“When we do not allow ourselves to release our emotions we allow ourselves to harbor negative emotions…. When we cry we are actually inviting life back into our bodies and to our spirits.”
– Sobonfu Somé
“See you later alligator…afterwhile crocodile” This was the goodbye my grandmother and I would always say to one another anytime we said goodbye. My grandmother always had a unique way of doing things whether it was in saying goodbye, how we rang her doorbell, or even what each of her grandchildren called her. For me it was Grandmama, she liked that name because she was my only living grandparent and she liked saying how she was my mama’s mama…hence Grandmama. As I write this, I can still hear her voice and remember the scent of her perfume that filled every room of her house.Whenever I would go to my grandmother’s house, she would always offer me one of her favorite drinks that she kept in stock and would hide under each of her couches just for her grandchildren. She would offer us something to drink and then would proceed to tell us a story about the ranch her mother owned in Texas. She would also tell us about what it was like to be Black in America in the 1950s during segregation and the civil rights movement. She was a walking history book that made me laugh and cry all at the same time while listening to one of her stories while I sipped on my preferred Snapple drink, mango madness.
My grandmother passed away at the end of April of this year at the young age of 102 and it was unexpected. No doctors were telling us that the end was near and I didn’t think that our last conversation would be the last time I would hear her voice. When death happens you often don’t expect it even when you know it’s coming. It’s almost as if we live in this denial that death will never happen and also the reality that we know that it eventually will. It’s like a friend you never want to visit and always stays too long. This friend brings grief that for some of us who have lost a loved one during this pandemic feels like grief on top of grief. The loss of my grandmother was hard but the fact that I hadn’t been able to see her because of this pandemic was grief on top of grief. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been over 600K deaths due to COVID-19 however that number doesn’t include the number of deaths not due to COVID-19. In 2019, over 2 million people died in the United States before the pandemic started adding to the death rate. Some of these deaths were natural, some were due to illnesses, and some were unexpected. Just to be clear when I say unexpected, I am not saying this word lightly but rather as an all-encompassing phrase that takes into account the lives that were lost tragically due to violence and those that were lost due to an unexpected health outcome like a heart attack. Death in any form is overwhelming for the family and friends of the person whose life was lost. When my grandmother passed, I don’t remember doing much that day besides staring at the wall. I was in shock that the person who had helped raise me was no longer on this earth. Equally important, some details needed to happen like who was going to write the obituary, how do you get her death certificate signed, how do you have a funeral during a pandemic…there were so many things to think about that my body hurt.
As a society, I feel like we have normalized death as something that we just need to accept and move past as we continue with our lives. It’s how we survive in a way and continue to live despite the tragic loss of a loved one. However, if we are constantly trying to survive, are we truly living? Many of us who have lost a loved one, friend, or patient during this pandemic have felt this sense of needing to survive not just for ourselves but also for the ones we have lost. I think we also feel this need to survive for the people who are dependent on us to survive. For me, I have an aging mother who needed my support when her mother/my grandmother died. I didn’t think about how I was feeling initially but rather how my mom was feeling about the loss of her mother. However, I too had experienced a loss and it was painful. I don’t just mean emotional pain but I was also feeling pain in my body because of the emotional pain I was feeling. I haven’t always been aware of the pain that I feel in my body but recently I have been asking myself “Where do you feel it in your body?” as I have been learning about how the body holds trauma. What I mean by this is simply that the emotional experiences that you have are also experienced in your body whether it be pain or joy. They are connected and thus it is important to pay attention to where you feel emotion, especially trauma in your body. This past year and some months have been a trauma that the world has experienced collectively.
It is such a strange concept for me that our physical bodies can hold emotional trauma. For some reason, I thought that the two were separate and that I could disconnect my emotional experiences from my physical experiences. But where did I learn that? I mean my headache behind my left eye when my grandmother passed was real and I had never had a headache like that before. Why did I think that my body and my emotions were separate? I believe the answer is that I was taught early on to be disconnected from my body. There is a saying that I grew up with “mind over matter” meaning that I could push myself to do anything I wanted to do regardless of how my body felt. That saying got me through a lot of late nights of studying as a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major. However, in hindsight, I didn’t make my body do anything. I just pushed myself to burnout every year and was exhausted every summer. Grief happens to our bodies just as much as it happens to our emotions.
June marks the celebration of two very significant celebrations, Juneteenth and Pride. In addition to the collective trauma of this pandemic, June reminds us of the historical trauma that our bodies hold. I am a Black, hetero, woman, and I felt dehumanized because of one or more of my identities. It does not fall on deaf ears when I say that June signifies a month to stop and remember the ways people in our country have been oppressed because of their identity. We as a society have experienced some type of loss this past year and that grief is being held in our bodies. The quote I shared at the beginning of this article was by an author that has been helping me process grief. When I think about grief I think of it as something you do behind closed doors by yourself. It’s never been something that I have felt comfortable doing and as I write this now I am honestly still on a journey of understanding how to process grief. However, every time I cry because of the grief that I am feeling, my body feels like a weight has been lifted. There isn’t one way to heal and everyone’s healing will look different but the real question is how do you heal from trauma? My answer is that you push your pride to the side and ask for help. Sometimes that is through seeking professional help with a licensed therapist but for many folks, therapy is not an affordable option. Sometimes I need help to release the trauma in my body and so I go to therapy and pay someone to sit with me as I process through the trauma that I feel and hold. I also do yoga as a way to connect with my body and notice the places that feel tense. I pay attention to how my body feels both physically and emotionally. One of my favorite practices of self-care is taking care of my plants. Plants remind me that just like them my body needs sunshine, water, and nutrients to grow. I also like to spend time in nature and reconnect with the land that surrounds me. Healing for me has been a continual process of trying new things and reminding myself to be patient. Healing is a journey that involves being in touch with your body and the pain and joy that it holds. If you want to learn more about healing here are some resources I recommend reading and/or listening to:
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
- What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey
- My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem
- Podcast with Sobonfu Somé: Grieving and Ritual
By Project Manager, Robyn G. Barron, for HOP’s series of monthly staff blog posts.