5 Lessons On Grief That Help Me Love My Black Friends

By Kelly Joiner

Confession: I am terrified of all conversations surrounding race and culture. When things pop up in my newsfeed having to do with Ferguson, the Confederate Flag, Black Lives Matter, I feel immediately paralyzed.

I think about all the stupid stuff that I and other White people have said in history and it takes me about a hundred attempts before I am brave enough to type one sentence, let alone have a real human conversation about it, even with my closest friends.

As I scroll through my newsfeed I don’t just see politics and race discussions. I see immense grief.

But as I scroll through my newsfeed I don’t just see politics and race discussions. I see immense grief. Grief from the countless instances of dehumanization throughout history and from the pointless loss of Black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, John Crawford and so many others. I see grief expressed through anger, through fears of what will happen to children, and through hopelessness that we are living in the 21st century and it feels like nothing is changing. 

While I still feel insufficient in my ability to talk politics, I have learned a thing or two about grief. Losing my dad to a sudden heart attack during my freshman year of college, and living with chronic pain the last 5 years has forever changed my perspective on what it means to love those who are suffering. And while walking someone through grief still comes with its fears of being “that person” who says the wrong thing at the wrong time, I believe it is one of the most basic and foundational elements of love that we can offer any friend, especially our Black friends right now. 

Here are 5 Lessons I have learned about grief, that have proven helpful to me in overcoming my paralysis:


1. Saying nothing at all is worse than saying something stupid.

When my dad passed away, I had a lot of friends say really stupid things to me, most of which made me think, “Man, you actually have no idea what I’m going through.” But I knew they were trying to love me and that mattered. Other really good friends said nothing at all. That hurt even worse.

I am learning that one of the best ways I can love my Black friends is to notice when they are hurting. While I do need to be very careful about my choice of words, I need to stop worrying so much about saying everything perfectly, and just communicate, “I see your pain.” The good news: they already know I have no idea what they’re going through so their grace for me is pretty high. 


2. Presence is powerful.

When someone dies, it is nice to get notes and Facebook posts, but that only goes so far. Real friendship means presence. I have been convicted to stop worrying so much about what I will post on Facebook and actually get on the phone and call up my Black friends and ask them how they are doing.


3. Grief is much more than a moment.

The two weeks surrounding my dad’s death I was flooded with cards and phone calls and hugs. But my real friends asked me how I was doing months and years later. Yes, it is good that we respond in the moment, but I pray that a month, or 5 years from now, I am still engaged in conversation with my Black friends about what their experience is like and how they may be hurting.


I need to let the grieving person be the expert on their grief and see my role as learning to ask questions rather than needing to prove that I’m not ignorant.

4. It’s not about you. It’s about them.

One of the worst things we can do when someone is grieving is suddenly turn the conversation to ourselves. You’ve all been there: “Oh I’m so sorry your dad died. You know I had a great uncle once who…”

It’s not comforting.

I realize that when I fret so much about what others will think of me if I say something wrong in the race conversation, I’m not actually being loving. I’m being self-focused. To really be a good friend, I need to let go of my ego. I need to let the grieving person be the expert on their grief and see my role as learning to ask questions rather than needing to prove that I’m not ignorant.


5. Everyone responds to grief differently.

When I am in grief, I want to tell everyone, scream it to the world. I want you to ask me about it because I always have something to say. But other people want to be alone, be distracted, or get it off their minds for a moment and can get tired of frequent questions. And ALL those things are ok.

So just because one friend posts all over Facebook about their anger and sadness and another friend brushes it off saying, “Yeah, that stuff happens all the time. So what?,” I can’t assume that one is more affected than the other. Nor should I be offended when one of my Black friends shrugs me off when I ask a question. Maybe instead I should make note that they could be really tired of constantly engaging with hundreds of years of pain that I have the privilege of not always having to engage with, and my compassion should grow further.

How about you? How have you been loved through a grieving process? What are ways we can be better friends to each other in the midst of great pain? How do you break through your paralysis?

This post originally appeared on Kelly’s blog, On Suffering and Leadership.

Comment via Facebook