In the earliest weeks of the pandemic when sirens were an incessant part of my neighborhood, all I could think of was death: the city’s rising daily death tolls and the gnawing fear that I would surely lose someone I knew to the mysterious virus. I became more aware of my own mortality, and I was far from alone.
At the start of the pandemic, startups in New York and Boston providing end-of-life planning services saw a nearly twofold increase in clients aged 18-24. Younger people and others from a variety of backgrounds were thinking about wills, asset management, final tweets, and other end-of-life logistics. Now over a year later, the losses from the pandemic have been far more devastating than imagined. Over half a million people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 and the loss of family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbors has touched millions. On top of that, there have been the grotesquely routine police murders of Black and brown people, often caught on video and replayed on the screens and in the minds of people everywhere. There have also been incalculable losses: Almost 10 million people in the U.S. have lost their jobs, between 30 and 40 million have faced potential eviction from their homes, and nearly everyone has had to mourn the loss of some element of their pre-pandemic life.
While grief is defined as a response to loss or a deep sorrow—typically experienced after the death of a loved one—a great portion of the grief I’ve felt this year has been in anticipation of even more loss. Given the state of the world and the unique vulnerability of my own community, loss feels as if it’s always right around the corner.
For end-of-life caregivers and experts in grief however, acknowledging mortality and the possibility of loss doesn’t have to keep us from living fully; in fact, it can help us to live with even more fervor. I spoke with three Black women within the end-of-life industry: Alica Forneret, a writer and grief expert whose work focuses on grief and identity and grief in the workplace, Alua Arthur, death doula and founder of Going with Grace, and Breeshia Wade, a writer, grief expert, and author of Grieving While Black: An Anti-Racist Take on Oppression and Sorrow. We spoke about how these women define grief, how grief shows up unique ways for Black folks, and their recommendations for how to sit with and attend to the losses of this past year. While the grieving process itself looks and feels different for everyone, helping to guide people through the end of life has imbued these women with an understanding of life, loss, and grief that may be helpful for anyone navigating any type of loss in this moment.
Tamar Sarai Davis: How would you describe your work?
Alica Forneret: My work has primarily been focused on people who’ve experienced mother loss. Last year, I was invited onto a panel to talk specifically about grief and race, and this was something that I was used to having private conversations about and conversations with other people of color in the death care industry. My work [since then] has been focused on developing resource lists and serving people of color who are grieving. I’m in the process of developing a lab focused on serving people of color in the death care industry [and] starting fundraising for a brick-and-mortar grief center in Los Angeles, just serving people of color … I’m doing so many things.
Breeshia Wade: When it was safe to be in end-of-life care directly, I worked in hospitals and hospices, and I supported people at the end of their life. I was also working in palliative care, and the definition of end-of-life is a little less well defined there. In the hospitals, it was mostly with people who were sick or dying so the spectrum was kind of large. I worked with those people directly and their family members and loved ones, supporting them with navigating that sense of fear of loss and their relationship to health and death and dying.
Alua Arthur: Going with Grace aims to support people as they answer the question, “What must I do to be at peace with myself so that I may live presently and die gracefully?” The answer to that question is as varied and as unique as we all are. For some people, it’s about getting their affairs in order as a practical matter, for some people it’s about their relationships, making sure that everything is clean and easy and pure between them and their beloveds, for some people its questions about the afterlife and what, if anything, comes after we die, and for other people it’s about what still might be undone in their life. No matter what those needs are, we can support people. We also work with healthy people as well. When somebody has [recognized] the fact that one day they’re going to die, we can support them in preparing for it.
Alica, much of your work focuses on grief and identity, particularly race. As Black women, how do our lived experiences and the oppressions that we face inform the way we grieve or even whether we’re allowed to grieve?
Forneret: The myth and the concept of having to be a strong Black woman and having to be stronger than grief or stronger than mourning or stronger than the emotions that come along with loss puts pressure on us to respond to grief and loss in a certain way. I think that for me it’s been really special working in this community alongside other Black women, because what I witness every day is the power that comes from being able to tap into very deep-rooted emotions and well of capacity for giving to other people. I think that what we are told about how we’re supposed to act contradicts the ways that we can be most powerful in serving people in the end of life.
Davis: We generally understand grief as something that comes after death. However, as a Black person I think about how death can cast a shade over every moment of our lives. It can feel as if you’re grieving your own death or the loss of those close around you before it occurs, almost like an anticipatory grief. How do we wrestle with that and still try to live fully when loss seems omnipresent and at times, inevitable?
Forneret: The anticipatory grief of losing our own lives and losing the lives of people in our community is something that we face and sit with every day: what we’re seeing in the news cycle, how we’re treated by the healthcare system, how you’re treated by the funeral industry, the death and dying industry, all of these industries. Do I think that that means that we are still capable of living full, exciting, optimistic, beautiful lives? Absolutely. I think one of the ways that I know personally that makes it possible is being in conversation about the reality of those losses with people from my community.
[There was] the first time that I was able to have a conversation with Black women and women of color in general about maternal health, and about the fear that I have about getting pregnant in North America and how I’m going to be treated as both a mother and how my child will be treated when I’m giving birth. It not only validated what I was going through—which I think is one of the first, most amazing steps towards trying to find relief in these situations—but also allowed me to talk through what it is that is hanging over my head on a regular basis so that it’s not just me carrying that burden. I think that being able to be in conversation with other people who have experienced this trauma that we’re afraid of, or the grief that we’re anticipating, means that we have a place to put it so that it’s not just our own and we have someone to help us carry it. It allows us to have more space to process and to get comfortable with our reality.
Arthur: I don’t think there’s any real danger in being with our grief as it is and I don’t believe it’s necessary to shift it in any way. Grief is a powerful feature and it’s also a powerful part of the human experience. Sadly, within the Black community it’s a big part of our experience. I find myself in the place where I’m angry and sad and frustrated, and trying to understand why my life doesn’t seem to have as much value as the white woman sitting next to me. Then through that, I am also looking at the myriad of ways in which I could die that she might not. When you put that lens on it, I think it is a little more challenging—trying to look at the benefits of looking at the end of our lives. Those are separate conversations to me.
When we’re talking about the benefits of looking at our death and considering our mortality, the big benefit is the value that it adds to living. When I’m looking at the challenge of living in this body, I’m also kind of constantly thinking about my death because I’m thinking about the impacts of the environment on my health and the regular stress of being Black. So the ways in which I die are more [varied], but I don’t also look at that and say, “Oh but look at all this great value there is to being alive at all.” No. That sounds to me more than when I’m looking at myself naked in the mirror and I’m getting all this rich beautiful melanin and I’m just so grateful that I get to live in a body that looks like this. With all the danger and the ways in which the world tries to disaffirm us and keep us in a particular place, I feel an overwhelming gratitude that I am Black.
Davis: Breeshia, your book specifically tackles the relationship between grief and oppression. Can you elaborate on how you define grief and your ideas around the relationship between grief and race?
Wade: They are intricately tied. In my book, I talk about Black people experiencing death in a variety of ways because white people don’t want to experience their death in that way. It’s kind of like you can only see what you’re reflecting and our experience is a reflection of what is happening internally for our oppressor. [White people] are willing to take from someone else to avoid the reality of loss, which means that we, as Black people, are experiencing death in all of these other ways, simply because white people are afraid of their own relationship to death. So when I am writing and when I talk about grief, what [white] people want to talk about is the grief and death experienced by Black people as a result of systemic inequality. I insist on talking about the grief that white people experience [as well] because until they address their relationships to fear and loss, our grief is the downstream effect of them being unwilling to look at their relationship to loss.
Davis: People have experienced so many different types of loss—from family and friends, to jobs, homes, and even ways of life. How do we begin to understand and attend to the many losses as the world gradually opens back up?
Forneret: The first thing that I think is important for a lot of people to consider is to just acknowledge what we’ve been through in the last year and to reflect on what is causing us to experience some very real, valid grief. I think just being aware of what is sitting in our bones and our brains and our bodies right now grounds me in understanding, “Oh shit, that is why I’m exhausted! That is grief, this is grief.” It can be really helpful. And I think from there the thing that’s helped me the most that I often recommend to people is, whether it’s in your community or strangers who are professionals, looking for people who look like you, who sound like you, who are local to your area, or have a similar cultural backgrounds to have conversations with about what support could look like. I think that sitting down at a computer and googling “grief” or “therapy” can be really great but I also think getting recommendations, talking to people from within your circle, or talking to professionals about how to even go about digging into a lot of what we’ve experienced will just be helpful.
Wade: I think people are already making meaning [of these losses] and this is something that people naturally do. For me, the question is how can organizations and institutions make space for that so that people don’t feel the need to push it down. That would be my main call for people who are in positions of authority and can make space for our teams because they all can, every last one of them. You can just adjust profit and metrics to align with the fact that you have people in your organization who are serving other people and not making your colleagues serve others at the expense of themselves. I think that is something that comes naturally and the only reason people feel the need to push it down is because life isn’t matching the reality of what we’re experiencing. Employers, people who are decision makers, and institutions want to continue with the business as usual attitude but there’s nothing usual about what everybody is experiencing.
Davis: What’s the impact of not addressing grief?
Forneret: Grief is so individual and [so is] the impact that it could have on our body, our brain, and the generations that are going to come after us. But how I define grief is a full body, full being experience that we have after a loss that includes the impact on our emotional well-being, our mental well-being, our physical well-being, and our spiritual well-being. So when I don’t process my grief, when I put it into a corner of my brain, sometimes that can be totally fine because I need to compartmentalize it. Other times, I know if it’s a prolonged period I will see physical manifestations and ramifications of not processing it—I’m saying one thing, but my body’s telling me another thing. It can impact my relationships and the way that I communicate with people and what I have the capacity, patience, and energy for.
Arthur: The thing about grief is it’s going to find its way to you. [That] means either you feel it while it’s present and you allow yourself to or it pops up in other ways, particularly through the body, or it has a profound impact on our relationships—maybe it’s harder to connect with people or become vulnerable and stay vulnerable with people. So grief will always find a way to show up. I think one benefit of calling it grief, overall, is the power that we give when we’re able to name something and say no, this is a loss, this is grief. [Then] you are allowed to feel a myriad of things around it and I think that is the beginning of what could be the process towards integrating it.
Davis: In your work, what have you found to be some major misconceptions about how our society thinks about death and grief?
Arthur: I think one of the major misconceptions about death is that nobody wants to talk about it. We call death “taboo” and yet I find that when I tell people what I do at dinner parties or in line at the grocery store or on an airplane, people lean into the conversation, they’re curious. They want to share with me their experiences with grief, what it was like when their grandmother died, or something of that sort. And because there’s a misconception, people aren’t talking about it and that does not allow us to embrace it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still just a lot of fear but by and large, it’s because we don’t make space for that fear.
Wade: A major misconception is that grief is all sadness and all gloom and doom, and that things that are uncomfortable should be avoided because there’s no joy in it—which I think is tied to the first point because grief is embedded, even in our happiest experiences. When you think of these happy weddings where people are consenting to get married, there is excitement and there’s also grief that is a part of it but that’s muted by the excitement. There’s grief in that your identity is shifting from being a single person who only has to think about yourself or being someone who can do what they want with their time and finances to being this married person. You’re excited about who you’re marrying, but you understand that this comes with a loss and shift and that’s typically difficult for people early on in their marriages. They don’t typically identify what’s happening as an extension of grief, but it is.
Recognizing that grief gets wrapped up in so much of the beauty of that experience and so much of the positive things that we pursue is very helpful. It invites people to lean into it because once you lean into grief and genuinely work on your relationship to loss, there’s only more beauty that can extend from that. It widens the possibility of the happiness you’re already experiencing and are going to experience, and it will probably save you a lot of headaches with the limited time you’re going to have anyway. Regardless of whether or not you want to talk about it, you have X number of years and X amount of time. So, looking at grief as a way to really make the most of that time, instead of something that is a burden and is going to weigh down your time is important.