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How Black women can create space for grief and vulnerability during the holidays

We may feel pressure to be strong and self-sufficient while grieving, but we don’t have to be.
Vilissa Thompson December 18th, 2020
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Black woman sitting in the window, head in hand, beside a Christmas tree.

When December hits, a common sentiment might bring joy and excitement, or might freeze you in your tracks: It’s the most wonderful time of the year. For those of us navigating grief and loss during the holiday season, these words can add pressure to an already delicate time. To grieve is to navigate the process of adapting to life after loss has transpired. Navigating that uncharted territory can be fraught with challenges and stress, including unfair expectations of what grieving “should” look or feel like, or an unrealistic timetable as to when you are “supposed” to be over your loss.

On top of that, this is not a normal holiday season, coming after a year defined by loss. Since March, whether it has been losing loved ones and friends to illness, losing employment, losing the freedom to travel, or being thrust into virtual work and learning spaces and losing the community of the office or school, grief has been recurring.

For Black women, the grief and challenges of this season may be immense—our community has faced disproportionately high rates of death and illness from the pandemic, and widespread job loss. Meanwhile, the holidays bring gendered pressure; after all, who bears the responsibilities of the season? Expectations of the holidays fall on women to fulfill, demanding our ability to juggle familial and communal obligations while processing our own pains through the heaviness of forced smiles and sacrifices for others. Now, in the midst of the “happiest” time of the year in the throes of a pandemic, many may be wondering how to maneuver through the uncertainties of these times, be present, and hold space for holiday grief.

While the fact of grief is universal, the way people experience it is not. As Black women, our grief stories are severely underreported, diminishing our ability to share openly about what grief means to us both individually and culturally. Furthermore, the absence of Black women’s grief narratives from public conversation can exacerbate the loneliness and frustrations of the journey, meaning that we may feel pressure—actual or internalized—to downplay our pain to project the appearance of being strong and well.  

“I think if there were more meaningful representation beyond stoic tropes of ‘strong Black women’ across the media landscape making it more normalized to process grief in a nuanced way, maybe—just maybe—more of us might feel less reserved and perhaps more free to openly share how we're feeling,” said Heather Watkins, a disability rights activist, in an interview with Prism. “We might be more inclined to show vulnerability and not have it seen as a sign of weakness or that breaking down [is] actually part of growth and rebuilding.”

Heather states what needs to be said: Black women deserve and have the right to take up space to grieve and be allowed vulnerability that all too often feels forbidden or like a luxury to us.

To help create that space, I spoke with five Black women who are in various phases of their grieving processes during this season. The subject is also personal for me, since this year marks the fifth anniversary of my grandmother’s death. Even during a pandemic with the holidays looming, this is the first year my grief felt lighter, and I felt freer to not only remember her legacy, but to embrace the joys of the season that felt lost to me for so long. While that’s where I am in my journey, the women I spoke with had their own unique experiences and perspectives to share.  

Adjusting expectations and feeling the loss

In some instances, grief means letting go of the idea that the holidays will be the joyful season that’s constantly marketed to us. That has been the case for Loryn, a communications strategist.  

“I don't have the expectation of this being a wonderful time of the year anymore,” Loryn told Prism. “I've learned to give myself permission to feel however I feel in the moment. There are days during the holiday season where I am able to be present with whomever I am with and then there are times where my grief is very present, and I'm ok with both.”

For Heather, whose father died last year, working through grief during the holidays means continuing to process his absence.  

“It's only been the second holiday season since losing my father last year over the summer, so navigating grief still feels fairly new,” she said. “I was his primary caregiver for 11 years and his absence is palpable, and I'm still coming to terms around that since he was such an integral part of the family and we all lived together.”

Tiffany, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, shared similar sentiments. “The winter holidays are harder for me because they are centered around family and I haven't felt like my family has been the same since my mom died,” Tiffany told Prism. “Historically, we celebrate all holidays together, but winter holidays are different because it's kind of in your face more. The void is more noticeable.”

As Heather and Tiffany’s experiences attest, the holidays can bring forth memories of those we miss who are no longer here. According to VITAS Healthcare, memories act as constant reminders of loss, and witnessing others express the joys of the season can be difficult or even unbearable.

For Dawn Gibson, a writer, that longing for those she loved is palpable, from extended family to pets.

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“I am one of the last of my mother's line,” she said. “I remember when ‘everybody’ was alive, and it hurts to be so far from that. And, I miss watching our dogs open presents. They got so excited! And yes, there are other dogs, but it's not on my heart. And seeing all those cute dog sweaters in the stores makes me sad. Our uncle has been gone for over a year. We used to take his favorite snacks to the Memory Care. They made everything look so nice, too. It's a gap. He's missing and those beautiful people working there are no longer in our lives. It never crossed my mind that I'd miss entering that space.”  

One of the challenges many of us face right now can be the air of isolation, which leads some women to suffocate their feelings instead of finding an outlet to process them.  

“I was definitely that ‘suck it up and deal’ person until my father died,” accountant Vanady Enjoli told Prism. “It actually caused me to have a mini breakdown a few months after he passed. Especially being a believer, you’re supposed to quote a few scriptures and smile. I learned there are a lot of things we were taught about grief, pain, and suffering that were not correct. I discovered Brené Brown and went back to see how grief, sorrow, anger, and sadness were handled in the Bible. I realized a lot of what I was told was people’s opinions. Once I became free of that, I was able to fully own my feelings and then ultimately begin to heal. The burden of expectation of others is the worst thing to combine with grief.”

Adding to the challenges, the holidays this year have a different twist because of the pandemic. This year threw all of our plans into limbo, and with the bleak outlook of increased infections and death rates, it remains uncertain when we can safely gather and plan for things.  

“2020 was supposed to be my year just for myself, with a proper birthday party and vacation,” said Dawn. Now, the sense that everything is up in the air can make things feel even more difficult.  

Normalizing vulnerability

Regardless of the time of year, if we want Black women to possess the wherewithal to share their truths with grief and loss, what can be done?  

“We must drop elevating strength,” said Dawn. “Black women are people. People are fragile and vulnerable in millions of ways. We must normalize protecting our women, getting therapy, erecting high boundaries, and wanting thriving for our women.” That means ensuring Black women’s safety and healing, and respecting where we are on our journeys.

For Black women who are navigating loss this holiday season and coping with any remnants from 2020 as we count down to the new year, each of the women I talked to offered words of love and validation.  

“Say and do unto yourself as you would a precious child,” said Dawn. “Would you be this hard on her? If she broke her arm, you'd do something about it. If your heart is broken, do the same.”

Tiffany echoed that advice. “Be kind to yourself during this journey. It's ok to be selfish in some ways to make sure your needs are met so that you can adequately show up and take care of other responsibilities,” she said.

Others emphasized the importance of a willingness to be vulnerable.

“You are not alone, your grief and your feelings about it are valid and they matter,” said Loryn. “Don't be afraid to reach out for help and be honest about how these times are affecting you emotionally.”

“Allow yourself to feel the full range of your emotions, give yourself plenty of compassion, time, [and] care to experience what grief means for you,” said Heather. “There is no timetable, and what has been helping me cope is keeping the joyful memories of loved ones close to heart, the conversations that were sounding boards filled with sage advice, and other times silliness that still makes me randomly crack a smile. And when that wave of sadness feels like washing over, allow that to happen too because you're human.”

“Take life one day at a time,” said Enjoli. “Pray. Be honest. Find a few people to just sit with you if possible or needed. Don’t let anyone else’s pressures or expectations hinder your progress. It’s hard and even though it might look a little different, your light can still shine after loss.”


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