Understanding Black Grief
Black Americans have a life expectancy of 78 years, which is 6 years less than white Americans. They are twice as likely as white Americans to die of heart disease, 50% more likely to have high blood pressure, and are more likely to die of all causes at a younger age. Disparities in health among the Black community are widely documented, but the emotional toll that those grim statistics take on Black Americans, who may be losing loved ones more frequently and at younger ages, is less well known. According to the new University of Arizona research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, since Black Americans live shorter and sicker lives, they are likely to experience grief more frequently and earlier in life, making bereavement a separate health disparity. Additionally, grief may be accompanied by physical and mental health issues. Grief is linked to increased inflammation, elevated blood pressure, and reduced immunity in the short term. In the long run, it could lead to cardiovascular issues, sleeping disorders, and bad coping techniques. Personal losses, however, are only one source of pain among Black Americans, according to researchers Da'Mere Wilson, a psychology doctorate student, and Mary-Frances O'Connor, an associate professor of psychology working with the Grief, Loss and Social Stress Lab in the Psychology department in the UArizona College of Science.
Wilson and O'Connor write in their study that understanding the particular experience of Black loss, grief, and bereavement requires taking into account the collective grief Black Americans have experienced as a result of America's long history of racialization and racial violence. Wilson noted that the collective grief is still felt today, especially with high-profile examples of racial violence – such as the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white police officer – staying in the headlines for a long time. Wilson explained that personal loss is a domain where the loss is more of an individual experience, such as losing a loved one, whereas collective grief is more of a social experience. She stated the example of the murder of George Floyd, which was a personal loss for George Floyd's close family and friends, but it was also a communal loss for many Black Americans who saw him as someone who could be their uncle, brother, or even themselves. Although collective grief isn't usually the focus of grief study, Wilson believes it is an important aspect of the Black grief experience that has been understudied in psychology. She added that we have a restricted concept of grief that doesn't account for greater communal losses. Collective bereavement, along with personal loss, may have the additional effect of generating a distinct experience of loss and grief in the Black American community that hasn't been highlighted in research thus far due to a lack of Black American representation.
Placing collective grief within a historical context
Wilson and O'Connor argue in their paper that a historical perspective is required to better understand Black grief – one that considers the racialization of Black people in America, marked by enslavement, structural inequality, historical and ongoing racial violence, and staggering amounts of loss, including the loss of loved ones and community members, loss of land, and loss of a sense of safety. All of this adds up to a considerably more nuanced picture of grief than is currently available in the literature. Enslaved Black Americans were often torn from their spouses, children, and families throughout colonial times, and forced to watch horrible atrocities done on other enslaved people. Black individuals were routinely beaten or hanged in public during the Jim Crow era. While it's tempting to dismiss these events as dark, distant chapters in history, Wilson believes it's important to acknowledge the ongoing consequences of previous trauma because they help explain why collective grief is still so widespread in the Black community today. She said that when enslaved people were separated from their families, they often created "fictive kinship" with one another, perceiving each other as brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. She also claimed that fictive kinship exists in the Black community even now to some extent.
Wilson explained that it would be more apt to call Black strangers 'sister’, 'brother', or 'auntie', and this derives from times during enslavement when people were separated from their family of origin, so they might have been 'adopted' by the people where they ended up, and it has evolved into a bigger practice in the Black community over time. She believes that a sense of kinship is one of the reasons why deaths like George Floyd's are so painful. Part of why collective loss is a specific issue in the Black community is this inclination to look at each other as relatives. They nearly feel for George Floyd as if he was family, and they feel his loss very intensely because of their ethnic-racial identification. There’s also this element of linked fate thinking what if what happened to George Floyd could happen to one of them due to the belief that they all have the same fate because of their shared identity.
COVID highlighted grief as a health disparity
In the same year that Floyd was killed, COVID-19 claimed the lives of a disproportionate number of Black Americans. Wilson added that grief hasn't been distributed evenly across the pandemic as Black Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to die from COVID. O'Connor, author of "The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss” said that they were beginning to close the Black-white life expectancy disparity, and it appeared that COVID has ruined all of that progress. According to her, grief research sometimes overlooks the number of losses a person has suffered and how it may affect their health.
She wondered that if the researchers know that Black Americans have a higher rate of death among close relatives and that losing three or more loved ones causes artery thickness why not ask how many loved ones they lost but that's a piece of information that the research entirely overlooks. A better understanding of the particular experience of Black grief could be useful for other oppressed communities whose experiences aren't represented in existing research. Wilson further added that the research has such a poor representation of Black people in grief studies, and the researchers haven't captured what the experience is like for this community because of the kinds of questions we're asking and this could lead to far-reaching consequences for other marginalised communities, such as indigenous population, who may have suffered a loss on a similar scale.