Take Note: Dr. Tashel Bordere on Suffocated Grief

Jul 17, 2020


Dr. Tashel Bordere is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her research focuses on grief and loss among African American youth. She’s authored numerous publications focused on black youth affected by homicide, gun violence, and race-based trauma and has identified the term suffocated grief to describe when normal grief reactions among marginalized populations are not only dismissed, but punished.










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Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Welcome to Take Note. For WPSU, from my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Dr. Tashel Bordere is as an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her research focuses on grief and loss among African American youth. She's authored numerous publications and as identified the term suffocated grief, which we'll talk more about. Dr. Tashel Bordere, thanks for being with us.

Dr. Tashel Bordere: Thank you for having me.

Fenton: You've written that you've been an advocate for social justice for as long as you can recall. How did your passion for social justice morph into an interest in grief and studying death and loss and thanatology ⁠—and I'm going to have you explain to us what that is ⁠—but how did those two connect for you?

Bordere: As I moved throughout development and adolescence, I really was just much more aware of issues happening around me, I am a native of New Orleans; it will always be my home. But, there is a very high violent death rate in New Orleans. And so, my journey actually began with me being interested in the violence and really disconcerted by it and really concerned about the safety of people around me. I was concerned about the apathy that I witnessed around all of these deaths, and you know, kind of this notion of pushing forward for people amid these really horrific experiences. And so, I began to literally collect obituaries of all of the different deaths and the way that they were described in these obituaries of black teenage males in particular. And then I was very curious about what kids were thinking when they got back to school. Right. I was just really curious about the notion that people were not really talking to these kids, talking to my peers and I about these violent losses that were occurring that are so complex, and traumatic, right? So, when I got to graduate school, I immediately ⁠—and we tend to study who we are, right? So, I embarked on this journey of looking at violence and some ways to circumvent it. And what I realized was not just looking at violence, I was looking at death and loss and grief, and how that might play into a lot of the violence that's happening, right? Like how all of these emotions and thoughts when we con ⁠— people are constantly victimized, get channeled in a way that manifests itself as future perpetration of violence and behavior that looks self-destructive, when it's really just grief. Grief that was not attended to and supported and I guess I would say, that is where the social justice piece came in for me. My specialty is African American bereavement. And thanatology, just to tie that in, is the study of death, dying and loss. It basically means that I do research and I work with bereaved populations. And within that, a lot of my work is built around helping to foster facilitate and foster understanding of the different ways that people grieve so that we're not penalizing them. And so that different populations, particularly marginalized populations, get the access to resources that they need so that they can also be successful and develop optimally.

Fenton: And, there is obviously a lot of overlap between social justice work and work in the grief space. And unfortunately, I think that also applies to some barriers, like the notion of colorblindness. Why is it important that we acknowledge the background and identity of the person we're looking to support?

Bordere: Ah, there is so much there. There are so many strengths to understand and acknowledge in all of the diverse talents and strengths we bring to the world, right? Because there are so many layers to people, right? And, the first thing we notice our visible characteristics of people, right? To your point, color blindness and kind of this grief blindness go hand in hand. So, when people have asked me, tell me about the cultural trauma piece, and then tell me about the last piece, for me, they go hand in hand, because the strategies for dealing with them tend to be similar, right? It's important to look beyond the visible things that we see because there is so much that's invisible, right? So, you look at me, I'm an African American female. But that doesn't tell you what I eat for Easter or whether I celebrate Easter, or whether that will be central to how I grieve this loss. It does not necessarily tell you about my economic status. So, there are a lot of assumptions that come with it, but also color blindness, which many people engage in because they're well-meaning, I want to say that, too. I want to acknowledge that many people who engage in color blindness are well-meaning, but it really is at a disservice to people who are dealing with unique challenges and experiences because they can't look at the world that way because it's not the world that they live in. So, there are strengths to understanding communities. A concept that I've developed in my work is culturally conscientious practice and that is trying to understand We don't need to know everything. But it is interesting knowledge, the different characteristics, technologies, the different values and strengths and beliefs and practices that people engage in that facilitate their survival and their resilience. We actually can't effectively serve a population if we don't know what their past coping skills were in the context in which they had to develop those strategies, right? And I want to say from a social justice perspective, colorblindness can also lead to stigma that we're not aware that we're carrying, right? Color blindness can also lead to these inappropriate assumptions about groups. You know, oftentimes when I do my research on homicide last people ask me about gang violence. And it's like, actually, no, I work with teens who are dealing with homicide loss, and many of them whereas kids who just went to school and didn't do their normal day, but they're in context, that champions their ability to be as successful as they could be, because they are not the same resources. There are no social workers in this school. You know, in their neighborhood they are achieving because family members in the church family is supporting them. But the resources we see in some other communities are not there for them. So, they're doing the best that they can. And to work effectively with them. We also need to work effectively with their families, and maybe with the black clergy in the community, right, or with the whoever they're relying on as their sources of support. So, it really, in many positive ways, informs our practice, when we acknowledge all of the different strengths that come with the diversity that exists in our culture.

Fenton: And, in the conversation of us talking about color blindness, we're talking about when people engage in the notion that recognizing that people are different colors, different races is problematic.

Bordere: The only other thing I would say about it is that it discounts the human experience. You know, it actually contributes, you know, you know, there's a saying silence is violence. And so, it also absolves people from responsibility for acknowledging the social and justices that actually do exist and that we actually could Be conduits for change if we acknowledge them. So, it deprives us from learning opportunities that could be happening and services that we could be providing. It also leads to this whole notion of hands off, like they're hard to reach, you know, at least a whole lot of behaviors that lead to nothingness for the populations who need these services. So, I just want to just want to say that the race is not a bad word, sex is not a bad word, grief is not a bad word. So, we want to use those terms.

Fenton: Speaking of terms, you identified the term suffocated grief. What is that?

Bordere: I want to acknowledge that all bereaved populations deal with some level of disenfranchisement. We all know what it's like to experience a loss and go back to our workplaces or go back to the gym or wherever we operate and not have our losses ⁠—and people not acknowledge them sometimes, mostly because they just don't know what to say. Right? My perspective is most people are well-meaning. However, for some populations, and this also connects to the color blindness piece is that, it prevents us from seeing the differences in how we respond to people. When we're colorblind, it means that we assume that everybody's having the same experience when they're not. And so, what I have found him in my research and with a lot of different populations who are marginalized in particular, is that not only is the grief experience unacknowledged, but they're often penalties that accompany normal grief expressions. So, here's the thing, on the one hand, there's a level of colorblindness sometimes that we're all the same. If we're all the same, then the child who is Latino or native African American who comes to school and is sleepy or not as participatory and distracted, a classroom teacher or you know, a family member, whoever, whomever it is, would see that as grief if they understood it as grief. But somehow, that same grief response that is demonstrated by a child of color versus a child of racial privilege is punished. So, not only doesn't recognize the suffocated grief is this idea that grief gets penalized ⁠—differentially penalized ⁠—by some populations of people. Disenfranchised grief is the lack of acknowledgement. So, I just want to clarify the terms. So, it's one thing to not have your loss acknowledged. It's another to have your ⁠—be penalized for your grief expression, right? That's further isolating. If I might draw a connection between the protests that we're seeing right now with all of the unrest, right? Protests really are our expressions of grief. It’s a behavioral expression of grief. You know, we might cry, we might work more work less, we might express our grief by writing a letter, we might express our grief, you know, cognitively. We might physically need to be doing something. And so, the people who are out protesting are doing something right. They are expressing their grief that way. Some of them are crying, some of them are speaking, some of them are holding signs, but all of those things are manifestations of years of trauma, and years of disenfranchisement and needing to express it in a space where it's going to be visible, where it would be acknowledged, right? The goal is acknowledgement and change. And what we are sometimes seeing is people who are, you know, there are a lot of wonderful allies out there. But then we're also seeing quiet protesters who are following the rules of protests, being tear, gassed and sprayed and their grief is being penalized, right? So, it's one thing to walk by and ignore the protest; that's disenfranchised grief. “I'm not going to acknowledge it.” But, when we decide to tear gas, people who are grieving, then we’re punishing people for that. That's a different experience. You got me?

Fenton: I got you.

Bordere: That grieving child in the classroom who is sent out of the classroom or suspended —they're being punished. Never mind, not acknowledged. So, I think of disenfranchised grief as the precursor to suffocated grief.

Fenton: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel. Fenton and our guest is Dr. Tashel Bordere, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia whose research focuses on the grief and loss experience of marginalized communities, particularly African American youth. One of the things we've tried to address through WPS use initiative speaking grief is that some of the outward behaviors we associate with grief may not present the same way in children or young adults. And, especially in light of the teachers may not always even know that a loss has occurred, if it maybe was a pet or not a primary relationship to the child. How can we err on the side of being grief and culturally aware to begin with so that we're not disenfranchising grief and then worse, suffocating grief?

Bordere: One is just to just to first acknowledge that most people are not, you know, we live in a thantaphobic culture where people are death-denying, loss-denying, that means that most people have not gotten education on this topic. And teachers are such incredible beings. For the work that they do, they're so resourceful and they really believe⁠—they are major socializing agents because it's where our children spend a significant amount of time. So, I just want to start with a hats off to educators, period, who are charged with navigating so many things with kids. We know that every day, there are grieving children in the classroom, in every classroom, before COVID. You know, it's always been the case. So one thing that suggests at baseline is just an opportunity structure where educators, administrators, anybody who answers the telephone, the bus driver, the cafeteria worker, that everybody in that in that space, that whole village, interacting with kids, that they have an opportunity to get some education around, loss and what it looks like, right? Because children grieve really intensely over and over a period of time, but this behavior may not show up until weeks later, until they get triggered by something or Mother's Day or Memorial Day, right? And so, just being aware of that, so part of is just education, give them the opportunity to have the strategies and tools they need so that they can acknowledge it. You know, when I do presentations and I talk about suffocated grief, no teacher wants to⁠—teachers are underpaid, and they still work every day on behalf of these children, whether on zoom or in person. And so, the minimum is to help give them some tools as frontline people with our kids, because they're not, it's not a medical issue, right? They're going to trust teachers, first over therapists, and especially in underrepresented communities, where there is respect for teachers. So, giving them some information about how to how to recognize it. And then also talking quite frankly, about disparities that we see that when these children come back, they will come back with a variety of different experiences as well as the teachers. So, the educational opportunity should be twofold⁠—let me say this quickly⁠—one is some information about understanding their own loss experiences, as teachers, as caretakers, they need their mask on first, right? We know the research that coping mechanisms of caregivers impact the child's ability to cope. So, we want to give our teachers some space and education and tools to process their own experience with COVID and the unrest, and then some education around children and grief. And I also want to say that it needs to be ongoing. We can't take a little quick approach and move on. Because we know grief is a journey. And so, the willingness to say this is going to take time. And we're going to be here for the long haul. You know, and also to your point about sometimes teachers don't know what at minimum we know right now that kids have experienced COVID and unrest, and they have all kinds of ideas about what is happening and what is not. And acknowledging at baseline that everybody has been through something when we get back and not forgetting that and allow ourselves some compassion and time to move forward.

Fenton: At the risk of not doing exactly what you just said and taking a quick approach, are there some⁠—we know that grief is very unique to the individual⁠—but for any educator listening right now are they're just are there any kind of tried and true signs that that a child might be grieving that we can throw out just now hoping that they are able to deepen that education, but just things to be aware of are sort of on the watch for as you said, we will be going back in a time of unprecedented communal grief that the teachers can be aware of what it might look like?

Bordere: Yes. What's interesting is that teachers will be dealing with a new group of students who they will have less information about. One thing that I highly recommend is an introductory sheet. A lot of teachers use these we you know, give out a sheet and say, how would you do this summer, which will be a different sheet to fill out now. But to ask parents as caregivers to keep that community going ask them are there particular things that I could should be aware of, so that I can best support your child in the classroom? Right? Have you noticed any behaviors that have been different or unique for your child, right? So, then there's continuity of care. And so, trying to get a baseline understanding from the caregiver about what they've noticed with this child now? Some basic things related to grief would be the child who may be showing regressive behaviors, the class clown, right? The kid who is very distracted, right. And again, we can't place judgment in any direction because that child may have an additional need related to their distractibility, but trying to monitor those things and stand in contact, close contact with family so distractedness, argumentativeness, aggressive behaviors, I expect that we're going to see a lot of those things. We're seeing it with adults, we'll see it with kids. And, and trying to navigate that space and giving children opportunities to move where possible, to be able to write to be able to navigate different sensory materials to spend some time in nature, right. So, where possible, where they are able to spread out. So those are just some of the things to be to be aware of throughout this and actually, if schools reopen when they reopen, whether they're virtual or online, there will still be some sense of predictability that come With that, that I think will still be important for our children. It will be a different experience again when they've had a little bit of time to get to dip their feet in in the spring, but this predictability that they're going to get is something that we all need when we grieve and especially children.

Fenton: So, we're obviously talking a lot about children and their grief experiences but going back to a broader discussion of suffocated grief⁠, you certainly touched on this by talking about how we can look at the protest to see the difference between disenfranchised and suffocated grief. But, can adults also be subject to suffocated grief in in settings like the workplace? Or I'm even thinking if you look at how cultural differences might play out, if you're in a societal norm, where you have a stiff upper lip, and then someone else comes in with a cultural background where you're more expressive with your grief and how, how that might be misunderstood or worse, suffocated.

Bordere: Absolutely. Suffocated grief can manifest itself throughout our lifetime, right and as with disenfranchised grief, many people will have experienced it at some point, and will remember that story. What we see right now is that, again, there are people who are disproportionately impacted by the things we're seeing by COVID. Right now, for example, the death disparities that we've seen with COVID include a higher rate of death among black populations and Latino populations and native populations. And this is not to say that everybody's not grieving, but the likelihood that a black person has experienced the death of a cared about person will be greater right, that the death of a person who cared about there was a higher likelihood of that. So, in terms of being impacted by it, the same with the with the protests and other things that are going on right now. There is collective grief around it. So, I'll use myself as an example. When I returned to work and as I'm writing, there have been things that I've had to say I need a moment. I literally need a moment, because I write about homicide loss. And I write about social justice issues and I also write about funeral rituals, right? The whole process of grief. So, I, you know, where some people are just watching shows, I've been watching funeral services. You know, and I need a moment after that before I can pick back up with writing. And if somebody does not understand that, I could get penalized for a normal grief reaction around my social positional as a researcher, as a black woman watching other black mothers be upset and think about the possibility of the death of their own children and a high probability. And as I pondered my own experience with my own brother who was impacted by COVID, and on a ventilator, and all those kinds of things. Yes, I was differentially impacted. And, because we live in a capitalistic society, you know, we really truly don't in this culture of value. Some people don't value what doesn't make money. So, the goal is to keep producing produce, produce, produce, and grieving people need space. They need a moment and so, yes, we could definitely see this manifest in job loss, loss of wages for some people and just many other different ways, right? So yes, you can definitely experience suffocated grief in adulthood. We see this in medical spaces, too, where black families tend to show up in larger groups because of collectivism and the lady down the street who took care of you when you were three, she's there too. And the church pastor may come. Under-represented families can get penalized in that space too if their emotional expression is not stoic, right, security is called on them or the Chaplin is called on them to kind of quiet them down to get them to acquiesce. So, yes, there can be penalties, real penalties for just normal grief reactions that⁠—so I'll, I'll just stop there.

Fenton: We have addressed some of the misconceptions about grief. But another harmful assumption when it comes to bereavement, especially in marginalized communities, is the stereotype that, for example, that African American youth are desensitized to violence. What effect is that perception have on them and their trajectory and their grief experience and their life experience?

Bordere: This is the essence of my work, quite honestly, Lindsey. This is the heart of why I'm in this field and why I get up and do this very emotionally tolling work on a daily basis is that we have a large number of youths who are misunderstood. Quite frankly, we know that teenagers are often misunderstood by adults, right? Who think that they don't know as much as they actually do know, teens across you know, of all backgrounds. But what we see when we see teenagers who appear to be unaffected is teens who have decided that they're not going to show their cards to people who are not going to provide support anyway. What we see are teenagers who have you know, if we're talking about black teenage males and is very calm, they're commonly described as desensitized and, and, you know, they don't care they don't value lives, their lives and other lives. And instead, what we see are teenagers who are struggling to survive. We're seeing teenagers who have who have not been properly protected, who have not received the protection, the police protection, the protection and their educational experiences that have been necessary. Their basic rights have not been in place structures have not been in place to facilitate their success, their emotional well-being their mental health as they have navigated all of these different spaces. I have never, I have not, to this date sat across from a teenager or a young adult, college student in a research interview, who has not expressed sadness, frustration, or anger. Who has not shared tears, who has not described the loss of their cared-about person as anything less than significant and devastating. But when you navigate space in which you are critiqued for a normal grief reaction, when your losses are not acknowledged and spaces are not allocated to you to demonstrate that you're cared-about person matters, that you matter your feelings matter, then then we will not see them demonstrate their emotions to us. When we give our youth spaces to talk about their experiences, to process their loss experiences, they do. They do. Like every other child. black children are no different. They are human. They have feelings, they are impacted by loss, they are not desensitized. One thing that we know historically for black populations is that black kids like black adults, and people of color, have not had the time and the luxury of pausing to deal with these multitude of losses that are encountered in all of these different societal environments. And so, there is this notion that I need to push forward. But don't mistake that for apathy or desensitization, you can never grow tired of losing significant people in your life, we can never grow tired of watching the people, the only people we had to count on die through due to healthcare disparities. So, diabetes, so not just violence around you, but they're going to be more your family members and friends who are protecting you in the absence of the police protection that you are due, or the protection in schools that you are due. You're watching the very people who were taking care of you be at risk, higher risk for dying. No, these kids are just trying to push through. They're trying to put one foot in front of another just to function and survive. And in the absence of an opportunity of opportunities to process their grief and in spaces where they can get trustworthy care. What we have is we have children who are growing up, they're having to move forward and still focused in school. But they're also we have to we cannot deny that they're also carrying around a lot of anger that is right- and justifiably so that ends up sometimes manifesting itself in destructive ways. And we have to call that grief too. So, no they’re not desensitize. And I'm so glad that you asked that and much of my work has been built around helping people understand that grief looks different. And people have to manage their grief in ways that contribute to their survival. Note, I didn't say resiliency, I said survival. Basic survival.

Fenton: There's a lot of great resources out there on effective allyship and what people can do to use their privilege. But, in the space of talking about grief and suffocated grief, how can someone be an effective ally or use their privilege in that space to create a safe grief space? Or maybe it's no different. But, what does that look like using privilege in a way to give other people the chance for their grief to be heard safely?

Bordere: The teachers who do this educational training and will go back and now, even if they've penalized a child before, by accident, because they just didn't know, now they know. They're going to interact with their students differently this year, this is a new year. That is allyship. In hospital settings allyship is, although typically three people can come in this space, we know that in this community, you need your clergy member there. What is the compromise that we can reach so that we can all still be in this space because, it is ICU we have to keep the noise down a little bit, but I have let other families do this? So yes, your family can come, I’m not going to view you as a threat. Right? I'm not going to call security on you. For some people as a basic thing is this time, I'm not going to call security because I know that this family is harmless. So, it's like social justice and ally ship doesn't have to be this big explosive thing. It's just the silent moments where we make do simple things with that we just have stood by in the past and watch happen without just saying a single word. For bereavement specialists, allyship is realizing that you don't have to know everything about black people or Latino people, or native people. But they need you. You know, and how are you going to get to them now? And what are the tools? What kind of relationships might you build now maybe now you're going to connect with the clergy in the community who you provide to, for them to go do the work? Maybe you're not doing the direct work, but you're going to be you still want to be an ally. Maybe you're not doing the program, but you do make sure to have these sheets. We all hurt when one group hurts. We all thrive again, when we able to figure out you know, what are my strengths? What are these things that I have that I can that didn't cost me nothing, but that I can also give to people to help make sure that they have just basic protections and information?

Fenton: Dr. Tashel Bordere, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Bordere: Thank you so much, Lindsey for having me. Be a part of the show.

Fenton: Dr. Tashel Bordere is a certified thanatologist and an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She researches the grief experiences of marginalized communities and how they're often penalized for normal grief reactions, a concept she is identified as suffocated grief. For more from this interview, visit w psu.org. slash Take Note from my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel, Fenton WPSU.