Grief at the Grocery Store

You know the story by now: An innocent African-American man – Philando Castile – was shot by a police officer at close range a few miles from my home. His gruesome and unnecessary death was witnessed by his beloved and her 4-year-old daughter. Four! (I know well what four looks like .My twin great-niece and great-nephew turned 5 within a day of the shooting). I can’t imagine this little one will carry forward into her life.

My first impulse when encountering such pain is to connect with the people I love.

Quanita — my beloved African-American sister of the heart — was the first person I called. She’s writing a book about African-American spiritual healing and is doing profound work about race in her community and around the world. She’s also raising two mixed-race children and struggles with how the hell to parent them in this crazy world. I listened to her heartache. We wept together. Nothing was solved, but we were together.

Next Debra called in tears. She has raised adopted children from India and is currently directing a charter school with a diverse student body. The weight of the grief – and how to speak of it to her adult children and the little ones in her school – was overwhelming. Again – all we could offer each other was our tender and loving witness.

In both conversations, I encouraged these fierce and dedicated leaders to take exquisite care of themselves. Debra went to nature. Quanita found solace in conversations with her beloved friends.

In the midst of this storm of insanity, I’m preparing to leave town for a week of songwriting on the Ontario-Minnesota border. I had set some hours aside yesterday to run essential errands and buy groceries. I was in no mood.

My heart was leaden. My eyes peered out of a long tunnel of grief. I felt sick to my stomach and kept heaving great sighs of despair, whenever I remembered to breathe at all. My heart kept leaping toward my African-American friends. I wanted to hold them, listen to them, stand beside them, keep them safe.

One of the stores I visited is a place where people of many backgrounds shop. I see Somali, Latino, African-American, Asian, and Caucasian families all mingling around the produce bins and freezer doors. I see tattooed and pierced teenagers next to frazzled parents with little ones. I see snowy-haired seniors next to brisk professionals in suits.

Yesterday, I noticed something new as I pushed my cart through the aisles. My eyes met the eyes of strangers more often. Through that gaze a door opened between us. There were sad smiles. We said hello. We shook our heads. We were connected through the complicity of unbearable grief.

This tenderness among my neighbors moved me deeply.

My experience is not unique. I just read the story of a young African-American woman and a white police officer meeting by chance in a store and consoling each other in their grief. Perhaps you have had encounters like this in the past two days.

There is ample evidence that pain and rage can awaken more violence, separation, blame, and reprisal. We’ve seen it in the shootings in Dallas. We see it aimed at our Muslim neighbors whenever there is a terrorist attack. It’s hard to contain the impulse to lash out in the midst of such unspeakable injustice.

What I remembered yesterday at the store is this: pain can draw also us into each other’s humanity. Calamity can shock us into remembering how deeply we belong to each other.

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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7 Responses to Grief at the Grocery Store

  1. Bruce O'Brien says:

    This speaks so well of my own grief. I too made a brief connection yesterday with a black woman’s humanity. Tragic deaths were on my mind but we did not speak of it. We wished each other a good day, and shared a smile between us.

  2. Laura kinkead says:

    Thank you, Barbara for bringing words to my grief. I especially felt that hopeless feeling of looking down that terrible tunnel of sadness. Yesterday afternoon I was scheduled to meet with an amazing group of women, women of color, white women, women with heart. I could not have been in a better place. Each spoke of the pain, for some it was about the silence and how difficult it was to go about business as usual. Individuals with whom they worked saw no need to talk about it or make space for the tragedy. This compounded the pain. For others it was about trying to figure out how to reach out and do this respectfully. Each of us had a chance to speak of the impact. And we decided that was a start. We listened, we were listened to. Feeling that love and caring we were able to step back into our separate days with a reminder of the power of connection and encouragement to each find our way to address the terrible death of Mr. Castile.

    • Oh, dear friend — I am glad you were with open-hearted women in your grief. We had a choir rehearsal that evening and it was a relief to sing together, to bring beauty to our aching hearts and the world. Sending love….

  3. Avril says:

    So beautifully spoken, dear friend. There has been so much senseless violence packed into the past few weeks that I’ve been rendered almost speechless, feeling like nothing I can say can begin to express the pain, grief and anger at what is going on. Thank you for giving voice to your thoughts and feelings, which help me understand mine – and thank you for your great big heart that is so full of love and compassion.

  4. Meg says:

    Yes. That was my experience. I had to invite it, in my white suburban bank, with the tired, drawn-looking woman of color. At the tire shop, when he said to me ‘take care’ and I responded ‘You. Please. Take care.’ Their eyes were so tired of looking away. I felt my relief of seeing them.

  5. egito01 says:


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