Why this grief is not your own: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Dallas

A friend asked how I am feeling today.  Four days into national violence, tragedy, bloodshed and overwhelming fear, I am feeling a deep grief.  In my bones sadness.  Tears and frustration and helplessness.  Yet I feel as though the pain I’ve been feeling for the past week is not entirely my own.  There are remnants of the pain of those that came before me.  They are remnants of strong negative emotions and traumas not fully faced, not fully accepted, and never fully acknowledged over centuries which live within the cells of the body and are passed down.  It is deep within our DNA and our blood. 

If you’re having a hard time understanding the profound grief of the Black and allied communities over the lives of men killed senselessly by the police, try to understand this: This grief is a historical grief.  It is not rooted in the events of the past week, but in the events of our nation’s history. And the unjustified murders of the police officers in Dallas have only compounded the profound sadness.  We have seen this before.  Our ancestors--both Black AND white--experienced this and did not heal it.  Generations upon generations have experienced this and have not healed it.  And now it has become ours.  Will we pass it on?

With death comes grief.  Grief can affect not just individuals, but entire cultures when passed through generations.  Historical grief is defined as “unresolved, dysfunctional grieving of historical losses that interferes with an individual’s well-being,” and links historical grief to historical trauma – “an  inter-generationally transmitted cluster of trauma symptoms experienced by members of an ethnic group or community whose history includes severe and cataclysmic trauma, such as genocide.” Sound familiar?  It has been found to exist among Holocaust survivors, Native Americans, people of African descent and Japanese-Americans.   It is beginning to be observed in the LGBT community as well. 

This pain is collective.  It has existed for centuries and has grown through unresolved suffering and historical trauma.  Grieving takes many forms and does not follow academic patters. We are used to thinking of grief as an individual experience.  But events like those of the past week and the Orlando shootings link us and our grief together.  Denial of pain only feeds it.  Citing crime statistics doesn't help.  Forgetting about it certainly doesn’t help.  Silence doesn’t help.  Just being angry doesn't help.  And resigning to the injustices will only carry this historical grief forward. 

Even if you do not understand the grief, the pain is palpable.  People are angry, sad, and demanding justice. And it is not just “their” problem.  The killing of the police officers in Dallas highlights this.  It is OUR problem.  This is America's problem.  Until we can acknowledge that, we will never take any steps to heal it.  There is always pain and feelings of powerlessness when humans act from fear rather than love.  There is frustration in perceived silence and complicity.  And there is no solution but to be present with it. Grief is useful if we allow it to be and do not rush it.  Be with it.  Acknowledgement is the first step.  How do you (the individual) feel today? And how are you using that emotion to forward yourself, this country, and the historical grief? Isn't it time?  Isn't enough enough?