I work as a hospital chaplain and yesterday we were involved in the tragic death of a young African American man in police custody, just a block away. The young man was brought to us, and large numbers of police and family and friends followed him to our ED. The death was a Coroner’s case so there was a certain protocol in operation whereby the family could not be in the room with the deceased. Outside the hospital tempers flared and emotions were raw. Those gathered distrusted the police and anyone in uniform, including police chaplains and our own security guards. They screamed, “They killed him.” It was bad.
The mother had apparently come to the ED and been turned away and told she couldn’t see her son. So she left. I spoke to a family member and had her call the mother to come back: we would make sure she got to see her son. Somehow. I knew how important this was. My son’s death had been a coroner’s case. My desire to see him was so intense it felt like I couldn’t possibly survive it. I didn’t want that for her. At least she could see him even if she couldn’t touch him.
The mother arrived back on the scene. She was, of course, devastated; she begged to see her son one last time. She felt that the authorities were trying to cover up the details of the death. We (the other staff chaplain and myself) assured her that we were there for her, and we took her and her son’s Godmother inside the ED to a waiting room. Outside the crowd was given water and apparently calmed down some once they saw the mother was being shown respect and care.
The other staff chaplain and myself advocated with the coroner’s representative on the mother’s behalf, and eventually they agreed to let her see her son through the glass door of the ED room. She was in a wheelchair, as she had difficulty walking for physical and emotional reasons, so I wheeled her to his room. She just needed a minute or so, then motioned them to close the curtain. I wheeled her out of the hospital to join her family. It was then that her emotions overwhelmed her and crying and keening ensued from her and all those around her.
In white America we have learnt in good Anglo-Protestant fashion, to suppress and control our outward expressions of grief. We weep silently into tissues, and later take our grief to a doctor to be medicated, or to a counselor to be talked through. We track our progress according to rationally identified and researched “stages.” It is considered inappropriate, even distasteful, to noisily cry and moan at deaths, wakes or funerals. Instead we medicate our unpleasant emotions. Anger, sadness, grief…take a pill. Take two.
“Stiff upper lip.” “Be a man!” “Don’t embarrass me in public.” “Hold it in.”
But African Americans often grieve differently. In my experience in ICUs they are often very vocal and physical in their grief. They sometimes physically “fall out,” in ways that Anglo-American nurses find disturbing, even disrespectful, and label as a form of exhibitionism. But this is not the case. The people are grieving. Explaining this to our hospital superiors outside the ED was important: we should not be trying to restrain and contain their expressions of grief, we should not be considering arresting them for disturbing the peace outside the hospital, we should be tending to them, giving them space, offering them water and chairs. And so that is what the staff did.
The deceased’s mother and her family members were expressing their grief in culturally acceptable and, from a psychological perspective, probably healthier ways. But the hospital onlookers were uncomfortable and, sensing that, the family shepherded the mother into a waiting car. The gathering then quickly dispersed to return to their neighborhood, continue their grieving, and tend to the family.
I used the word “keening” above. Keening is a form of very vocal crying and moaning that was part of many cultures’ response to grief in the past. In my Irish background culture it was normal to have keeners at wakes and in the funeral procession to the grave. In a sense, they had the job of giving voice to the pain and grief being held inside by the stoic family.
To the mother and her family and community gathered at the hospital, keening was not a conscious choice but a visceral reaction. This was how they showed each other and the world their pain. To do any less would probably have been emotionally and physically impossible and, within their community, to do any less might have seemed disrespectful and unfeeling.
In our ever more melting pot of a society we need to learn about the ways of expressing grief that our neighbors are likely to have. And as an adopted Anglo American myself I need to overcome my Catholic and cultural discomfort with showing physical emotion and making noise to accompany my grief. So far I have managed to scream and cry while alone in the car – not while driving. I have yet to do it in front of anybody else.