Blog: How Do We Address Black Grief, Compounded by Centuries of Racism, Loss and Trauma?

Jul 07, 2020

By Caitlin Forbes

This is a recap from a recent webinar and interview with Dr. Stacy D. Scott.

COVID-19 is disproportionately killing the Black community, with nearly 23 percent of deaths attributed to African Americans despite only making up 13 percent of the population. While the number of Black deaths is tragic, they also shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the Black-White health disparity in the U.S. has persisted for decades, with Black babies dying at more than twice the rate of White babies and Black mothers dying at 3 to 4 times the rate of White mothers. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the latest statistics to join a disturbing pattern that illustrates all too clearly that despite over 50 years since passing the Civil Rights Act, America still doesn’t value Black lives as much as their White counterparts.

We know this because health isn’t determined by race or ethnicity: Health is determined, in large part, by opportunity—the opportunity to access quality education; the opportunity to work in a safe environment and live in a safe neighborhood; the opportunity to breathe clean air and drink clean water. The Black community disproportionately experiences adverse health outcomes because, too often, they don’t have these opportunities. For over 400 years, African Americans have had to navigate a system that is stacked against people of color—a system defined by institutional racism that privileges White people, upholds White supremacy, and promotes discrimination and social injustice.

Disproportionate death in the Black community—whether from COVID-19, infant mortality, or police violence—is one of the most alarming consequences of institutional racism. The tragedy is not only the loss of lives, says public health expert Stacy Scott, PhD, MPA. The tragedy is also in the grief and trauma these deaths bring to family, friends, and community. In other words, African Americans not only disproportionately face death; they also must deal with an insurmountable amount of grief and mourning.

“All of my life, I’ve seen the devastating impact of premature death on my family and friends,” says Scott, who has been working to eliminate disparities in maternal and child health for nearly three decades. “I have sat through too many funerals knowing that had certain interventions been in place, this person could still be alive. And I’ve heard many rationalizations, "she is in a better place;” “he suffers no more”, as a means to deal with the inequities that cause our mourning.”

Grief from the mounting loss during the COVID-19 pandemic compounds existing adverse health outcomes in the Black community, continues Scott. Persistent grief can increase the risk of depression, substance use, suicide, and other serious health conditions like heart disease and cancer.

“Always, but right now especially, we need to find ways to support Black grief,” says Scott. “And to do that, we must take a long look at the historical and contemporary experiences around death in the Black community and recognize that, because of these experiences, Black grief is unique. Our grief has been compounded and exacerbated by racism and discrimination, beginning in enslavement and evidenced in nearly every race-related news story we see today.”

Understanding Black grief

Despite the disproportionate impact of grief on Black communities, there is very little research on Black grief specifically. In reviewing thousands of published papers, Scott only found 31 that had a focus on African American grief. The paucity of research likely stems from the assumption that African American grief does not differ from the general population; or, some White researchers’ disinclination to study Black grief because it starkly illuminates the ongoing impact of White oppression (Rosenblatt & Wallace 2005).

The research that Scott did find made one thing very clear: While there are commonalities between Black and White grief, Black grief is different.

First, Black grief is compounded by historic trauma and ongoing loss and inequities. Research shows that centuries of loss and discrimination, beginning when Africans were forcefully taken to the Americas and enslaved, can make it even more difficult for African Americans to cope with today’s loss and trauma. (Pinderhughes, 2004). Grief is also compounded by stressful life events, such as economic challenges, substance misuse, and incarceration of family members—all of which are more common in the Black community because of structural inequities. And since Black families’ experience death more than any other racial group, any new death can trigger painful memories and further compound loss and grief.

Structural racism also makes it difficult for Black families to trust the health system and access supports, explains Scott. If someone has experienced racism in a hospital or from a provider, they’re less likely to seek professional services that could help them navigate their grief. Black women, especially, are often alone in their grief because they are socialized to be strong and stoic, continues Scott, to be the stereotypical “strong Black woman.”

“The myth of the ‘strong Black woman’ is real,” says Scott. “When my father passed away, I watched my mother and the speech she gave when we left for the funeral was that we needed to be strong. And one of my relatives broke down, and then begged forgiveness of my mother for not being able to be stoic—for not being able to be that strong Black woman. The need to be strong and stoic is dangerous for Black grieving women because it makes it incredibly difficult to acknowledge the need for help.”

Five stages of Black grief

A theory developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross suggests that we go through five distinct stages of grief after the loss of a loved one: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. While helpful points of reference, these stages do not fully account for the unique factors impacting Black grief, says Scott. Instead, she suggests looking at five stages unique to Black grief: despair, self-blame, move to action, endurance, and survival.

“Understanding these phases of grief can help health professionals, communities, friends, and families provide better support those experiencing Black grief,” says Scott.

Despair is a form of acceptance whereby a person of color understands that they may always live with the fear of underpinning loss. No matter how many precautions they take, there will always be a sense of hopelessness and helpless in keeping themselves and their loved ones safe. In some cases, this sense of despair is exacerbated by the realization that being a Black person could contribute to the loss of life.

Self-blame is often a factor in coming to terms with death. But this blame can be all consuming for Black people who have spent their lives trying to keep their loved ones safe in a society that privileges the safety of White people. For Black people, self-blame may be compounded by the feeling that they failed to protect their loved one against the violence of systemic racism, when in fact that protection should never have been needed and is ultimately impossible to provide—the system itself precludes it. Put another way: Black people must carry a guilt that does not belong to them; it belongs to the system, structures, and people who uphold White supremacy.

Move to Action:
Having the time to grieve and process loss is a privilege that is often not afforded Black people. Circumstances around the death—how the person died, social economic status, family relations—brings on its own set of challenges that can complicate the funeral process. Rest becomes a luxury and action is forced as one person must take charge and navigate unforeseen barriers.

Often, Black people must find the power to endure without outside support. After the funeral has ended and things appear to return to some semblance of normalcy, the mourning process intensifies. In many cases the need to move to action has made it difficult for others to recognize the griever’s vulnerabilities and cries for help. The perception of strength can be a barrier to aftercare and, even though the need for support increases, there is often little provided.

For Black people, survival can be considered the new acceptance stage. If they are to survive in a system stacked against them, they have no choice but to pull themselves together and continue to persevere. Factors such as economic hardships and the need for housing and food will continue to interfere with the grieving process, but they must continue to move forward. As a result, sadness, anger, and regret are a few emotions that may never totally diminish.

Centering Black grief is a vital step toward eliminating oppression

“When we ask what can be done, we need to recognize how Black grief differs from White grief,” says Scott. “We can’t assume that everyone shares a common culture when it comes to loss. When we do that, we end up whitewashing grief. We overlook the grief of minority populations.”

This omission of Black grief is an act of oppression itself; it further perpetuates a society that privileges the White experience.

When White grief is the assumed norm, bereavement support is also based on the White experience. As a result, the unique implications of Black grief are never addressed, and Black individuals are never given an equal opportunity to grieve and heal.

“By acknowledging Black grief and how it is inextricably linked to racism and oppression, we can take a collective step toward undoing this one act of oppression, and ensuring that support and services exist that are centered on the Black experience,” says Scott.    


Join us for our upcoming webinar, Friday, July 31 at 1 p.m.: The Five Stages of Black Grief: An Emerging Framework. 

Click here to register!