I spent many hand-wringing hours trying to figure out how to tell my daughter that Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played our beloved superhero Black Panther in the Marvel movies, had recently passed away from cancer.
We’d just gotten her off a Cameron Boyce bender (Cameron was a Disney Channel star who passed away from an epileptic seizure last year). We’d also spent most of the year trying to explain why she couldn’t return to school or see her friends—why COVID-19 had been allowed to run rampant throughout this country to the tune of almost 200,000 deaths. Simultaneously, we spent many a day and night explaining, and frankly, shielding her from the racial violence being unleashed against unarmed Black men and women.
Add to all of this, personal and family losses and it seems like grief has been slapping us around for the last two years, at least. Some days I feel like the embodiment of the Monique meme from the film, Precious.
Dis tew much.
So for 24 hours, my husband and I convened. We did all kinds of mental gymnastics trying to figure out the best way to soften the blow. We thought we might focus on the character of Black Panther and how he was still very much alive in our imaginations and in the films. We also thought about sharing videos of Chadwick Boseman surprising cancer patients or joking about raisins in white folks’ potato salad on the hilarious SNL spoof of Jeopardy. Maybe sprinkling in a little joy would be a way to land the news safely? The next day I finally decided to just keep it simple and tell her the truth in plain language. The last thing I wanted to do was manipulate her emotions just so I could get a response that would make me comfortable.
“Hey, Sugah. Did you know that someone famous passed away yesterday?”
Without missing a beat, she says, “Yes.”
Caught off guard, I said, “You knew about the person who played Black Panther?”
“Yes, Mommy. I already knew about him.”
I’m sure I heard an actual record scratch somewhere.
“How did you find out?”
“I saw it on daddy‘s phone when I was playing with it.”
She was so nonchalant that it was unnerving. I had to take a beat to gather myself. She, however, continued to play with her Legos.
“How does that make you feel?”
“It makes me very sad. But I don’t wanna think about it right now, because I don’t want to feel sad. Can I have some juice?”
I got a chill in that moment. I laid in the bed for hours after news of Boseman’s death hit. I cried long and hard and ugly. For Chadwick, yes, but also for every loss this year—the personal and collective. I was spent with grief. I scrolled obsessively through all the posts and kind words about this man I’d never met. I watched my news feeds turn blue with sorrow in real time. His death felt, in many ways, like the last straw in a year filled with heartache.
I sat squarely in the center of all that collective outpouring of grief and allowed it to link proverbial arms with my own personal grieving. My sorrow had been activated in the same ways it had been when police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. That activation across bloodlines is something Black people know intimately.
Jamar Tisby in an article for The Atlantic shared why collective, Black grief is such a distinct and consuming thing: “We feel the pain and loss of Black life as if it were our very own blood that had been brutalized—because it easily could have been.” George could have been my brother. Breonna could have been my cousin. And though not a violent loss, Chadwick, too, could have been my family.
So, I let the tide take me under at time or three because I’ve had enough therapy to know that hiding or ignoring how I feel is not the answer. But, there I was, talking to my child and I could tell that the kid who cried and prayed for people pulled over on the side of the road was completely numb. The year 2020 had done its nastiest work yet. The losses, big and small, had apparently become too much for her. Her eerie acceptance of death was clearly her doing what we’ve all done at some point: hardening.
It finally occurred to me that if my 45 years on this planet have not prepared me for this kind of unearthing of grief and loss, then surely my daughter’s 9 years have left her ill-equipped. How do I keep her free enough to teach her how to handle grief of this magnitude when I’m wrestling my own sadness like it’s Ronda Rousey every night?
The next day she finally wanted to talk about it. I did my best to help her sort her emotions but, if I’m honest, I didn’t really want to help her understand. Some of it remains too incomprehensible even for me. Each time I set my mind to help her, to give her the tools to manage her sorrow over the loss of the figure that once made her eyes light up when she saw him and Shuri on the screen, I realized that I was pouring from an empty cup.
The typical grieving process has been distorted for everyone, but especially for Black folks. This year has been a perfect storm of pain and violence, grief and loss. The racism we’ve always known feels magnified in the hands of leaders with mangled morals. To boot, the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic has made our normal outlets and coping mechanisms inaccessible for the most part. And when grief can’t go anywhere, it will go everywhere. Maybe that anger and frustration will show up in our relationships—like how I completely lost my mind on my husband after his imperfect placement of a pot in the fridge. Maybe the fear and sadness and anger will show up as bigger or worse. Whatever the form, we can be assured that in the midst of racial reckoning, a horrid election season, and personal and collective losses, grief will make its presence known. For me, it has inevitably shrank my capacity for “good parenting” in all the ways I’d defined that for myself before this year.
When grief can’t go anywhere, it will go everywhere.
I understand the inclination many have to say “F@&% 2020” and “2020 is trash!” But the year itself is a neutral and nebulous thing. Death and dying will always remain a mystery to us. But what absolutely classifies as trash is the response to the bad things that have happened this year by those who claim authority. The poor response to the coronavirus by national leaders, the exhausting racial violence and the subsequent unrest—all the things we collectively grieve—have stood in direct opposition to everything I’ve taught my daughter about goodness. Goodness, as a concept not necessarily measured by perfection, would always prevail, I told her. Morality, though flawed in human brains and hands, still should keep us from cannibalizing each other emotionally, spiritually, and yes, even physically. But very little happening in this world right now corroborates this.
Dr. Phillis R. Silverman refers to children as “invisible mourners” and that makes sense. It’s too easy for adults to be so consumed by our own griefs that we lose sight of the impact on our children. “Children need to learn a vocabulary for what they are feeling,” Silverman also writes. “…to understand that there is no straight line as they cope.” So I’ve decided to just be honest with my girl all the time. To tell her that Mommy’s heart is sad and sometimes, just like her, I don’t know what to do with it. That sometimes I do the wrong thing with it. I will teach her that there is no destination for healing from grief. If you are one who loves deeply and daily, there is only the management of grief. The acceptance of it. The engagement with it. That’s what I’ll tell her next time to soften her burgeoning edges.
David Kessler in Finding Meaning; The Sixth Stage of Grief wrote: “You don’t have to experience grief but you can only avoid it by avoiding love. Love and grief are inextricably intertwined.” So maybe collective grief is more about collective love, and the hopelessness that comes when you lose something or someone you love. I imagine that 400 years of watching our humanity be diminished and violated would create grief in some of the same ways that seeing an actor in the prime of his life transition because of disease.
Sometimes when our intellect fails us as parents, when we don’t have the strength to do what we know, we can lead with our humanity; with the raw truth. Maybe “giving it air” minimizes the destruction of such an unwieldy heaviness. Or at least it buys us some time. Every superhero is flawed. Every superhero has their backstory or Kryptonite. Why should parents be any different?
On a trip to our local state park, our little family decided to stop at the creek and kick our feet in the water. It was the first time we’d been out since Boseman’s death. When we looked to our left, we were stunned. Laying face down in the water was a Black Panther action figure. My daughter screamed and giggled with joy. When she began to bury the figure in the dirt and silt so he could “go to the ancestor realm, Mommy!” I teared up. I decided that it was a clear message. He was saying “You’re doing just fine, Mama.”
Oh, and of course, Wakanda Forever.