This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 9-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has the opportunity to publish their work in Bearings Online. Click here to read more essays from the Emerging Writers Program.
On a sunny, humid Saturday afternoon in early March, a group of mourners gathered in the back of a weathered storefront just outside of Atlanta. Sponsored by Grieving Our Mothers, a support group committed to providing community for Black women who have lost their mothers, the Community Grief Ritual and Ancestral Reverence event was designed to bring together Black men and women from all walks of life, religious backgrounds, and perspectives, to celebrate in unison the lives they have lost.
Re-enacting mourning rituals with roots in African practices, some participants entered the space — many of them dressed in white — and placed pictures, watches, bracelets, and other mementos representing their lost loved ones on a makeshift altar. Others wrote expressions of love on construction paper and placed them on the altar before selecting a place to sit in the row of folding chairs facing the altar.
Soon drummers arrived with Conga and Bata drums, leading participants in a series of songs as they danced, pumped their fists, and chanted in concert songs of celebration, love, and remembrance.
A religious practice with origins among the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria and West Africa, the Ifá spiritual system is based on belief in three major components: the supreme being (Olodumare), the divine beings (Orisa), and the ancestors.
The purpose of the ritual is to create a communal space for grievers to gather in remembrance and reflection in order to “lay down” their grief. Following the roughly two-hour ceremony, participants are invited back to the altar to gather their memorabilia and to use the lavender from the basin at the foot of the altar to cleanse themselves before exiting the space.
“Here in this part of the world where we live, we really don’t have many formal rites of passage practices or anything that marks different experiences in our lives. I think that’s a part of why we struggle with things like grief,” said Gloria Thornton, an original member of Grieving Our Mothers. “A lot of times we are navigating these experiences of loss in very isolated ways. We don’t have the containers, meaning we don’t have the infrastructure or are disconnected from any infrastructure or rituals to hold us and help us move through grief or loss.”
Gloria, who works in her family’s funeral home, describes her introduction to Grieving Our Mothers as an inadvertent situation. She wasn’t conscious of the fact that the group was something she needed, and she definitely wasn’t explicitly looking for them. What she did know is that losing her own mother led to a series of internal inquiries around identity and belief that set her on a path of discovery.
As she journeyed, she encountered other Black women on similar paths. At the root of their questions were: “Who am I now that my mother is gone?” and “What do I need and what do I believe now that my mother is gone?”
“My mom was someone who got me,” Gloria said. “She understood how I worked and what my machinations were. She could see me, and she could speak into me. She was a safe space for me, in ways that I didn’t have in other places.”
For a long time after her mother’s passing, Gloria found herself desperately missing vital moments. The moments when she used to lay her head on her mother’s chest and feel her mother’s caress. The moments when no words needed to be spoken, but everything was understood. Those special moments when it was just mother and daughter and she could feel like her mother’s baby girl again. Those comforting moments of acceptance, or a look or embrace that helped her to know everything would be alright.
We have created safety in a society that doesn’t value us or our being.
Grieving Our Mothers offered Gloria a safe space for not just her questions but also her revelations. Through regular outings and get-togethers, she, along with other Black women, found a communal space to explore their questions and their grief.
The concept of community is paramount in the Black experience in America. Losses are compounded for those living on the margins of society and the story of the African American experience in America begins with loss. As descendants of enslaved Africans, we Black Americans have lost our native land, our native culture, and our connection to our histories and our identities. Over time we have learned to adapt, creating comfort and safety in the things we have acquired, our professional and personal exploits, and especially our families, chosen familial connections, and other external personal and professional communities. We have created safety in a society that doesn’t value us or our being.
The creation of the Black Church in America is a perfect example. It is no secret that Black churches have played a major role in the advancement and development of the Black community. Black churches were at the forefront of slave emancipation and the modern civil rights movement. Black churches have long been a source of personal recognition and affirmation. “Whereas in the outside world one’s personhood might be devalued, the church was a place ‘where everybody is somebody,’” writes Larry G. Murphy, emeritus professor of the History of Christianity at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
But when the things that represent safety or comfort for us are lost, we find ourselves re-evaluating and redefining. That’s what Gloria has done.
The grieving process can help us mature … to open up to life and to create space for other things.
In addition to joining Grieving Our Mothers, Gloria began a journey of redefining her faith. While she was raised in the American Christian tradition, she began expanding her understanding of her religious identity, which included embarking upon the process of becoming an initiate of Ifá – also known as an Awo. The experience has afforded her a greater sense of belonging, while at the same time birthed other forms of purpose for her. She has trained to become a birthing doula, as well as leaned into the work of supporting others through their grief journeys. She has also become heavily involved in Moods, Moons, and Magic (M3), a program designed for cisgender women interested in a more focused spiritual exploration.
“Grief gives us an opportunity, if we take it, or an invitation to slow down, to be, to feel things that maybe we’ve never felt, or that we didn’t give voice to,” Gloria said. “It’s a catalyst. I’ve become aware of that. The grieving process can help us mature, to help us, you know, open up to life and to create more space for other things.”
As the event came to an end, some participants gathered their mementos from the altar, as others performed what is called a spiritual wash, cleansing themselves for protection of their bodies and spirits, before leaving the facility. Others greeted one another and engaged in small talk. And some helped collect chairs and cleaned up while others sat quietly, processing the experience.
The community ritual was no different from any other form of remembering, whether a Christian or Jewish funeral; a small gathering on the birthday of a deceased loved one, or visiting a gravesite on Mother’s or Father’s Day; or a sky lantern release on a beach in tribute. For those participating in their first community grief ritual, the event introduced them to a different way of mourning – something semi-ritualistic, more African based, and less isolating. They found for themselves a new community; a body of individual mourners bonded as a collective in their journey of loss.