Grief and loss: An inclusive approach
News & Updates | November 11, 2022 | Dying With Dignity Canada
In recognition of National Grief and Bereavement Day on November 15, we spoke to Michelle Williams of Being here, human about grief and loss through the lens of diversity, anti-racism and anti-oppression.
Michelle Williams is a Master’s of Social Work and a registered social worker in Ontario and came to this work through her own lived experience of grief and loss with the death of her mother in 2010. Although the field of social work almost always deals with various forms of loss, Michelle quickly recognized that in all her academic studies and training, she was not being prepared for how to engage or interact with it. So, she sought out her own experiences to educate herself on grief and loss, and grief support.
Michelle met her current business partner and friend, Rachelle Bensoussan, while working at a hospice in Hamilton. They both noticed that even in one of the most diverse cities in the province, the people entering the hospice were all predominantly white; it made them question why. They also noticed that when people from their communities did enter the hospice space – Michelle is Black and Rachelle is queer – the ways in which they were interacted with were different than their white, Christian, upper-middle class peers. For those who were unhoused, experiencing substance abuse, 2SLGBTQ+ and Brown and Black people, Michelle and Rachelle observed multiple incidents of harm inflicted in the interactions between staff and the hospice residents, and their families.
“I do believe that the people working in that hospice wanted to do good work, and yet when they were interacting with the populations mentioned, that care and the quality of care looked different. And, at times, it didn’t just look different, it was deeply harmful.”
We define grief as an involuntary response to loss; it is a physiological response to loss that happens in our bodies without our consent or participation.
Michelle’s and Rachelle’s social enterprise, Being here, human, was developed from the discrepancies and harm witnessed in hospice settings, the inequities in grief and bereavement support for their communities, and lived experiences as members of BIPOC and Queer communities. They recognized a need to not only do things differently, but that this work could be done better. The goal for their business was to educate everyone about grief literacy through the lens of diversity, anti-racism and anti-oppression. Their workshops highlight the ways in which grief can show up in different communities and brings a focus to the voices and experiences of folks from marginalized communities in particular. Michelle and Rachelle have an orientation to grief that is different than more dominant ideas that are commonplace in our mainstream discussions about grief.
“We define grief as an involuntary response to loss; it is a physiological response to loss that happens in our bodies without our consent or participation and impacts us on all levels of our being and personhood – physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially, sexually and existentially. We do not define it as a feeling, because feelings are by nature short-lived; grief however, is not transient, it stays with you, and loss changes you.
Loss on the other hand, is the severing from someone or something to which we have held a deep and strong attachment. Loss can be tangible, a person or a home, or intangible such as our identity or sense of belonging.
And mourning is what we do with our grief; it is often public acts that we engage in to express our grief such as a funeral, or more privately like lighting a candle. In mourning we have agency over how we want to demonstrate our grief.”
Michelle goes on to say that we need to shift our orientation about loss and have more conversations around the fact that as human beings, we will inevitably experience loss, it’s a human experience that is not within our control. At Being here, human, Michelle and Rachelle want to examine how we engage with loss and how to support people grieving after those losses. To recognize that grief is a universal experience. In the same way that we are all born, and we will all die, we will also all experience losses, and as a result of that, we will all experience grief.
It’s important to understand and talk about the fact that marginalized communities experience higher rates of loss for different reasons than mainstream, white, dominant culture. To give only a few examples of many: more people from BIPOC communities are killed at the hands of police, Indigenous people continue to experience loss as a result of the history of colonialism, residential schools and racist child welfare practices. 2SLGBTQ+ experience higher rates of violence due to homophobia, anti-trans sentiments and profound systemic gender bias as a result of our predominant hetero-normative culture. This loss is compounded by trauma that we rarely take into account when interacting with marginalized communities.
This difference in experience also shows up in how different communities mourn. In mainstream, North American culture we tend to be averse to talking about death and dying. This translates into how we manage and offer time to mourn. Typically, a person is given three bereavement days from their job when they experience a loss.
“Grief is not something we can turn off, and in many cultures, mourning ceremonies and rituals are much longer than three days. In that way, our systems exclude and prevent most people from grieving and effectively mourning their loss.”
So, how do we support the grief of others?
- First and foremost, no matter who you are, you need to offer empathy and compassion.
- Have an understanding of the context of the loss; educate yourself on the history of the community experiencing the loss. We can take the initiative to gain this deeper understanding upon ourselves and not put the labour of providing this education on the backs of marginalized communities.
- Don’t appropriate. White, dominant culture has lost connection to traditional practices of mourning, and when bereaved, our modern Western conventions of mourning do not feel sufficient. People then look to other cultures who have sustained rich and beautiful rites and rituals of mourning. It is often referred to as ‘borrowing’ a custom, but it is actually cultural appropriation. We can admire these rites and rituals, but we cannot co-opt them, they are not a replacement for what has been lost in our own culture in the name of white supremacy. Especially if we do not allow those cultures to have the space, time and capacity to practice them themselves.
We are always so grateful to Michelle and Rachelle for their contributions to our educational offerings. You can learn more about Being here, human on their website, find them on social media @beingherehuman (Instagram) and they are currently in the process of writing a book on Grief Literacy scheduled for publication in early 2024. Finally, you can watch them on our webinar Grief 101 that they participated in for our learning centre earlier this year.