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Tears, prayer and therapy: Rethinking how we process the loss of a loved one.
Melissa Chataigne holds out her right arm and points to the tattoo just below the inside of her elbow. It‚Äôs a Picasso dove with the initials JLC on the tip of one of the wings. She got it in September 2010, two weeks after her 21-year-old sister committed suicide.
‚ÄúI got it for Jenny because Jennifer Leslie Chataigne was my right arm,‚ÄĚ says the 33-year-old personal stylist. ‚ÄúWhen you lose your right arm, you don‚Äôt know how to function.‚ÄĚ
Chataigne tried her best to get back to normal. Two weeks after her sister died she was back in L.A. ‚Äúin work mode‚ÄĚ and planning her best friend‚Äôs birthday party. By October she was right back in her parents‚Äô home in Bartlett, Illinois, unable to get out of bed.
‚ÄúI was just sleeping, not showering, my hair was a mess,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúMy mom was like, ‚ÄėI‚Äôm not going to lose another daughter. So we got to do something about it.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
For many African-American women, Melissa‚Äôs story of grief is a familiar one. We shove our own feelings to the side while we focus on working, being strong and taking care of others. We maintain the facade that everything‚Äôs okay when really, it‚Äôs not.
‚ÄúThe way my family is, even when we‚Äôre stressed, we‚Äôre like, ‚ÄėEverything‚Äôs fine,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ says Chataigne. And, like many, they‚Äôre a ‚Äúdon‚Äôt put your business out there‚ÄĚ household.
According to a 2008 University of Memphis study, African Americans in Bereavement, 46 percent of the Black people surveyed said they spent less than two hours talking about their loss. Only 3.8 percent of Blacks surveyed said they had sought professional help.
These figures are no surprise to Ronald Barrett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He has been studying African-Americans and grief for 20 years and finds that, as a group, we ‚Äútend to underutilize health resources‚ÄĚ to support our physical and mental health after a traumatic loss.
‚ÄúOne of the more predominant and immediate theories is that African-Americans have a very long history that supports their mistrust of a White establishment,‚ÄĚ he says. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which used hundreds of Black men as medical guinea pigs, cast a long shadow in our collective minds‚ÄĒand that spills over into our reluctance to seek counseling.
What are we doing instead? According to the 2008 study, we rely on prayer or turn to friends or extended family for support. Or we just bury our pain and carry on.
Karla F.C. Holloway, Ph.D., a Duke University professor and author of Passed On: African-American Mourning Stories, A Memorial, thinks that is the worst thing we can do. She says that burying our grief is ‚Äúnot healthy and attributes to other kinds of health disparities you find in African-American women,‚ÄĚ including stress, high blood pressure and diabetes. In other words, when we don‚Äôt attend to our emotional needs, the pain can manifest itself physically.
Addressing our sorrow head-on‚ÄĒtaking the time and space to walk through it‚ÄĒis a much healthier approach. Holloway believes bereavement therapy is good, partly because ‚Äúit acknowledges that you‚Äôre grieving.‚ÄĚ
Maude Harrison-Hudson, a bereavement counselor at Montgomery Hospice in Rockville, Maryland, agrees. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs necessary to talk about your feelings,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúIt is in talking about and telling the story that healing occurs. Grief is a process and it‚Äôs necessary to walk through the pain.‚ÄĚ Harrison-Hudson says that process may include writing and journaling about your feelings.
Recognizing the need, many funeral homes and mortuaries now offer an ‚Äúaftercare‚ÄĚ service that provides free grief support to family members. Your local hospice center may also be able to direct you to community or faith-based support programs. If you are having real difficulty coming to terms with your loss, professional mental-health counseling may be in order to keep normal grief from hardening into a chronic depression.
For Chataigne, investing $50 a week for counseling was worth it, even when funds were tight. Although she had briefly seen social workers and gone to suicide-survivors‚Äô support groups, almost two years after her sister‚Äôs death, she was still floundering. ‚ÄúI felt like I was on the breaking point myself,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúI felt like I was ready to die. I was like Jenny in that depressed state…but I was masking it really well.‚ÄĚ
Seeing the therapist changed things. Over the course of a year, he provided Chataigne with the tools to process her grief and encouraged her to work out and look after herself. But it was the way that he talked about her sister that touched her heart.
‚ÄúNo one really talked about her like she was a person,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúHe gave her a name, let her have a personality in my story and let me cherish her that way.‚ÄĚ
Melissa will always miss Jenny, but therapy taught her how to celebrate her sister and find happiness. ‚ÄúThere is a difference between surviving and thriving,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúThe past year, I‚Äôve been thriving.‚ÄĚ
This article was originally published in the November issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.
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