Grieving and Self Care for Activists and Allies

Cartoon of black girl holding protest sign saying, "We said Black Lives Matter, never said Only Black Lives Matter, We know all lives matter, we just need your help with Black Lives Matter for black lives are in danger."

When protests first emerged across the country after George Floyd’s death, my brain started thinking a mile a minute.

What do I do? What can I do? How can I help? What will feel like ‘enough’?

During the first week of sitting with the anguish felt across the country, I did a lot of soul searching on where I could possibly fit in with all this in a meaningful way. I’m a helper. ‘NOW IS THE TIME TO AMP UP THE HELP!’ I said to myself.

But I kept hitting these intense moments of feeling shut down, overwhelmed, and in despair. I couldn’t decide which organization to donate to. I couldn’t decide what to post on social media.

The draft for this very blog post had been sitting unfinished behind the scenes of my website for days. I’d start to write and draw, hell bent on doing my part to help others emotionally navigate through this revolutionary time in history, and transform those emotions into meaningful action. But every time I made a bit of progress, I’d suddenly shut down again.

One night, after I put the kids down to sleep, I started my nighttime routine of cleaning the dishes before sitting down on the couch with my husband to watch TV.

As I was finished up the last couple of dishes, my husband turned on the news, just in time to catch the end of George Floyd’s live memorial service.

Reverend Al Sharpton had just called for eight minutes and forty-three seconds of silence, in memory of Floyd, and in recognition of how long those frightening, horrific minutes were for him as he was killed in police custody.

The room fell silent and the time on the clock started to count down. Almost immediately I felt a wave of emotion come over me. I set down the plate I was holding and started to cry and cry.

Even as a mental health professional, it can be easy to forget that in order to effectively take care of others, you have to actively take care of yourself. For me, this meant slowing down to acknowledge the grief that was beneath my obsessive ‘AMP UP THE HELP!’ mode, and to accept my limits.

I may not have expert tips and advice on how to influence policymakers or change the minds of people who would rather squash the Black Lives Matter movement. But I can point people in the direction of organizations who support the cause, and mental wellness of the Black community (there are a few links at the end of this post).

And, I can use what expertise I do have to share what I know about grief, and how to nurture yourself through it in the context of current events.

TIP #1: Understand your grief

Floyd’s death sparked a number of different reactions; anger, violence, depression and despair, motivation to jump into action, numbness and avoidance. All of these reactions are connected by the one shared emotional experience of GRIEF.

Cartoon of white pregnant woman holding protest sign in response to Minneapolis riots empathizing with rioter's grief

It’s important to recognize your grief and understand how grief operates. This understanding of grief is essential for finding compassion for yourself and for others who are experiencing strong emotions about this movement. Here are some things to look out for:

Grief isn’t just about death

We often associate grief with death. Yes, we certainly have a very traumatic, public death that we’re collectively trying to process. And grief doesn’t end there.

Whenever you have a shift from ‘how things used to be’ to ‘how things are now’, the very first thing we experience is grief.

Grief is about loss. Loss of a life. Loss of health. Loss of how you thought things were. Loss of a sense of stability or safety. Loss of a dream. Loss of innocence. Grief is the bridge between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

We are beginning an important chapter right now; we’re all feeling it. What reactions have you witnessed in others that seem to be tied to grief? What are some of your own reactions that seem to be tied to grief?

Grief has ‘stages’ that are wildly unorganized

You’ve likely heard about the “stages of grief” at some point: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

However, the psychiatrist who first identified these stages, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, had been burdened with having to constantly clarify herself on this topic. Over time, mainstream culture has oversimplified her work on the stages of grief, and when people believe the oversimplified version, it becomes harmful to their grieving process.

So what does Kubler-Ross need you to know?

These stages are not a linear Step 1 through 5. Grief is never that predictable.

You’re not guaranteed to go through all five stages. They’re the possibilities of what you might experience.

You may start at depression, then bounce to denial and anger, then back to depression. You might skip over bargaining completely, reach acceptance, then jump back to anger. This can span over the course of a month, or five years. Grief has a mind of its own.

Everyone’s journey through these stages looks different. Everyone’s expression of one particular stage looks different.

Telling yourself that your grief should be following a particular pattern will just lead to feeling like you’re failing at grief. Feel grief and let go of the shame. Let it happen organically. Notice and observe how it moves through you. What stage do you think you’re in right now?

Don’t expect the grief to just disappear

If you’ve ever experienced the death of a loved one, you know that things were never the same after they were gone. You may accept that loss over time, but you never really ‘get over’ having lost them. It’s not something you forget. It’s a pain you will always carry; you just get used to the weight of it over time.

This is how grief operates: It doesn’t go away. It integrates into your life.

The Black community carries levels of grief that even the most empathetic, knowledgeable allies can’t comprehend. It’s been built up over a lifetime, on top of the inter-generational trauma.

If you’re an ally who’s committed to increasing your awareness of what this grief feels like, what causes it, how you may be inadvertently ignoring or contributing to it , and how you can help make positive changes, be prepared to carry the pain that comes with it.

But grief is not something to be afraid of. It’s okay to feel it. Not only that, channeling your grief into something more will lead you to feeling a greater sense of connection and purpose.

Cartoon of Michelle Obama with a quote about how leaders like Dr. King and Sojourner Truth were angry, but also driven by compassion, principle, and hope

TIP #2: Stay curious about how to connect

Every emotion has a purpose. They’re always asking you to take some kind of action. And until you take action, that emotion will keep getting in your face.

Because grief is about loss, it’s often asking you to connect in some way.

For example, when my grief broke free during that moment of silence, I felt grief over Mr. Floyd’s experience, and over his family’s loss. And there was more than that.

I felt grief over knowing that this has been a repeating pattern. Grief over knowing that black parents have to explain to their children that bad and scary things will happen to them because of how they look. Grief over black people being re-traumatized and invalidated as they try to talk honestly about the issues they face. Grief over seeing allies and potential allies shut down or shrink away when met with anger or shame for not understanding. I felt grief thinking about the ways our country feels broken and divided right now.

I had to connect, and not just in a helper-mode way. I started in my own home.

First, I sat next to my husband to cry my way through the rest of the moment of silence. Involving him in witnessing my grief led to us spending the weeks afterwards learning more about how to help, together.

Then, my grief over black parents worrying about their children made me intentionally become more present with my own children that night, and consider how I can talk about race with them as they grow up.

Perhaps your grief is calling for connection at home, too. Or maybe it’s asking you to help others better understand racism. Or maybe it’s asking you to learn about things and better empathize with the masses of people calling for justice and action.

If grief was speaking to you, what is it asking you to do? How can you connect?

Cartoon of a white man holding a protest sign saying "As a white man I can never walk a mile in a black man's shoes. But I can lace mine up, walk beside him, and say 'I stand with you'"

TIP #3: Find your balance

Manage news/social media intake

Pay attention to how your news/social media intake impacts things like your mood, energy, concentration, and quality of sleep. Not that they’re all expected to be at normal levels at any point in the year 2020, but you do want to make sure you’re not sacrificing too much of your mental health to stay up to date.

Balance in this realm can take different forms: Designating specific times of day as your news/social media time. Doing a ‘cleanse’ where you take a number of days off from new information about current events. Balancing heavy news with calming or uplifting news, or with healthy distractions.

Use healthy distractions wisely

Distractions can be a good friend. Dealing with constant grief can be draining, and you’ll need to recharge in order to keep nurturing your grief and channeling it into meaningful action.

Taking breaks doesn’t mean you’re being complicit or that you’re avoiding dealing with the grief. Still, it can be tempting to get sucked into your distraction so you don’t have to face the pain of grief again. This is especially true if your distraction is socially encouraged, like staying very productive to avoid feelings. It’s important to be mindful of how much you use distraction, so you aren’t just completely numbing yourself.

There’s no magic number of hours to spend attending to grief and taking action versus taking breaks. Everyone’s personal sense of balance is different, and finding yours may take trial and error. Talking to a mental health professional can be helpful while you find your balance.

Cartoon of a Twitter post by Sonia Gupta saying that unlearning white supremacy is difficult work, that it will make you feel depressed and shatter your ego and belief system, but do it anyway.

Below are some organizations that will make good use of your support and donations.

The Loveland Foundation

Sista Afya

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation

Black Emotional and Mental Health (BEAM)

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