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How To Parent & Grieve at the Same Time as a Black American

A young Black woman, who we’ll call Dana, walked into my office a few years ago after scheduling an appointment to address symptoms of grief following her mother’s sudden death. Over the course of an hour, she shared the depth of her sadness, the physical consequences of loss, and the toll her mother’s death had taken on her marriage. And while each of these issues deeply concerned her, Dana’s most pressing question to me, as she offered details about her children, was “Dr. Harris, how do I parent and grieve at the same time?”

Unfortunately, Dana isn’t alone. Nearly 60 percent of the population has experienced the death of a loved one throughout the past three years. Among Black Americans, health inequalities contribute to an even higher loss percentage. In addition, this data does not even account for the array of invisible losses experienced by those who are grieving — loss of wages, employment, family role, social connections, etc. Black parents also face an additional burden — that is, navigating seemingly competing roles as provider and caregiver to their children and as a grief-stricken individual navigating life after loss. Managing the unpredictable ebbs and flows of grief alongside never-ceasing parental duties naturally poses quite a challenge.

With Dana and others, I have reflected on the importance of prioritizing grief processing and self-care – in particular, focusing on practical and manageable coping tools to promote health and well-being. Within the Black community, this is an even more critical charge, related to healthcare access issues, impact of generational trauma, the prevalence of structural racism and discrimination, and stigma associated with receipt of mental health services.

I would argue that Black parents do not need to be “strong” as they grieve. They need to be seen.

This begins with creating space to see themselves and acknowledge the fullness of their pain. Experiencing symptoms of grief — be they emotional, physical, and/or spiritual — is normal and anticipated in the face of loss. On the contrary, attempting to bypass the significant impact of a loss as a means of ‘saving face’ or ‘just moving on’ can lead to a host of physical and psychological consequences. This, in turn, has the potential to not only prolong Black parents’ suffering, but also make it difficult for them to adequately acknowledge and address their children’s pain.

“Black parents do not need to be ‘strong’ as they grieve. They need to be seen.”

Whether in community or one-on-one with a caring support person, it is essential for grieving parents to intentionally prioritize their needs. Audre Lorde’s declaration that “caring for [oneself] is not self-indulgence,” but is on the contrary, a reflection of “self-preservation … and an act of political warfare” provides the foundation for grieving parents. If parents do not take intentional steps to care for their own well-being, they will not have the capacity to be present with or fully care for their children. Research supports the critical nature of radical self-care and its role among parents facing racial and overlapping stress, including grief.

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