By: Greg Jobin-Leeds
June 5, 2020.
Tomorrow will be the 5th anniversary of my best friend, Damon’s death. Damon died 9 months after my Dad, and 9 months before my Mom. From this period of loss, I learned a lot about how to grieve and how to care for the grieving and dying. During those 18 months, I completed WHEN WE FIGHT, WE WIN! and went on a book tour— it was during this time I was called to step up and be transformed.
Two weeks ago, we began seeing the horrific images of the police murder of George Floyd following the murder Breonna Taylor, an EMT also killed by the police. Today would have been her birthday. Breonna was 26 years old, the same age as Ahmaud Arbery who was hunted down and murdered just weeks before, for the crime of being Black.
It strikes me that some of the age-old wisdom that I learned about how to accompany the sick or grieving may apply to how to be in solidarity with folks on the frontlines of disaster or oppression.
How do those of us, who are not people of color, show up for our Black and brown family?
In the last few days since we have listened as the US president told state governors that they need to “dominate the protesters” and watched a militarized police erupt violently killing, gassing and jailing many more putting them at further risk of Covid-19 infection. We are beginning to learn about how white supremacist groups are inciting and provoking more violence during the peaceful protests. Many of my Black and brown friends are shaken… especially after months of COVID-19 where they feel disposable. This piles on to the experience of so many Black and brown being “stop and frisked” and being pushed out and displaced after years of “gentrification” with banks and other predatory white supremacist institutions stealing their assets and lives.
Sometimes, to be in solidarity, I’ll show up at events, send money, make phone calls, write or step up to do some other action. Other times, I have had the gift of deeper connections and have been invited into a transformational relationship.
I offer four pieces of classic advice about caring for the grieving that seem to also be relevant to solidarity right now:
- Our job is to accompany, not to fix the pain. There is no way, as a friend or relative, I can (or am asked to) help lessen the pain that someone else is feeling. This is even more true with folks on the frontline. Rarely does anyone want their pain fixed, though they may want their wheelchair fixed, or shopping done, or financial help. Most important is for us just to be there, to acknowledge, to be a witness.
- Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” Each loss is different, and this applies as well to folks on the frontline. Even if one has experienced oppression or disaster, we can’t know another’s experience, and claiming to just trivialize it.
- Don’t say, “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” Offers of unspecific support can be overwhelming and puts the responsibility on the person suffering. Instead do the homework yourself, learn about systemic anti-Blackness and racism and look at what Black leadership is posting and follow their lead –especially the Movement for Black Lives, and make calls to get the police out of your school district, repost and amplify their voice and make a donation if you are able to the following organizations: Black Visions Collective Reclaim The Block and North Star Health Collective.
- Stick with the grieving person, long after the disaster hits. While Damon was in hospice 5 years ago, his broken-hearted sweetheart, Therese, with “sadness seeping from every pore,” wrote to family and friends:
“…please don’t avoid us, ignore us, or feel uncomfortable with us… offer to include us, understand when we say ‘not yet’ and then offer again before too long… please be sure to mention his name, make reference to his competence, interests, and sense of humor. In the beginning it might take me awhile to recover my composure…
Please ask your children to stick with mine through the coming months… they already feel tremendous loss; they don’t need to feel friendless, too. If you or your children don’t know what to say to them, tell them that and offer a smile. Don’t be surprised when our kids continue to take part in their typical age-related activities. They know that Damon doesn’t want their lives to stop just because his has. … And, if you really don’t know what to say, just say you will stand with us as we figure out how to survive in our pain.
… I’ll probably feel this pain, talk about this pain and even cry about it in front of you for a long while… I won’t forget to ask about the important things in your life, and – in time – I’ll likely climb up out of my pit of despair, rub my eyes, and look around for those buoyant bodies who patiently stayed nearby. I know I’ll thank you, I’ll be stronger, and I’ll feel grateful for what I had.”
Today, Therese and her family are worried about all the families that are losing a parent to jails, police or COVID-19. Last weekend, I helped maintain a section of trail that Damon asked me to adopt when he was in hospice. I worked 6 feet apart and alongside Therese, their daughter and friends. We all discussed Damon’s powerful movement organizing and his daughter (who went to college in Minneapolis) asked me us to help out folks in Minneapolis.
Yesterday I received a thank you text — for a plane ticket that I had bought for a preacher friend to go to Minneapolis to train clergy. I had met the preacher 4 years ago in Ferguson.
Solidarity doesn’t always mean you need to be heroic. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking the time to learn, make a call, or send a card saying I am thinking about you. I have not forgotten.
Solidarity is fundamentally about love and follow through.