Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It is a high holy time on the Christian calendar; a season typically recognized 40 days before Easter. If you are wondering why the dates are different every year, it’s because Easter follows a lunar calendar of sorts…it was decided to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, a fancy phrase that tells us when the season we call spring begins. And that sounds about right since spring is a time of renewal and restoration.
However, Lent is also a season of grief and mourning. Death is part of the circle of life. Over this Lenten season, I would like to take a look at Black women and grief. I feel as though grief has been a part of my life as far back as I can remember. I come from a large extended family; my mother is one of eight and my father is one of six. And due to heart disease, sickle cell and other maladies, funerals were a constant fixture in my childhood. I felt it most prominently with my mother’s grief. My mother’s mother died before I was born, and my mother was present when she breathed her last. I not only felt the hole in my life, never having a maternal grandmother, but also the hole it left in my mother. And she would never talk about it. I was as persistent as I thought I could get away with, but she would not budge on the subject and it frustrated me to no end. Although I did not have the language to articulate it at the time, to me, it felt like grief always had a place at our table. There is Native American ancestry on my mother’s side, and she explained to me that when you see ceremonial dances and they are kicking up the dirt, it is in tribute to the ancestors who have gone before. These are the things that come to mind when I think about ‘ashes.’ I think about the ancestors I’ve been privileged to know, and those I never got to.
I thought I had a handle on grief, and how death was a natural part of life until my own mother made her transition when I was seventeen years old. I have now lived more years than my mother did, and I can tell you that you truly never get over a parent’s death—you just get better at living with it. I imagine it must be similar to those who have lost limbs. They can adjust to life without the limb; but they will forever miss it, and the area of injury will ache sometimes. In all these years since she died, one thing that I have experienced regularly is insensitivity in what people say about it. Here is a small sampling of some of what has been said to me:
“God wanted her.”
“She is not gone, you know right where she is.”
“She is in a better place.”
“If you believe in God, you’ll see her again.”
“God will be your mother now.”
“You’re still not over that?”
I could go on but I think you get the point. No matter how much time has passed since her death, moments come when I feel it sharply. When I got married, I tried on several wedding dresses in the bridal shop and when I looked around, I realized that I was the only bride-to-be who was there without her mother. It cut like a knife, and grief came over me in waves, as though it had happened yesterday. I thought my mother would be here for the pivotal moments of my life. What happens when your basic assumptions about life fall to the wayside? And why do we think empty platitudes are the way to go? I say this because what you say to someone who is grieving matters because they are at their most vulnerable. They are vulnerable because they have stood over the grave of someone they thought would be a fixture in their life, and are struggling with the ‘no more.’ They are in pain, and performing even simple tasks can become excruciating. It does not mean that they do not love God, or that they do not trust God, or that—heaven forbid—they have done something to merit the situation. It simply means that a basic assumption about that person being in their life is now gone, and it is their season of ashes.
And I have often been disappointed by the church’s response…or lack thereof…to the ebbs and flows of grief seasons. Quite frankly, I am surprised that more churches don’t have grief ministries or grief stewards to assist those who are experiencing the painful severing that comes when someone they love is making their transition from the earthly realm to the next. Too many folks think it is the time to make it about them: “I know just how you feel.” No, you don’t. I have known many women who have lost their mothers at various stages of life, and I don’t know how they experienced it. I only know how I experienced it.
Lent is an opportunity for us to consider our own grief experiences and to give ourselves permission to grieve. It is an opportunity to take it out, and examine it. Every Wednesday this month, there will be a new blog dealing with the theme of Black women and grief in an effort to do just that.