I grew up in the African-American Episcopal (AME) Church back in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. It was the only place of worship I knew as a child. It was my place of solace from the hustle and bustle of blended family life of three sisters in one room and five brothers in the other. The constant barrage of emotions (as a result of strict discipline), daily morning routines and sibling rivalry were already enough for me to bear and I needed a processing moment. The church was my way out as a young black child; it was a healing place for my emotional well-being.
Church has always been a sanctuary for me, even to this day. My experience at the ‘little church on the hill’ was actually an awakening — from singing in the young-adult choir to experiencing the outward praise of the late and great Mr. Joe Johnson, who would always spontaneously and brashly step forward from his front row seat and begin to praise the Lord in song and trumpet.
Fast forward to 2012…
He had two funerals in one week, each with a 500-mile radius between the two. One funeral was on a Thursday, the other was the upcoming Saturday. I didn’t cry during the first service (held in Charlotte) and I froze into shock at the second (in Mobile, Alabama). I couldn’t bear it any longer — I had to finally let loose.
Two darn funerals in one week?!
The Baptist mothers of the church were trying to shake me out of it, telling me that I was stronger than that and I had to get it together. They were feeding me nuggets of you know, the StrongBlackWoman ideological clichés. They meant no harm. Why? Because it was what they were accustomed to doing. No sooner had I let loose, I got myself together. Admittedly, I was a bit embarrassed and so I stood strong and held my son’s hand. Between Charlotte and Mobile, I was pooped, and Sunday worship service, well, it was the next day.
Did I go? I didn’t because it was our travel day, but Bible study was rolling around that following Wednesday.
And did I go to that? I did.
The expectation, as I’ve been taught in the church, especially since I knew that I was in a leadership role, was to be front and center. And I was. I attended every fundraising event, Watch Night services and continued to offer my “value-added” services for the upbuilding of the Kingdom. But I was fooling myself. I didn’t want my brothers and sisters, deacons and First Lady, pastor nor praise team know about my inner struggle. They prayed with me, ensured that my refrigerator was stocked and helped me with all of my outward and spiritual needs, but my mental health was derailing. I was depressed, alone and bitter. My contract with my employer ended three weeks before my husband's death. Six months into the year, I was still unemployed, but my widow’s benefits kicked in, which barely provided enough to pay the mortgage and utilities. Prior to that, I was only eligible for minimal state assistance for a few months. I was thankful to receive anything.
I would retreat to my room each night after dinner and shut my door. The relationship with my 12-year-old daughter was strained. It wasn’t until my sister-in-law contacted that I found out my daughter was self-inflicting herself with a dull razor. She happened to send a YouTube video she found online to her cousin of a young girl doing the same. Come to find out, she had been hiding her superficial wounds with bracelets, which I nonchalantly noticed. I neglected to "put two and two" together. Unfortunately, the root of her actions was bullying. A girl had been bullying her in school and she couldn’t talk to me about it.
Can you guess why?
It was an eye opener. I knew immediately that we needed professional help. Prayer just wouldn’t do!
The counselor helped. We visited a few other times and she began to feel better about herself. Today, almost five years later, she is a typical teenager busy with the school band and her life group at church. I’m excited to report that she is not ashamed of her past.
As I write this, I think about the Facebook comments from black women widows from a recent Facebook post I published. Ronald Barrett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, asserted that “as a culture, African-Americans tend to underutilize health resources to support our physical and mental health after a traumatic loss.”
The post hit home to a few black women, which generated an artillery of emotionally written, yet candid comments:
“Are there resources in the community?”
“It’s something about how we’re socialized, we have this ‘I can handle anything’ attitude and don’t reach out to one another in times of trauma and crisis”
“People suffer from lack of community and support”
“We are taught that reaching out for mental health and support means that we are crazy and not strong”
"In the church … we are taught that reaching out for mental health resources means we lack faith…"
Surprisingly, I've found that there are unconventional resources available. Many funeral homes offer free grief support to family members in the form of support group sessions, pamphlets, books, referrals and even other professional comforters such as therapy dogs, as one funeral home in Indiana provides. The healing power of dogs can bring comfort and reassurance to those in mourning.
Yes, I believe that the black church is still a wonderful place of inspiration, fellowship, and unity for the soul, but in my opinion, don't be afraid to look beyond the die-hard prescriptions of most black churches when it comes to grief and mental health.
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