The ongoing grief of colonisation
The loss never stopped. With colonisation, came apocalypse — the end of language, ritual, ancestors, bodily autonomy, plant teachers, ways of knowing and the imposition of a white God. This wound, freshly open was followed by years of exploitation so great that it made life in a foreign land seem appealing. The transition into a strange, grey world. The loss of the sun, melanin, nature and eyes filled with care and trust must have been a huge shock to a system already in survival mode. Since then, the inequality and intertwined exploitation have kept us busy celebrating, laughing and keeping it moving when we are not in fight/flight.
This historical legacy speaks to the high levels of anxiety and depression in Black communities, for example in the UK. Our sympathetic nervous systems are generally in states of high arousal, much longer than they should be due to the lack of held space to release the pain of our lived realities and those of our ancestors.
With forced assimilation into the west, and the traumas that have come with it, many of our ancestors have been unable to grieve. This seemingly magical ability to not only manage through chaos and crisis, but support others to survive in the midst of it all, has created beautiful networks of mutual aid in Black communities. It has also meant that we have rarely had time to process our grief and hurt. We work, we laugh, care for each other and celebrate joy to acknowledge another day of being alive.
The pain builds. It dissipates when we rise above, grow with love summoned by ancestral wisdom, and stay strong. However, it can get buried and stored in parts of the body — it’s shadow manifesting as anger, rage, anxiety, physical illnesses or behaviour patterns in our daily lives.
It wasn’t always this way. Our ancestors had community based rituals to process loss, sadness and the grief of losing loved ones or ways of existing. Held grief space is an act of mutual care. We create the container so you can let go of control and surrender to your feelings. Allow the wave to flow whilst being held, without fear of being judged or suppressed. My soul longs for this space — I know it exists and can be re-made within the diaspora.
Given the realities of COVID-19, it is crucial that Black folks grieve the disproportionate impact this pandemic is having on our communities, in the UK and US context. According to the Office for National Statistics, Black people are four times more likely to die from COVID than their white counterparts in the UK and three times as likely in the USA. Given that many African nations have incredibly low death rates, this trend does not seem to be about the biological susceptibility of African heritage people, but is arguably a condition of racism and ongoing structural inequality in white dominated countries. This causes Black and BAME people living in the UK and USA to die at much higher rates. The added impact of anti-Black police violence during this time, has created a great deal of heaviness and grief which needs to move out of our bodies.
In 2014, I had the pleasure of attending a day long grief ritual with Sobonfu Some. The ritual was structured on Dagara principles which include continual drumming throughout and different altar spaces, that are held by the community- during the process people are invited to move between active grieving, drumming, support of other community members or ancestor veneration as they need to. There is an organic unfolding to this flow of grief, care and community support. The Dagara believe that tears are healing and a way of the body cleansing itself. In Dagara communities, people are expected to regularly tend their grief in group rituals. To not do this is seen as deeply irresponsible as unprocessed grief is believed to affect the community in a myriad of negative ways. When someone dies, the community is encouraged to weep and sob heartily as tears are needed in order to help the recently dead navigate their way to the spirit realm. Many indigenous cultures in the African continent, and other parts of the world, have similar rituals for grief tending, which is seen as a community responsibility.
What would it look like to find ways to metabolise the sorrows of our loss to make meaning and sow seeds in the compost of our grief, to grow the futures we would like to see? I believe that grief tending is an essential form of care, which allows us to expand our imaginations by first acknowledging the extraction and consumption that has destroyed so many worlds in the last few hundred years of Empire, and its aftershocks. Without feeling into our past, and allowing its impact to leave our bodies, I don’t see how we will be able to imagine new futures. James Baldwin echoes this sentiment with his famous quote, “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history”.
So where do we go from here? When I am lost and uncertain I remember the wisdom of Nayyirah Waheed, who in her deeply moving book of poems entitled Salt, cautions, “you’ve got to put healing on the list”. It has to become a priority in our lives to heal, to grieve, to feel and allow ourselves to be held. Maybe it is time to set aside thirty minutes to let yourself cry? Or hold someone dear as they release their pain, without judgement or trying to fix them. How often have you been held by someone you trust and allowed to fall apart? It is powerful medicine to give and receive this type of care.
If you are interested in dipping your toes into some grief practices, here are a couple that you can try alone or with people.
A simple yet powerful ritual and indigenous technology. Participants sit in a circle and each person is given space to share what is on their heart, while receiving caring, non judgemental attention from the community. The person sharing is encouraged to cry, scream or express themselves in any way that feels good, without fear that this sharing will be taken out of the context of their grief. In holding space for this ritual, community members must be aware of not trying to soothe the griever or suppress their expression. It is about holding space and being a supportive witness (unless the person seems that they are a danger to themselves or someone else).
In this ritual, you will need some stones/pebbles and a receptacle filled with water. Meditate or do an activity that allows you to ground yourself and focus on the task at hand. When you are ready, pick up a stone and visualise your grief spreading over it- allow yourself to speak the sorrow into the stone/ simply think about it as you hold it. When you are ready, to surrender the grief, allow the stone to submerge into the water. Repeat this until you are finished/ have run out of stones.
In preparation for this ritual, you may wish to gather photos or items that represent the person or event you are grieving. Arrange these items in a way that is pleasing to you. Meditate or find a way to ground yourself. Light a candle and take the time to shed tears, share memories, or speak about your grief and allow yourself to release as you need to, while you honour this person or event in your life. When you feel ready to finish, you can blow out the candle or keep it lit.
~ Feel free to use these practices as often as you need to. Grief will not necessarily disappear but if it is processed and tended to, it will transform and deeper meaning can emerge ~
- This article is part of the Grief toolkit, conducted on behalf of the Global Environments Network*