Grief in My Black Experience

“Libations poured in remembrance

Balloons released into the sky

Ritual and procession,

Pomp and circumstance

It’s an affair when Black people die.”

-F. Renee Hamilton

My earliest memory of death was being held in my mothers’ arms as we stood in line to view my paternal great-grandmothers body for the last time. I could not have been more than four years old, but this final saying of goodbye has forever been engrained in my memory. Vaguely, I remember various family members leaning over to kiss the lady whom I thought was merely sleeping as they took their turn to gaze down upon her for the last time. I remember tears flowing freely, the fancy attire, and the brightly colored arrangements of flowers that decorated the sides of her casket.

I don’t have very many memories of what happened next, but I imagined it involved a family gathering where someone brought over chicken fried to perfection, several packs of “soda water” as it was so affectionately called in Northern Louisiana at the time, and a random assortment of side dishes lovingly prepared by various relatives and friends. I cannot remember if I was provided a viable explanation as to why she was now entering into this eternal rest, nor do I remember very many discussions about her after that day. I just know that something very important had occurred. Even to this day, more than thirty years later, I can close my eyes and visualize that exact scene replaying in my mind.

This was my first experience with death, more specifically Black death, and all the intricacies and formalities that come along with it. So much thought and precision go into the preparation, but one important piece of the puzzle for me has always been what comes next. Despite how crystal clear this memory is in my mind, I can’t remember the mourning, the aftermath, or more specifically how my relatives handled the grief.

Of course, I was barely school age so there is no way I could recall those important details, but wouldn’t I have dealt with the aftereffects? The random moments where my mothers’ mind would drift away to some subtle detail of a memory she may have had with her grandmother, or even how my Big Daddy handled the loss of his mother. Unfortunately, this lifetime has gifted me with many opportunities to experience loss, which I think can take on a different form for Black people. With the disproportionality in mortality rates, and the various experiences that come with Black existence in this country, I think the aftermath of what comes next is important to discuss. It is important how we move forward after we have experienced the loss of a loved one. It is important that we put as much detail into the grief that follows as the send-off, and I think that it is important to realize that Black people don’t discuss how we deal with grief enough after we have said goodbye.

On August 31, 1991, my older brother was murdered. I was 9 years old at the time, and this would count as my first-time experiencing grief. The magnitude of this loss would forever shape my life and even to this day, thirty whole ass years later, I still experience grief. At the time I did not know what those feelings were, and at that age I did not quite know how to verbally express my feelings, so I retreated into my own world of reading, writing, and focusing on perfectionism to not cause any extra stress on my parents from being in the way.

Every member of my family handled the tragedy differently. I saw my mother deal with the brunt of the pain, which understandably so was something I don’t even think I could have managed if I were her. Surprisingly she was the same age as I am now when this occurred, and I can whole-heartedly say I am not made for that type of anguish. My fathers’ grief manifested into hyper-protection where our physical safety almost became more important than our feelings. His need to protect what was left took center stage in all our interactions. As for my older sister, who was only one year younger than my brother at the time, her grief was so painful that for years we couldn’t even mention my brothers name without it causing her unbearable pain.

His tragic death changed the dynamics of our interactions to the point where even to this day we operate as if the month of August is cursed to always end with something bad happening. I mean that has pretty much held true, but that is a story for another day. But ultimately, I think we all could have benefited from acknowledging and realizing that grief was the real culprit in our lives post tragedy. I cannot remember too many conversations where we had the opportunity to openly discuss how we felt or even express the pain that was a constant factor in our lives. It was as if we had been conditioned to keep our heads up and move on without missing a beat. I think a lot of Black people are expected to handle loss in that manner, but we all need to realize that grief is apart of the process. Grief is something we must address and acknowledge after the final goodbye is over.

Grief is heavy. For me, it feels as if I am sinking with an invisible anchor clasped around my ankle. My day may be going extremely well and then a song, or a date, even just looking out the window and seeing the sun shining down a certain way can trigger the onset of grief. Now as an adult I find it easier to reminisce or talk about certain memories with people whom I have lost, but I know it has not always been easy.

Sometimes I want to keep those memories bottled up inside of me as if they are some sort of secret not to be shared. Other times I find it soothing to laugh about something funny my grandmother once said or smile about a memory I shared with my daddy who hyped me up like no other.

I still replay the last conversation I had with my uncle before he left this world when he promised me one of the puppies from his dogs last liter. Preserving these types of memories albeit painful can be one of the most soothing feelings in the world. Holding it in from my experience has never served me well. I try so hard to be the strong friend or keep it together for the well-being of others but denying myself the opportunity to reminisce has not served me well.

Expressing anger, being mad at the world for what happened, blaming yourself, wishing there was more you could have done, all these things are normal. Pushing those feelings aside are not. Not allowing yourself to go through these stages of grief can be detrimental to your physical and mental well-being. Science (I hope y’all get down with science) tells us that not properly allowing ourselves to grieve can manifest into several other issues and can genuinely cause harm to your body. Just google ‘cortisol and grief’ then you and your waist can thank me later…

This has been a season of loss for so many people, especially Black people. Between the pandemic, inequity in our justice system, to people just down right being stressed out and suffering from the isolation caused by the lock downs; this has not been the easiest of times. Death during it all does not make things easier. It’s hard, and it’s hurtful, and it does not always make sense, but it is a part of life that we must endure.

Give yourself some grace. The strong Black woman trope is for the birds. Black men are allowed to cry. We as Black people are allowed to take our time to work through the process of grief. Conversations about grief need to be normalized. Preserving the memory and legacy of our loved ones is important. Addressing that we are struggling and need time to be okay is our right. It is okay to admit you are hurting, it is heathy even. And in my Black experience, we have not been kind enough to ourselves in dealing with the aftermath of losing a loved one.

We need to put as much thought into the grieving as we do with the final goodbye. In my opinion, the real work begins when the phone calls lessen, or the reality of the loss sinks in. The harm is when we find ourselves trying to bury ourselves with work or bounce back quicker than we must. I can’t speak for every sect of Black person but in my interactions, we have been selling ourselves short by not allowing the process to occur. So, as I think about all the people I have lost in my lifetime, in this last year, this year, and just last week, I am going to give myself permission, and I hope my Black people will all give themselves permission as well. We deserve the time and the space to grieve. It may not be fun, nor pretty but it is necessary. It will take some time, but it will be worth it.

If anyone has any information regarding the murder of Andre Parrott on August 31, 1991, please contact the Houston Police Department.

-FRH

Fallon Hamilton, also known as F. Renee Hamilton, is an attorney, author, poet, and intentional writing workshop facilitator living in Houston, Texas. You can find her on Instagram at @notorious_fal or check out her website at www.freneehamilton.com.

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