Detroit Proper: With Community, Sorrow is Easier to Bear

Science of Grief

Grief is not a stage that we enter and outgrow, like toddlerhood or adolescence. Once you encounter grief, it can be more like aging, a constant condition. Like sunrises and seasons, it’s experienced differently from day to day, year to year. In most cultures there is not only acknowledgement that grief needs space and time, but also that it requires community. Mourners gather for a wake or to sit shiva. The hunger of loss is satiated by food and company, by silence and “sitting up.” Long after the loss, we try to remember to call the bereaved, to drop by, to check in.

But that’s only if your grief is born of an acceptable loss. If you have quietly miscarried, or lost the family home, or put your pet to sleep, or been abused, or lost mobility or are a full-time caregiver, or are part of a marginalized community, your grief may go forever unnoticed. No one will send you a card, or bring a covered dish. Few are willing to hear about your loss, fewer will be able to resist the urge to judge.

That’s how it was for Natasha Miller, when her brother Marcus was murdered five years ago. Her personal devastation was compounded when others remembered him only as a nameless drug dealer. People told her that she should have expected him to die young, but years later, his death still haunts her. “You hear, ‘Just get over it’ or ‘I can’t believe you’re still crying about it,'” she said. “I still needed to talk about it, but I had worn out my friends.”

That’s why last year she created a public event called “The Science of Grief,” sponsored by Science Gallery Detroit. She opened a space to the public at the Detroit Institute of Arts for 14 hours (sundown to sunrise), and invited people to sit shiva with strangers, to participate in a community wake. Ordinary people came in to tell their stories of grief and loss, which were about a range of “deaths” from suicide to domestic violence and even mourning for their neighborhoods. Counselors and volunteers were on site for those who needed more support or referral to other services.

It was a risk. Just how much grief could people take? Evidently, a lot. An estimated 600 people flowed in and out of the event through the night. “At 2 a.m., we had about 70 people,” says Miller. “When we stopped at 9 a.m., we had to turn people away.” The success of the event made Miller want to repeat it this year, adding a talk from Los Angeles-based neuroscientist Yewande Pearse, who will speak about the long-term neurological impacts of grief. Like last year, comedians, musicians, poets and professionals will join in the sharing of loss.


Jonelle Bowers is one of the event’s producers whose interest in grief stems from her work in the funeral industry when she was in her 20s. “I saw how when someone dies, the grief can tear families apart,” says Bowers. “And friends don’t know what to say. They don’t realize that people often just need witnesses to their pain.”

Frances Shani Parker attended last year as one of those “witnesses.” She has been a hospice volunteer for two decades, since caring for victims of AIDS who had been abandoned by their friends and families. “People spoke their truth about violent, nonviolent and nonphysical deaths,” says Parker. “The audience just listened attentively and sent vibrations of love. It was really a beautiful event; you couldn’t help but be moved.”

For me, the shades of grief seem to multiply as my circle of friends and family age. When you add in the turmoil of the world, sometimes I feel like I’m shouldering a world of grief. As life deals me challenges, I try to remember to “embrace change,” and indeed, sadness often dissipates into the surprise of joy. But as I shoulder my troubles and troop on, it’s a tremendous relief to know that, at least once a year, there is somewhere I can go to give voice to my feelings of loss – and that there are loving strangers who are ready to listen.

“The Science of Grief” will take place 7 p.m. March 27 through 9 a.m. March 28 at Detroit Institute of Arts’ Detroit Film Theatre, 5200 Woodward Ave. in Detroit. A closing ceremony begins at 8 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.

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