My mother was killed on August 1, 2014 while driving to her final teacher recertification class. She was about to start teaching in a new county and had to take courses in preparation for the fall school start. The person who hit her car, resulting in her hitting a beltway lane divider, was a Maryland State Police cadet.
My mother was killed a week before Michael Brown. Other than a mention in local news the week she was killed, my mother’s name has not been included in the #BlackLivesMatter movement or resulted in angry backlash from the public. My mother’s death has been quietly filed away from public interest, although it lingers as a darkly hanging cloud over the lives of those of us left behind in her wake.
It’s hard to articulate how it feels to mourn a loved one’s death when you are expected to still operate in your work and family roles as a functional human being. Add to that expectation the reality that those outside your own intimate circle of friends and family really don’t know about your recent loss or really don’t care, and you are in a situation that can quickly lead to emotional wear and tear and can impact your everyday social functioning.
Here are some tips that helped me — and continue to help me — handle unexpected loss.
1. Identify at Least Three Individuals Who Are Empathetic Listeners
The overwhelming sense of finality that comes after the death of a loved one is often jolting. From it can arise long-lasting remnants of grief.
My mother and I were not on good speaking terms at the time of her death. The last exchange I had with her was a week before she was killed, asking to postpone a lunch date we had talked about having to patch up our broken relationship.
What became burdensome after her death was the feeling of the “what ifs”. My spouse patiently listened as I cried aloud about how resolution would never come and how hurt I felt. He is a good listener: one who does not speak and interrupt, but sits with you in silence if necessary.
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I also have a group of female friends I call my cadre of good listeners who listen and then ask questions necessary to help me process and make next-step choices. They aren’t silent listeners. They listen, hear and respond. They help me with the task of moving from one emotional place to another.
Finally, I have a friend who is sensitively attuned to body language and does quick check-ins with me, even if I’m not talking about me. She asks questions, gives hugs, and lets it be known that she is available if I need to talk.
I recommend everyone find at least three people who can provide some variation of the empathetic listening skills I’ve described. Finding someone who is aware of body language in addition to the words you speak is a rare find.
If you cannot find these listeners among your friends, consider finding a therapist who can offer talk therapy. Being able to share with someone who cares is an act of self-healing.
2. Hold Quiet Space for Your Thoughts
We know being able to express ourselves through talking is healing. So is being able to be alone, silent, and reflective. When experiencing the death of a loved one, reflection allows you to not only remember the good you experienced with the loved one, but also to step outside of the drama that sudden death brings and gain stability over your thoughts.
I had to handle the funeral arrangements for my mother, coordinate the cremation of her remains, as well as organize finding a lawyer and other details immediately following her passing. Quiet time seemed a luxury. But, it was helpful. It helped me stay centered and, once continuously practiced, became a behavior I could rely on when my emotions seemed to well up.
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Quiet time allows you to focus on your breathing, center your thoughts, and pay attention to yourself. Identify safe spaces for quiet, even if it’s stepping away and heading to an empty room in a busy house or taking regular walks alone.
3. Be There for Others and Be Present With Others
One of the things that have really helped me over this past year has been my commitment to my responsibilities and stepping outside of my grief.
Grief can wrap you up and hold you hostage if you let it. It is self-absorbed and wants you to cater to its incessant reminder that you’re now at a loss. You must respond to grief’s self-absorbed tendencies like you do with most self-absorbed entities: you take away the attention and direct it somewhere else.
I am lucky to have a strong network of creatives I vibe with and create art with. The environment they help create, where expression is the norm, has been very healing. I continued to write, share my art, and help other artists after my mother’s death, which kept me active and took away the attention that grief thrives on.
I also became very active in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and continue, to this day, to help build awareness through my music, poems, and organizing to help bring change through policy and practice.
These tips worked for me and continue to be tools I rely on every day. With each step, you can heal when you make time for self-care and pay attention to your very valid needs and feelings.
Also known as The Creative Midwife, Khadijah Moon is a writer, performing artist, educator, and community builder based in DC. She is also the founding director of Liberated Muse Arts Group. Visit her at KhadijahOnline.com.
[Feature Image: Photo of a Black woman leaning with her back against a wall, a sullen look on her face as she stares across the room. She is wearing a denim jacket and fedora.]