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Detroit Proper: It's Time to Talk About Grief

Desiree Cooper explores how black Americans can begin to lift the gag order on grief and start to heal.

When someone asks how you're doing, how often do you respond, "I'm blessed"?

There's a lot to be said for putting forth brazen positivity and for focusing upon your many blessings. It is incontrovertible that faith and affirmation can change your reality and tear down perceived obstacles.

But sometimes, especially when I'm not feeling so brave or strong, I pause when people say to me, "I'm blessed." Sometimes I hear that as "I'm blessed and you're not." Sometimes I hear it as "I'm blessed and you should remember that you are, too, and stop whining about your problems." Sometimes I hear it as "You need to have more faith."

The truth is that there are moments when I'm barely making it and need a friend. I'd like to ask for a hug or a listening ear, or even for help when someone asks, "How are you?" But in the face of people who are "blessed," I feel locked out, unwelcome and isolated. I feel like a failure even when it comes to my faith, and that makes me grieve even more.

The truth is that the black community is hurting. According to the Office of Minority Health, African-Americans living below the poverty level are three times more likely to report psychological distress than those at twice the poverty level. All African-Americans are 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic whites. 

That's because racism compounds stress, anger and grief. We are grieving for everything – our personal challenges, the murders of our children, our untreated illnesses, our ravaged community and the national disrespect for black lives. For black women, there is also pressure to care for the feelings of others while not burdening them with our own.

"Everyone's grief is individual," says Detroit performance poet Natasha T. Miller, who has been struggling to come to terms with her brother's death. "But there's a culture around black families talking about grief. Whites can be free in their sadness. People treat them softly and kindly as they grieve."

When Miller's brother Marcus was murdered, she was devastated that he was only remembered as a nameless drug dealer. "People believed that my grief should be less traumatic because I should've expected his life to expire early," says Miller, whose poem entitled "They Say" notes how her brother also paid for rent for others and gave children Christmas presents. "Black women's grief isn't well respected."

The barriers to grieving in the black community are many. We believe we shouldn't show white folks our faults. We believe that "What happens in this house stays in this house." That therapy is for spoiled rich folks or white folks – but not for black folks. That if we can't get past our loss, we lack a mustard seed of faith.  

"Our problems dealing with grief go back to slavery," says Patrece Lucas, a Detroit licensed mental health therapist. "As slaves, we could have just watched someone die or a family member be sold off, but we had to keep going or risk being beat or killed ourselves." Lucas adds that sayings in the black community like "Fix your face" or "I'll give you something to cry about" stem from that moment in history when pausing to feel grief was a luxury denied to blacks.

Grief is not weakness; it's an indication that something is broken. If we suffered a broken bone, no one would suggest that we pray harder for it to heal or that we count our blessing that we still have one good arm. Instead, they'd urge us to get professional help. Through her program "Coffee with a Counselor," Lucas holds conversations about mental health in neighborhood spaces. Last month, she was one of the counselors on hand at a seminal overnight event created by poet Miller called "The Science of Grief" at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The event was a community space for grief where, for 14 hours, people shared their stories and connected with clergy or therapists without feeling pressured to suck it up or pray it off.

Sometimes it's a blessing to be able to help others. Sometimes we're blessed when we can shed a tear to save ourselves.

If you need to speak to a mental health professional, call the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority any time at 800-241-4949. Patrece Lucas can be reached at her practice, Indigo Transitions, at 248-957-1721 or patrece_lucas@att.net.

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