Making Sense of Grief

At first, I thought grief was an amorphous vapor that made your breathing labored and that obscured your view…temporarily. But I was wrong.

Losing My Grandmother

In 2016, I lost by grandma, Theresa Potts, the foundation of my human constitution. As a co-parent with my mother, she reared, disciplined, corrected, directed, encouraged and guided me. But more than anything, she loved me with a depth and breadth that I have not known before or since. And on June 3, 2016, my mother’s birthday, life on this side slipped quietly from my grandma’s hands, drained from her body, leaving her head ashen, discolored and cold.

Losing My Sister

In 2020, I lost my sister unexpectedly from a heart infection. With her loss came so many more losses that I had no way of anticipating. I lost the idea I had created about the nature of her life in North Carolina, fraught, I learned, with more challenges than I could’ve imagined. I lost the design of the already fragile relationship that I had with my nieces, crushed under the weight of grief.

I lost some measure of faith in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. After all, He said ask and it shall be given to you (Matt 7:7), and I asked…begged, in fact, for my sister’s life while she lay on her deathbed, and he did not spare her.

Discovering Diverse Ways to Process Loss

Throughout my life, I have experienced loss, tangible and intangible. And I always thought grief was a haze that could pass over you or that you could move in or out of. I thought it was a period of time that would come and go.

I was always intensely fascinated by mourning rituals that I encountered. My earliest recollections were of women wearing Black (never the men) and of watching Fried Green Tomatoes. In that movie, when Ruth died, Sipsey, the dutiful worker and close family friend, carefully shrouded the mirrors in Black cloth.

I later learned of women in India who would throw themselves upon their husband’s blazing pyre as the ultimate act of honor and show of grief. I have learned that some South American and East Asian countries don’t bury their dead, but instead preserve their bodies and periodically produce them to celebrate and honor them.

Mourning As a Way of Life

But I found most fascinating an African culture that structured their morning process over a twelve-month period. From my recollection, there was an intense period of mourning for the first few weeks after the funeral. Then a shrine or memorial of some sort was built some while after the funeral. Then every month thereafter, there would be a visit to the memorial and a ceremony of some description to honor the life of that person.

And then a year after the death, there was a large, formal celebration. And for each ceremony/celebration, the community participated and most importantly understood. They understood that when you lose a person you love, healing, that is, re-imagining who you are in the absence of your loved one, is a lifelong endeavor.

The Form of Grief

This really blew my mind. The culture of grief that I had observed seems to be characterized by perfunctory sympathy and expectation to continue to do what needs to be done. But those who practice the extended mourning process all clearly knew what I didn’t: Grief has form.

Grief takes a shape. It has substance. It takes up the space previously occupied by whom or what is no longer with you. It takes up space in your thoughts and feelings or in the physical form of alters or other ways of perceptibly honoring a person.

Grief: The Ultimate Transformer

Grief is also a shape-shifter. Sometimes, it is low and thin under your feet. Sometimes it is large and looming, casting a shadow on everything around you. Sometimes, grief groans quietly with a low rumble. Other times, it pierces the ear or thunders resoundingly.

Sometimes it’s light and billowy, grazing over your skin ever so softly like silk in a breeze. Other times it is heavy and coarse, like a gorilla on your chest. Whatever shape it takes, it is there, a surrogate for my lost loves.

Evolving My Perspective on Grief

My grief process has moved away from evading the haze in order to get to a place where the sun shines, bright and warm. Instead, my grief process is now centered on making room for my grief in the shade and in the sun; crying when I feel like it, not holding it until there is a “convenient time” (which, by the way, means I have no desire to cry when the “convenient time” comes). It means being quiet and still and alone at times.

It means relishing in the memories I have of them that I can see so clearly right behind my eyelids when I go to bed each night. It means seeking and telling the truth, an act of resistance and triumph over the generations of lies that have claimed the lives and/or the dignities of my family members – lies that have been rooted in deep, disorienting shame put upon them. It means choosing to live and pursue the things that bring me joy and closer to my divine purpose, even despite adversity or other people’s concept of me or my life.

It means articulating the sources of my grief, even if it might make others uncomfortable, as a way to root out and metabolize the immense pain I feel. It means not saying I’m doing fine or well when really, I’m fighting to maintain a hold on my right mind and on my life. And it means continuing to cultivate a relationship with Christ, my Creator and my Savior, complex as that relationship might be.

Making Room for Grief in My Life

So, I am making room for the grief in my life, not trying to stifle, outrun or kill it. I have accepted it is a part of me every bit as much as the loss I suffered that brought the grief into my life. I embrace that this – the capacity to embrace grief as one dimension of my life, not suffocate it – is the pathway toward my healing.

Read more by Stacey on Open to Hope: The Many Forms of Grief – Open to Hope

S. Dione Mitchell

Stacey D. Mitchell is a cisgender, Black woman, wife, mother, friend, learner, mourner and follower of Christ from the South Side of Chicago. Though Stacey has held a variety of jobs since the age of 14, her career began as a 6th grade Reading, Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, where she was the recipient of a variety of awards, most prominently when she was selected as Teacher of the Year by her peers. Since then, she has worked in service of marginalized communities and People development in her roles as the Vice President of People and Equity at Educators for Excellence; the head of the People department at the Obama Foundation and now as the Founder of SAGEli Consulting where she helps individuals and organizations realize their highest, most positive personal and social impact. Stacey is also a Surge alumni. She graduated with distinction from the University of Illinois, Urbana - Champaign, is fluent in Spanish and really enjoys long walks in scenic outdoor spaces, reading, writing, jumping double dutch, skating and spending time with her loved ones.

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