Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross formatted her five-stage theory of grief after decades of counseling dying patients and their families. After the death of George Floyd, America has witnessed the …
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Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross formatted her five-stage theory of grief after decades of counseling dying patients and their families. After the death of George Floyd, America has witnessed the collective grief of the African-American community, and the stage that has been most prominent is anger.
Anger is often thought of as the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface of anger is pain. At a death, particularly a violent one, anger is neither misplaced nor inappropriate. Anger is an expression of that deep pain.
In seminary, I studied the stages of grief. I also studied the Psalms — a collection of 150 hymns of ancient Israel that express a range of human emotions, including rage. The most dramatic example is found in Psalm 137: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks!”
The psalmist uttered this curse after Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem. Many of the Israelites were slaughtered. The survivors were forced into slavery in a foreign land. Psalm 137 represents the pain of a community that has experienced this national trauma. We may expect grief to look more like the opening verse of Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. But anger is also a part of grief.
As part of the process, anger needs to be expressed. Not repressed. To deny anger does not make it disappear. The great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, provocatively asked: What happens to a dream deferred? Does it explode?
This is an explosive time. We can expect protesters to channel their anger in constructive ways which do not lead to the violence of collateral damage. And yet, we must not deny the anger, for this is to deny the pain.
This denial is the reason that many African Americans express frustration with the All Lives Matter movement. Of course all lives matter. But the current trauma is from the loss of Black lives — those slaughtered unjustly by authorities. To fail to recognize this point is to deny the grief of a community.
Perhaps by saying “all lives matter,” certain well-intentioned people appeal to the final stage of the Kubler-Ross theory: acceptance. At this stage, a mourner finds a sense of closure. He is able to move on. She finds a new dream.
But as Hughes put it, a dream deferred is a false closure. This is not acceptance but injustice. I am reminded of the prophet Jeremiah, who was alive around the same time that Psalm 137 was written: Everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:13).
Properly understood, the Black Lives Matter movement reflects a recent development in the theory of grief — stage six. This stage is to find meaning. To find meaning is not to deny the pain, but to assert a new purpose in the aftermath of loss. It is to clarify goals and values. To work toward transformation.
Making meaning out of the deaths of Black men and women is evidenced by a variety of social-justice initiatives such as police reform, affordable housing, living wages and universal health care.
This is an explosive time. But I find hope in the past. Psalm 137 was not the final word in the Old Testament. After years of working out the grief, pain and anger of his community, another prophet could look at the same collective trauma and find meaning: I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).
Isaiah affirmed the particular lives of a smaller community mattered — those lives that had suffered persecution. Only then could all lives matter.
Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church and author of Gently Between the Words: Essays and Poems. He is currently working from home with his wife and three children.