Most of us have experienced loss at one time or another. The COVID-19 pandemic brought on a new wave of grief and loss that was felt around the world.
In the midst of the global pandemic, parts of our country were awakened to the ongoing discrimination and violence against Black people that many thought were remnants of the past. We’ve witnessed multiple fatal shootings of men and women of color by law enforcement, sparking a surge of protests and other movements.
This year, Mother’s Day felt different for the Black mothers who are now mourning the loss of a child by violence.
How have they coped with this loss and the pain and grief they now experience on a day-to-day basis? A look at the experiences of mourning Black women through the years tells us there’s help and hope.
During enslavement, the plantation system advanced economically through the rape, brutalization, and forced breeding of African women. A living, healthy baby was rewarding for the woman, her husband or mate, the plantation physician, and the enslaver.
In some cases, women who were pregnant might have been exempt from punishment during pregnancy. Keeping women pregnant also ensured the enslaver’s plantation would always have laborers for working the fields.
The average enslaved woman gave birth to her first child by the age of 19 and had a child approximately every 2 years. The reality of enslavement carried with it the risk that many women would be left without their children.
Children died, ran away, were sold, and even killed. Before emancipation, a child born to an enslaved woman was someone else’s property.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the South, the threat of lynching was a reality for Black people. Public displays of violence covered front pages of local newspapers, detailing horrific details and photos for all to see. In the South, it was estimated that two to three Black people were lynched every week.
Lynchings were commonplace for petty crimes, such as theft, but one of the biggest reasons was for associating with or looking at white women. Black men who refused to “back down from a fight” were also in danger of lynching.
The mistreatment, violence, and murder of Black Americans continued. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision spurred an increase in racially motivated violence.
The next year, 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched for violating societal norms and speaking to a white woman. This heinous murder galvanized a nation and sparked the Civil Rights Movement led by activists and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
Images of Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, grieving over her son’s casket spread, and mothers worldwide and Black communities felt her pain.
Throughout the years, a history of Black motherhood has been threatened by several factors, including:
- mass incarceration
- maternal and infant mortality
- forced sterilization
- police/gun violence
Today, in the United States, Black people are fatally injured in police-involved shootings at a rate three times higher than white people.
The majority of people killed by the police are men between the ages of 20–40 years old.
Black Americans are killed at a disproportionate rate than other ethnic and racial groups. Police-involved violence is among the leading cause of death for young Black men.
It’s estimated that a Black person is shot and killed by the police at least every other day. This trend is even higher in larger cities where Black Americans account for 68% of homicide victims.
Scholars such as Andrea Ritchie – author, advocate, and researcher on race, gender, sexuality, and criminalization –challenge us to expand what we consider police violence to include sexual violence by the police and stories of Black gender-oppressed people who are killed by the police, too.
These stories don’t get as much national outrage, leaving these mothers alone in their pain and mourning process.
As Black women, the fear of losing someone we love to violence is haunting. Many of us have had to talk with the Black children in our lives about interacting with the police.
Giving them “the talk” is one way we try to cope with the fear and anxiety of living in a world that has constantly destabilized Black motherhood.
The Black Women’s Health Imperative has found that experiencing racially motivated events can create symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Black women. This is also true for exposure to violent or negative media.
These symptoms are likely intensified for mothers who actually lose their children to violence.
Losing a child is hard under any circumstances. Grieving the premature death of a child to police violence is a unique gut-wrenching experience for Black mothers. Black mothers are faced with relentless news headlines and protests erupting across cities.
A major theme is revealed when exploring the experiences of Black mothers throughout history who have raised sons and daughters in the midst of violence or lost them due to violence – exposure to this day-to-day type of violence on a state and community level can affect their physical and mental health.
Grief is a feeling we’re all familiar with. This year alone, we’ve experienced grief in one way or another. But grief is only the beginning for many of these mothers who have lost their children to unnecessary violence.
Black mothers are expected to be strong – they are expected to mask their emotions at home and at work. They often have to interact with others who are unwilling or are incapable of understanding their experiences or showing them empathy.
This can cause overwhelming stress that can manifest into anxiety, fear, and isolation. These experiences can affect their physical health as well.
One study found that Black mothers exposed to community and state violence had feelings of panic and anxiety. One study participant remarked that after hearing about a recent police shooting, she “would be physically sick.” Others expressed experiencing heart palpitations, stomach upset, and loss of sleep.
In this study, mothers described how these events shaped the way they parent. They have increased the conversations with their sons on how to behave or present themselves to law enforcement.
Black Americans cope with grief as a community. We rely heavily on our spirituality and our shared experiences with family and friends.
Many of these practices are a result of stigma, in addition to lack of access to mental health resources such as counseling.
The “strong Black woman” stereotypes can hinder the grieving process. Black mothers wear masks of strength and courage every day. One study found that Black mothers often “put on” a brave face at work or when out with friends because they feel as if they have “no choice but to be strong,” even in moments when they feel weak.
The grieving process is different for every mother. Every mother has their own timeline and relationship to grief. Over time, they learn their triggers. Things like holidays, the anniversary of the death, and birthdays might be a challenge.
Grieving mothers might also experience secondhand grief — when someone you didn’t know dies, but it retriggers you. Because we’re living through a movement that makes these deaths more visible to the public, secondhand grief for Black mothers is a reality.
Unplugging from the news and social media is a helpful coping mechanism. Many Black mothers also find healing in establishing relationships with other “Mothers of the Movement.”
Despite their stress and grief, Black mothers have always – throughout history – found a way to cope and to move forward.
Many of them turn their pain into meaning by becoming involved in community activism, joining movements such as the Civil Rights or Black Lives Matter movements, or establishing organizations to help other mothers going through the same pain and grief.
The death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the acquittal of those responsible led to the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement – a movement that has since grown in its fight against justice for acts of violence against Black people.
The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and others who were fatally shot by police officers are known as the Mothers of the Movement. This group of Black mothers stood together at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 to tell their stories and to highlight how the deaths of their children have impacted us as a nation.
By sharing their grief and pain over the loss of their children, Black mothers are sparking conversations that can help other mothers through their grief.
We can give support to Black mothers who have lost a child to police violence in many ways.
Some ways we can lend support include:
- Support movements such as #BlackLivesMatter.
- Get involved with organizations dedicated to preventing gun violence.
- Listen and offer an empathetic ear.
- Be present to their needs. Keep them engaged in companionship and life.
- Let the person grieve however they want to grieve.
- Don’t rush the grieving process.
- Never say, “You should be over this by now.”
Remember that when violence disrupts our communities, it’s more than the people who live in or near that community who are affected. Gun violence affects everyone.
We all have to do our part to help stop this violence, especially the violence perpetrated in Black communities. We have to come together as a community and as a nation.
If you’re a grieving Black mother, and your loss feels unbearable, consider reaching out to a healthcare or mental health professional for help.
Every person grieves differently.
You can begin by talking with someone you trust and finding emotional support through friends and family.
You can talk with your primary care physician if you have one. They might be able to refer you to a mental health specialist if needed.
You can also find help by using one of these find-a-therapist tools:
- American Psychological Association
- American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy
- Open Path Psychotherapy Collective
If you’re looking for therapy dedicated to the mental health and wellness of Black women specifically, try one of these options:
Telehealth options might also be available to you. You can find information about online therapy and mental support services by going to the pages below:
Grief is complicated. No matter how a person has lost a child – whether through violence or a serious health complication – the grieving process can be long and challenging.
No one person grieves in the same way. But the one thing most every grieving parent wants is comfort and support.
Remember: Sometimes the only thing a grieving mother wants to hear is, “I’m here for you, no matter the time or day.”
The Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) is the first nonprofit organization founded by Black women to protect and advance the health and well-being of Black women and girls. Learn more about BWHI by going to www.bwhi.org.