LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant

Laying Grief Bare

On April 22, 2020, I did something that I had never done before—I made my deeply personal, profoundly private grief public. Laid bare in an op-ed for the New York Times, I shared “My Mother Is Busy Getting Ready to Die.”[1] A month later I created the companion, now award-winning documentary short, death. everything. nothing.[2] By sharing these acute laments about my mother’s death, I opened the floodgates to a community that I did not expect, grabbed hold of traditions that I had forgotten to remember, and forged new ways of dealing with all of the grief contours death holds.

Grief, death, and loss are full of ironies. Within twenty minutes of the New York Times essay going live, I was on the phone with my mother’s physician, who delivered devastating yet unsurprising news: “I’m so sorry, but Gwen is not going to survive—she must be transferred to hospice.” Within two hours I began getting a flurry of responses, ranging from personal texts and phone calls to tweets and emails. Then there were the site-specific comments to the Times op-ed (mostly generous). Within two days, my family and I had packed up and made our way home to the South Carolina Lowcountry.

It was one of the longest short drives I had ever made. During that drive, much like in the weeks leading up to that day—April 24, 2020—I accepted that my mother was going to die, and tried as best I could to ready myself and my loved ones. That was my immediate task. I did okay…barely.

Getting to Gwen

In accepting my mother’s death, I came to understand that I had to prepare her living body for a metaphysical passing. I did not know this initially when I reached my mother’s hospice bedside five days before she died. But I began to sense that need when my mother shifted from a calm rest in the first day, to mildly labored breathing by the second day, to active groaning and struggle by the third day. On that especially difficult third day, my mother, who was by then nonverbal, let it be known that there was nothing peaceful or good about the state she was in. Her moans and shuddered breaths rendered all of the family visitors uncomfortable, including our seven-year-old son, who visited briefly that day. It felt, just as the entire process had up to then, entirely too excruciating.

Getting to Gwen had been nothing short of a herculean physical effort. Given the logistics of interstate travel and the statewide visitation restrictions in place during the Coronavirus pandemic, making the trip to South Carolina from our temporary home in Durham, North Carolina, was far from simple. There were the multiple calls to and from her physician. Then the planning efforts with a hospital administrator. Then, her confirmed move to hospice. These all spurred our hasty packing. Four hours away felt too long and too far. And yet by some serendipitous odds, I arrived at hospice within an hour of her transport.

Upon my arrival and after being screened for virus symptoms and filling out a brief exposure questionnaire, I made a short walk down the hallway and entered Gwen’s room, where I immediately went to her bedside. She was lying on her right side with her back to the door. I reached out, touched her arm, and said, “Mommy, I’m here.” In turn, I received my mom’s last self-initiated eye contact, her last self-motivated bodily movement, and the last words she ever spoke on this earth, when she turned, looked over her shoulder at me and said with a smile, “Hi, Sweetie.”

In those death vigil days, I came to understand that it was not people that my mother needed in her near-final hours, though that was important; she needed ritual. As someone steeped in the study of Black religions of the global South, I followed the well-known tradition of creating an altar, shortly after my arrival. I included an item for libation (water), food (crackers), and a personal item (a small lock of my mother’s hair) to honor the dead while making a path for Mommy. I was mindful to carve out a minimalist space that wasn’t disruptive to the energy of the room—an ancestral altar is, after all, an active space. I set it atop a small corner shelf. I also followed an internal inclination to include something sweet alongside that water and those crackers, as Gwen often craved the sweet-salty combination. I placed a few mandarin orange slices alongside the cheddar crackers, the tuft of hair, and the nondescript plastic cup of water. The altar was accented by a note:

please do not remove these ancestral offerings for Gwen Manigault. I will be sure to properly dispose of them when it is time. Thank you! LeRhonda (Gwen’s daughter).

On the third day, my mother’s unsettled state got to me, too. I was vexed by my inability to help her remain comfortable. I knew enough in that moment to realize that her restless state had little to do with me. And, since she had not yet been deemed “imminent”—that stage in hospice care when the person could literally die at any moment—I sought to clear my head. So, I returned to my husband and son at a not-so-close Airbnb (it was all we could find given the timing and restrictions), took a long, hot shower, and lay down for a nap that felt like a full night’s sleep.

My sleep was profoundly restorative, and not just because it gave my exhausted body, my grieving heart, and my racing mind respite. It was during that nap that I came to be reminded of the rituals I forgot I knew.

The dream took me to the childhood home I shared with my mother, brother, and maternal grandparents. I saw my grandmother, Annie Mae, as she and I sat with other women folk in the community around the bed of someone who was dying. I could not see the person’s face. Even in the dream I knew the “who” did not matter. It was the “what” that did. What we sang, how we sat, how we actively yet selectively laid hands over the person’s body. How we used the lavender that I could smell in the dream to treat the body, and a petroleum salve to soften the skin. It was how we prayed and spoke and cried and laughed and communed. It was how we went to the town’s crossroads—together.

I awoke with a profound sense of clarity about what must be done, and I prepared to do my mother’s crossings rituals. Those preparations included the assembly of a ritual soundtrack—the sacred and secular songs integral to my mother’s life, and to my life with her, that accompanied me as I accompanied her for as long and as far as I could as she transitioned into death. Rather than being merely imagined, my dream was akin to being reminded of all the things I already knew.

Getting to Gwen, and preparing her body, then, meant that I also had to prepare myself. I had to be reminded of that which I already knew. And from that experience, I came to understand that when it comes to death and mourning and grief, there is profound power in allowing oneself the opportunity to remember what one has thought was lost. These practices, these rituals, are not necessarily closed to us, even as they may seem to be. Rather, they live deep within us, waiting to be unlocked.

Grieving Changes as it Remains

Near the onset of the pandemic, Eddie Glaude remarked, “the pandemic will pass, our grief will endure.”[3] He was right then, and he continues to be right well into 2021. I read his essay and it immediately prompted me to put some descriptive meat on grief’s bones. The result was the piece published by The New York Times:

Like so many countless others, my family and I are going to be left with the unsettling weight of her death. My mother is going to die soon, and it will likely be alone. I am afraid. I am one of many grieving, forever-changed faces. No repast. No lowcountry songs sung graveside. No sending up our timber for her. We cannot grieve properly. Lots of regret. This has everything to do with COVID-19.[4]

We did not know how to really deal with my mother’s death then, even as I tried as best I could to prepare myself. I felt as if I should have known better. I write about death. “Talking to the dead”[5] is my thing. And yet death that way—rituals performed within my community but with limited access to the people who would readily take part—was not my thing. I have the feeling that grieving this way is not many people’s “thing.” Months later, the various waves of grief I continue to ride affirm Amitha Kalaichandran’s poignant offering: “We’re not ready for this kind of grief.”[6]

It is hard to imagine that I have had to simultaneously hold the terrors of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing violence that Black folks frequently confront in America, and grieving in the midst of disaster. For the longest time I have felt too close to the lack of closure that ill-managed grief incites. Death is and has always been the great equalizer.

And yet, I was able to begin the grieving process and to continue it through the ritual work. Yes, I used ritual to prepare Gwen, but it was also a means of preparing myself. That shift from mother to daughter was as much about my mother’s needs then as it was about the ways I had to enter ritual practice myself. As her daughter, ritual thus steadied me for a new role: one of the remaining women elders in my immediate family.

For me, laying grief bare by any means necessary was requisite. For me, the creative processes of writing and filmmaking served as their own mourning salves. For me, taking a key element of the ritual processes of grieving our dead in the South Carolina Lowcountry—song-singing—and revamping it into a curated playlist, an epic ritual soundtrack if you will, made the difference. For me, making an altar that readied the ancestral space mattered. For me, opening myself to the power of ancestral communication via dreams was transformational. And for me, mourning before it was even really time to mourn helped me to better prepare myself for immeasurable loss.

I believe that grieving in the time of disaster, pandemic, incomparable loss, and unprecedented sorrow requires us to make our rituals anew. One key way is to grieve in digital publics what would have been done in person, with our families and friends. Rituals, as Evan Imber-Black suggests, require “imagination, responsiveness, and the human spirit” and that we use those generative mechanisms to create new rituals and traditions.[7] We can only do our ongoing work of grieving when we open ourselves to reimagining old ways of grieving anew.

LeRhonda Manigault BryantLeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College and founder of ConjureGirlBlue Productions. A proud native of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Rhon navigates the academy as an artist-scholar, where she merges her life as a thinker, musician, and filmmaker. She is the author of multiple academic books, public-facing writing, and films including Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (2014) and the award-winning documentary short “death. everything. nothing” (2020).

[1] LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, “My Mother is Busy Getting Ready to Die.” The New York Times. April 22, 2020. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/opinion/coronavirus-race-death.html.

[2]death. everything. nothing. A ConjureGirlBlue Productions film by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, Director. 2020 Link: https://conjuregirlblue.com/portfolio/death-everything-nothing-trailer.

[3] Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. “The Pandemic Will Pass, Our Grief Will Endure.” The Washington Post. April 6, 2020. Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/06/pandemic-will-pass-our-grief-will-endure/?arc404=true.

[4] Manigault-Bryant, “My Mother is Busy Getting Ready to Die.”

[5] LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant, Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women, Duke University Press, 2014. Link: https://www.dukeupress.edu/talking-to-the-dead.

[6] Amitha Kalaichandran, “We’re Not Ready for This Kind of Grief.” The Atlantic April 13, 2020. Link: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/were-not-ready-for-this-kind-of-grief/609856/.

[7] Evan Imber-Black. “Rituals in the Time of COVID-19: Imagination, Responsiveness, and the Human Spirit.” Family Process 59: 912-921, 2020. Link: https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12581.