Since 2016, I have attended on average two funerals a year. Hospital visitations and funerals have become my new normal. If I were in my late 60s, this would be part of the aging process of life. Yet, I am only 46. In 2017, the death of my eldest nephew shook the core of my being. I had known death before and at a young age with the loss of my brother and grandmother. My father’s untimely passing when I was 32 was devastating. I did not imagine that I could feel worse pain than his loss. However, the loss of my 25 year old nephew was too much for my heart to bear. He was too young, a big heart, goofy, always helping others — auntie’s first baby. Many describe me as strong, aggressive, and intimidating. That means that when life knocks most people down, I am the one people rely on to weather the storm and deal with the aftermath. After a major trauma, my body goes on auto-pilot. I do not have the time to grieve or breakdown because someone has to remain calm. I focus on work and the necessities of winding down the estate. Therefore, my grief is usually delayed until something happens that is a catalyst finally breaking my levy of resolve and all the emotions and grief that I repressed floods me and my body gives out physically. The stress becomes too much manifesting itself in illness.
For 2018, the bough that broke my resolve was the Huffington Post. I became a contributing writer for HuffPost in 2014 and several articles were featured on the front page and other verticals. I was not paid, but as a new writer I was thrilled for the exposure. I developed all the articles I wrote reaching out to subjects for interviews, researching making sure that what I presented was grounded in fact using historical references and my legal knowledge. There were several organizational changes to HuffPost after I became a contributor. However, with each change, HuffPost gave contributors prior notice of impending changes and what to expect. Imagine my surprise on January 18, 2018 at 5:27am when HuffPost sent an unceremonious mass email to all of its contributors announcing that it had summarily closed the contributors’ platform effective immediately. If we liked, we (contributors) could pitch articles to them in the future, with no further contact information provided. We were ghosted like a one night stand given a disconnected phone number. “The number you have reached is no longer in service. No further information is available.” By 9am that morning, HuffPost sent a press release to the media industry about the closing of the contributors’ platform.
I immediately had to do damage control because I had interviews and articles in the pipeline for the rebirth of Memphis, the rise of southern black belles, the wedding of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry, and Black History Month changing the narrative on the black family, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Typically, I would publish my articles on my website then republish on HuffPost and Medium. Some of the interviewees and those providing access to resources might not without HuffPost. I wanted to be transparent with them about the abrupt change. I emailed my interviewees and others to inform them of the HuffPost announcement. I told them that I would still publish on my platform and Medium, but if they could no longer proceed, I understood. Some needed to consult with their management. Others immediately embraced me, “HuffPost or not, I support you. Let’s proceed.” That was extremely encouraging, but I still lost some resources.
Within a few weeks of the HuffPost madness, I found out that the Navy had not given benefits to my nephew’s daughter. He served his country for seven years. At his funeral and Navy memorial, his command and shipmates from all of his duty stations and deployments spoke of his leadership and commitment to brotherhood. Yet, a year after his death, his toddler was without medical and other benefits promised for her father’s service. Now, I had to fight for her when I had not even processed my own grief. It required me to do something no one in my family was ready or wanted to do — go through his belongings. The Navy packed and shipped his belongings. They were tucked away in a corner of the basement because no one was ready for that part of the grieving process. However, to fight for his daughter’s benefits, I had to go through his papers. I knew what was legally necessary, but as I thumbed through his belongings and papers, tears ran down my face like a broken dam so that I could barely see.
My body could not hold it in. It started to revolt because the stress was too much. A dear friend called, “I know you’re used to being the strong one that everyone relies on but how are you?” I replied, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown but I don’t have time for one because I got bills and responsibilities.” My friend responded, “Ronda, you can’t be there for everyone if you break down. Take care of yourself.” Easier said than done. I started my days listening to Eryn Allen Kane’s song Have Mercy. “Sinking down under the water, slipping down under. Drifting out into the water, missing down under. Tell what is it you care for, is there even a care at all? Praying for sense of direction, praying for love and protection. If I call on blessing Lord, will you remember me? Have mercy on us all.”
As I put one foot in front of the other trying to ignore the effects of stress and grief on my body, I received an email. Occasionally, I receive emails asking if I want to collaborate or consider an article or product. When I get these requests, I do a quick Google search of the person and their website to see if they are who they claim to be and whether there is symmetry between our brands and goals. My goal is to educate, enlighten, and inspire using my good, bad, and ugly life experience. Authenticity is a core belief to embody Maya Angelou’s words,”When a writer or artist tries to tell the truth and tries to tell it eloquently, it appeals to all people, regardless of race.” Sometimes it is a good fit, others not.
This email sent me in rage because the person claimed to be a health and wellness specialist. She read my article, When Death & Grief Returns for a Repeat Visit, and wanted me to use one of her articles as a source cited. My article starts with “They say that the five most traumatic events in life are: (1) death of a loved one; (2) divorce; (3) job loss; (4) moving/buying a home; and (5) major illness. I experienced three within twelve months.” I then proceed to detail the death of my nephew. I read the woman’s email with contempt. Why in the name of all things holy would you pitch yourself to me using the recent death of my loved one?! I decided to not let a stranger piss me off and deleted the email. A week later, the person emails me again…”Not sure if you received my email.” I let my fury loose. If she could be so crass to pitch to me based on my loss and grief then honey you should take everything that I have to say. My reply:
I am curious if you actually read my article or simply the first sentence. The article is about the death of my nephew eight months ago. Why would you choose a very painful experience to pitch to me? For one in the health industry, it shows a lack of tact for the stress this might inflict on me. Furthermore, you did not even bother to offer condolences. Lastly, such an approach shows that you do not understand my brand.
It was then that I decided to stop being nice. Since childhood, I was told to be nice and humble. You don’t want to be considered a “know-it-all” because other people might be intimidated. I was advised to dumb it down, even on my resume. I was told to be generous with my time and resources. I never claimed to be a know-it-all because the more I read the more I am overwhelmed with how much I still do not know. Also, I have been generous to a fault helping people pro bono or gratis. People who never said “congratulations” for any of my hard won accomplishments, always seem to remember my name and number when they want legal advice (for free of course), access to a connection, or an article write-up but never bother to follow or like me on social media or pass my name on to their connections. In 2017, I exclaimed it was my year of “no” and superwoman had left the building. For my on personal health, I had to disconnect and stop allowing people to make me feel guilty about saying no especially when they rarely reciprocate. As 2018 unveiled its madness, inhumanity towards mankind through racism, xenophobia, feminists who don’t support women of color, fascism, nationalism, a GOP espousing bigotry, restricting the voting rights of native people, and Christians being anything but Christ-like, in addition to my personal grief and setbacks, I could take no more. The grieving process overwhelmed me and our current political environment gave me PTSD.
Americans treat death like its contagious. As a result, people say stupid things when you lose a loved one like “it’s God’s will.” It may be God’s will, but that doesn’t make the pain of loss easier. Jesus mourned the loss of Lazarus, so let me grieve! Or, “they’re in a better place.” I am not trying to hear that right now. My nephew was young and full of life. Let me process this. Once the funeral is over, you inevitably hear, “you got to move on and get back to normal.” Normal was waking up and having that person in my life, hearing their voice. My new normal is waking up with forever reminders that they are no longer with us.
Before, I would have tread lightly to spare people’s feelings. People would call wanting something of me, you know the request. The no see, no hear for ions then a phone call or email, “I was wondering if you could.” Now I started to reply, “Right now I am dealing with the loss of a loved one and limiting my work and involvement.” You would be amazed how many people would still proceed with their request not even offering condolences. Some responded, “You’re strong so you’ll be okay.” Calling someone strong is a way to negate a person’s feelings. I am not strong by choice but because people nor life gives me the option to be helpless or a damsel in distress.
When Kate Spade committed suicide, my friend reached out again. “Hey, I know you’re used to being strong, but you don’t always have someone to be strong for you. I’m worried about you.” I replied that I was worried about him because he was my strong person and like me, everyone relies on him. If he goes then I would have no one to lean on. My friend responded, “We’ll be each other’s strength, but seriously I think you need grief therapy. I think you’re suffering from depression. I have a referral for you.” This friend is my life line.
When I met the therapist and outlined the recent deaths, previous deaths, and current stressors, she looked at me exhausted. She said, “That’s a lot of loss and trauma and you seem to be everybody’s strength. Are you going to hurt yourself?” I gave her the side-eye and replied, “I am not a danger to myself BUT the next person that calls me strong or offers thoughts and prayers, I will physically lay hands on them.” She stared at me then said, “We need to figure out a way for you to meditate and de-stress.” I stopped writing for a while. The pitch rejections and denials for writing fellowships and residencies only added to my stress.
When Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, I called my friend and said, “Hey just making sure you’re okay.” He laughed and replied, “I was just about to call you. Seriously, Ronda. You’re not considering suicide, are you?” I responded, “Here’s the deal. Religious dogma has me messed up because they say if you commit suicide you can’t go to heaven so that defeats the purpose of killing myself if I am going to be condemned to hell. Plus, you know I’m not lucky. I’d try to kill myself and would survive only to be a paraplegic. Then who’s going to look after me? Nobody! Nope. Suicide isn’t an option for me cause the odds aren’t in my favor.” My friend, “So therapy is working out?” We both laughed.
Another friend would invite me to parties, which I declined saying that I “was not good for human interaction because I might hurt someone who says the wrong thing or some stupid conspiracy theory.” The friend invited me over, just me. When I arrived, there was a beautifully set table and I was told to sit down and not lift a finger while I was served a delicious meal and they patiently listened to how I was feeling. Another friend would stop by and drop off food or pick me up to get me out of the house.
By summer and the arrival of my 46th birthday, I was still drained mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. The depression was not as bad. I never knew how exhausting depression could be. Every little task was draining. The aura migraines weren’t a daily occurrence, a sign of improvement. But I begin to experience anniversary grief as my nephew’s death was a few days after my birthday. I went to my annual physical and my doctor asked the usual questions. “How’s everything? Any major life changes since last year?” I looked at her. “Actually, a few weeks after my last check-up my nephew died (I started crying which I typically do not do outside the privacy of my home). You remember how my body reacted after my dad’s death. Well it’s like that but worse and lingering longer.” As she passed me kleenex, her voice changed and she had a concerned look on her face. “Ronda, are you okay? Your vitals were not normal.” I wiped my tears and told her that I was fine, much better than a few months ago it was just the anniversary of my nephew’s death. She looked at me, “Ronda, right now are you fine?” I promised her I was and she told me that I needed to manage my stress because my body was not responding well. My birthday is always a time of reflection for me, this just exacerbated it. This year’s reflection was hard. Langston Hughes’ A Raisin in the Sun weighed heavy on my heart. ”What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore — And then run? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” I was afraid that I would explode.
To lift me out of my funk, I decided to return to my first love — reading. I reached out to a mentor. “Please give me reading recommendations. I need something for my soul. I am uninspired.” The first recommendation was Bill Holm’s The Music of Failure. As I read Music of Failure, I wept. The pages became weathered with my tears as I read about sacred places and holy spaces. Holm wrote, “To have a sense of the sacredness of a place involves becoming aware of life that inhabits and the dead who sanctify it…The divine lives in all the human and the human lives in all the world. Sacredness is unveiled through your own experience and lives in you to the degree that you accept that experience as your teacher…Put your arms around everything that has ever happened to you, and give it an affectionate squeeze.” Somehow, I found solace in those words. I prayed to experience the sereneness of sacred places like I once knew.
As 2018 progressed and people continued to request my time, resources, etc, I simply said no. Those that asked of my welfare, I told them that I needed some time for personal development. The blessed ones replied, “ Sis, take all the time you need. When you’re ready, I will be here.” Some people thought my answer of no selfish. I just responded to their request with a “bless your heart.” For those without southern relatives, when a southerner says “bless your heart” especially to a northerner, it’s a polite way of saying you’re an idiot or f- you.
As 2018 comes to a close, I am not casting my pearls to be trampled on by those who are unappreciative of the gift. I am not investing in a legacy that isn’t also invested in me. I am not upgrading anyone that can’t offer the same. I am not dumbing it down. I have no resolutions for 2019. Only hope that one day happiness will return.
“Happiness lies for those who cry, those who hurt, those who have searched and those who have tried. For only they can appreciate the importance of people who have touched their lives.” — Victor Hugo
Thank you to my readers who have supported me. Many things demand your attention and that you take time to read my articles is humbling.
A special thank you to Khadeen and Devale Ellis, Rachel Knox, Kay Hickman, Mekka Don, Emmanuelle Cuny-Diop, Omowale Amoin, Dr. Dawne Collier, Harlem Haberdashery, and Raub Welch for allowing me to share your stories on my platform this year.