Grieving While Black

The post below has been republished with permission from The Spark Mill consulting firm.

Since my mother’s passing a little over six weeks ago, life has felt unreal. When her death certificate arrived recently, I was afraid to open the envelope.  It was almost as if that one piece of paper would cement the fact that she was no longer with me physically. As I read through the document, my eyes became fixated on the ultimate cause of her death. Valvular heart failure. A few lines down I saw that other contributing conditions included renal failure, severe pulmonary hypertension, and acute chronic respiratory failure. My own chest tightened as I read through the ailments that ultimately took her away.

Even in my grief, I am painfully aware of the fact that as a black woman these ailments were almost inevitable.

That my mother’s black body was brought into this world carrying the weight and trauma of the black men and women before her. Of her mother, and grandmother, and great grandmother, and all the black women born into a world where their big hearts weren’t big enough to withstand the hardships and stress they’d face throughout their lives.

Mariah with her mother

Why grieving is a privilege

To grieve, to truly grieve and to remember our loved ones in all their glory and beauty should we choose to, is a privilege. It’s something that in its purest form requires us to truly unplug from the world in order to deal with our pain and sadness. Through my own grief, while I’ve remained intentional about unplugging when I need to, listening to my body, and taking care of myself, I am reminded that my mother’s heart failure is a part of something bigger, that the causes of it are connected to the social inequities of our country, and of  the burdens and stress put on black women. And so, even in my grief, I cannot fully disconnect parts of myself and parts of my mother’s story from these inequities and injustices.

I think back to my mother’s final days on this earth. I sometimes wonder what my family and I could’ve done differently. Did we ask the right questions to the doctors? Did we demand the right answers? And the most haunting question, if my mother were white, would she still be alive today? Would her whiteness have prompted doctors to care more about her life? My faith reminds me that this question is irrelevant and that it was simply her time to transition. But my awareness of the racism that exists in our medical institutions makes it difficult to silence these thoughts, to think that my mother wasn’t a victim of conscious and unconscious racial and medical  bias.

I am fortunate enough to work at an organization and with people who have been extremely  supportive of me during this time. But I cannot shake that even in my professional life, where I am often called to speak about housing inequality and its link to health, educational, and economic disparities in black communities, it is difficult to remain objective when so many of these inequities have caused great harm to those I love.

Shaped by racial injustice

This year, my mother became a part of the 50,000 black women that die from a cardiovascular disease each year in the US, and the 7.6 percent of black women that have heart disease compared to the 5.8 percent of white women that do (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). And even though my mother will always be more than a statistic, as black woman she and I will always be a part of a larger issue in this country. Our lives will always be indirectly and directly shaped by decades of racial injustice unless we begin to address the root causes of the inequality that exist.

Grieving while black is complex, as is being black in America. When coworkers ask me how I am doing, I wish we had the whole day to discuss my answer, because my feelings can’t be summarized neatly. As we work to support each other during this time, especially our black colleagues that are experiencing personal and collective grief, recognize that we are not okay. We show up and do the best we can, when we can. Our commitment to this work doesn’t stop when we shut down our computers. Our grief can’t be contained or separated from our work. We fight for personal and collective justice each and every day.

Born and raised in Harlem, New York, Mariah Williams is an urban planner, storyteller, and researcher dedicated to highlighting the experiences of Black people and spaces in cities.  She received her B.A in Sociology from the University of Richmond and Masters of Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the founder of Finding Homeplace, a platform that highlights the work of Black women in community development, discusses the history and legacy of inequity in Black communities, and reflects on black expression and resilience in urban landscapes. Her work on Black joy, Black women, and community has been featured in Next City, For Harriet, and the Third Wave Urbanism Podcast. Follow her on IG: @findinghomeplace and learn more at