, all ‘Bargaining’ and pleading between individuals and police, between the advocates and politicians, between blacks and other cultures to request help, have up to this point been ignored. And our lives are being taken so ruthlessly, in some cases there is little time to even bargain with God.

Demonstrators pray during a march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
Creator: Mike Stewart |
Credit: AP
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The stage of ‘Acceptance’ is one that we will always refuse. It would mean being quiet, and allowing these numerous ‘unnatural’ death experiences of our men and women to continue without an outcry being heard. It would mean, accepting false coroner and medical examiner reports from those in authority who are unethically sharing wrong information to push us into acceptance.

As a result, this leaves us locked in a perpetual state of the only two stages left – depression and anger, and ultimately a perpetual state of grief. With the consistent and continual incidents against black Americans, it is clear that we are always dealing with depression and anger over and over. Worse yet, we never get any emotional or mental help, and never are thus unable to address the PTSD and persistent trauma that is a constant part of our lives.

A Community Stuck in Grief

While speaking with a friend about the assassination of George Floyd by police, he immediately became overwhelmed with tears and emotion. He relayed his own experience with police as a black man in America, and it was very similar to George’s. The only thing missing was the knee in his neck. He was reliving his own trauma that had happened 20 years ago. At that time, it dawned on me that there are many of us with the same or similar experiences who are still alive. And every time it happens to someone else in our community again and again, we are sent back to that traumatic experience. This is why we as a people never get to the other side of grief regarding police violence.

Black women who have lost husbands, significant others, fathers of their children, sons, brothers, sisters, and daughters; Black men who have lost wives, significant others, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters; Black children who have lost fathers, uncles, extended family, adult male figures; and Black people who have lost innocence, rest, peace and a sense of safety, to police assassinations, never reach Kubler-Ross’s described last stage of acceptance; nor Bonanno’s healthy outcome of absence of grief or trauma. Because the experience is kept fresh by the pressures, characteristics, and continued racist behaviors of our immediate environments in American society, spoken of by Kastenbaum in 2012.

The Trauma of Recording Death

Imagine the life of Darnella Frazier, who at the age of 17 had to marshall intelligence to tape this murder, while managing the emotional trauma she experienced watching it. She will live with the grief of that experience for the rest of her life. Sadly, this is the norm for our young black girls. Can the same be said for young white girls?

Darnella returned to the scene of the killing, the day after George Floyd’s death, and could be seen looking visibly shattered. A video was captured and posted online by NowThis showing Frazier crying and stating, “I watched this man die.” In the video, she hugs other members of the community protesting in that same area. Clearly she is seeking some solace, some healing for the massive grief she is experiencing.

She stated through sobs, “I posted the video last night and it just went viral,” adding, “Everybody’s asking me how do I feel? I don’t know how to feel, cause it’s so sad, bro. This man was literally right here at 8:00 pm yesterday. I was walking my cousin to the store, and I just see him on the ground and I’m like ‘What is going on?’” Ultimately, she ended her speech at the scene saying, “It is so traumatizing” while continuing to cry before putting her mask back on.

Lest we forget, this occurred in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A worldwide health crisis that has claimed more blacks in death in the United States, than any other race. Already disproportionately impacted with having no time to think about the death, dying, and loss of loved ones to this disease – much less go through the stages of loss and grief; no opportunities to say good-bye, I love you, I’m sorry, I forgive you; and no ability to experience rituals of farewell such as funerals, memorial services, burials, and more – here come more assaults on black Americans at the hands of police.

Healing Through Prayer

In 1905 Ellen White wrote, “Our greatest sin is man’s inhumanity to man.” The Holocaust of the second world war lasted 6-7 years, and yet its survivors carried that trauma throughout the remainder of their lives. It has crossed a time span of approximately 80 years. The survivors repeatedly stated, “We will never let it happen again, and it hasn’t. But it took the whole world to come together and make that happen.

The inhumanity perpetrated against blacks in the United States has crossed a time span of over 400 years. And still it continues. We pass laws, fight back, speak out against it, and it still continues. Unfortunately, the whole world has not been able to come to our aid. So how do we navigate this state of perpetual grief and trauma that we live with as black Americans in this country, and is passed down from generation to generation? Let us never forget to pray. I encourage you to use Job’s Prayer from Chapter 16 shared at the beginning of this article.

Then we have to acknowledge that racism and its violent manifestations is indeed a sin. The Holy Spirit is withdrawing His Spirit from the Earth, and Satan has mistakenly believing that he is the Prince of this world. But we must remember that, the battle is the Lord’s, and it has already been won. Christ, who is mediating on our behalf even as we speak, knows exactly how we as a people feel.

Isaiah 53:3-5 says, “He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement for our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.

How do we navigate the perpetual grief that we are drenched in and live with as Black Americans?  We start by making our relationships with Christ as individuals and as a people, our priority. The gains we achieved as a people in the 60’s were done so with Christ as our guide. It is critical that we return to finding our hope and healing in Him. For it is within the context of Christ’s healing stripes that we then move forward to incorporate other navigational steps that I will outline in part 2 of this article.

More from Dr. Karen Allen, PhD, RN, FAAN

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