Alica Forneret on Grief, Racism and the Dead Moms Club

“There is no day that goes by where I’m sitting at my computer or doing my work that I don’t think about my mom’s death and I don’t want to have to stop thinking about my mom’s death at three in the afternoon or 10 in the morning … I think similarly, we are watching Black people be murdered and die every single day, that is part of a community that we are collectively grieving … Whether or not I knew George Floyd, it doesn’t mean I’m not affected by his death … there is a trauma and a PTSD that we are carrying into every segment of our lives, especially a space where we are asked to push it down …”

Last year, with the twin pandemics of racism and COVID as a backdrop, Alica Forneret shared these and other thoughts in a conversation with four other Black women in the death care industry, “Sayin’ it Louder: A Conversation about a ‘Good Death’ in a Racist Society.”

Forneret is a Southern California author and consultant “dedicated to creating new spaces for people to explore grief and grieving.” She recently shared more of her personal story and experience with Solace.

Alica, how did you come to do this work?

In December 2015, I started working on a print media project with a designer and we asked ourselves, “what random, intriguing topic could we choose as a theme?” Immediately, we decided on death. At the time, it seemed exciting to focus on something like death in the abstract — it was an opportunity to think about it creatively without getting too close.

But little did I know that roughly one year later — a month before we went to print — my mom would go into the ICU and die. At that time, I realized that much of the content I was producing hit a little too close to home for me not to turn my lens on death inward.

Since then, I’ve realized the power of expressing my grief publicly — through my blog, events, partnerships, and media. It’s taught me that though many of us think that death is this far off, abstract concept that we’ll deal with when we get there, that’s not the case. And it’s been a privilege to work in this space as I navigate my own grief, help others support their communities, and bring many of my audience members a little closer to feeling comfortable with the fact that grief touches all of us in many ways throughout our lives.

So I started writing on my blog, hosting events, and creating one-off products for people in the Dead Moms Club. Now, I continue to do all of that and more, still with a huge focus on writing and speaking about how my grief related to my mom’s death has taught me about relationships, building community, race, gender, age, deathcare, connection, living, and more.

You’ve been a leader in conversations about race and grief in the world at large and in death care. How does racism present itself in the whole spectrum of health care, death and dying?

Systemic racism is present in the ways POC are treated in hospitals while ill or taking care of family, by the funeral industry when making arrangements, by employers when seeking leave and by mental health professionals when seeking care. It is present in the ways POC watch members of their community die — daily, on the news, and without adequate repercussions for their murderers. It is present in the faces that define what “good” deathcare is and what “good” grief resources are.

So, it not only impacts the ways in which we are taken care of while living — but also how we are taken care of after we die, and while we’re grieving.

As was mentioned earlier, last year, I came together with four other Black women to educate professionals and the public about race, death and grief in this panel discussion (“Sayin’ it Louder”). The conversation evolved into an online course (Shifting Deathcare: A New Paradigm) we hope will create a “better understanding of some of the challenges that BIPOC face at the end of life, and in the current and historic context of systemic racism that pervades all of our institutions.”

Because, as it’s been reported, it is difficult to experience a “good death” if you are a person of color, how can people find support in shaping their endings.

I encourage people to seek out resources from advocates and professionals that are within their own communities and cultures. There are many people who do work in this space with the intention of providing stellar support to POC. And when you are looking for end-of-life care and are met with the likes of people working as funeral directors, death doulas and educators like Lashanna Williams, Oceana Sawyer, Alua Arthur, Joel Anthony, Naomi Edmondson, Diana Quinn, Michelle Williams (the list goes on and on), it’s amazing to feel the immediate comfort that comes from knowing someone is focused specifically on providing you customized, informed care based on their own experience navigating systems as people of color.

February is Black History Month. What can we learn from understanding the history of racism in our country to help inform how we care for each other, especially at the end of life or when people are grieving?

My recommendation is educating yourself and taking the burden off of POC to educate you. There are many, many resources readily available that can help people better understand systemic racism, how that impacts our institutions like healthcare or deathcare, and more. So, in short, the most important thing to learn and remember is that if you want to make change — you need to do the work and educate yourself. Exploring, learning, and being curious are important first steps to better understand your personal community and the ways you can make changes for the people (especially POC) that exist within it.

I encourage people to ask themselves questions like (or find resources that answer):

  • What biases might be shaping the way you respond to someone’s pain (physical or emotional)?
  • What myths or stereotypes might be informing the way you provide support?
  • What privilege do you have that might be impacting the support you receive vs. the support someone else receives — and how might you work to distribute that privilege?
  • What systems do you have control over that could be changed to better support those with less privilege than you?
  • What are your friends, family, or community members who are people of color experiencing when it comes to end of life planning, access to resources, and adequate care?

Has COVID opened conversations about death or made them more difficult?

From what I have experienced, it’s making the conversations more prevalent, whether or not they’re easier or harder. I think that these conversations can be hard — and they can be hard with good reason. On my site, I say that talking about grief can be hard but it doesn’t have to be. And by that I mean it doesn’t have to be if you don’t want it to be — but I do believe that lots of these conversations will continue to be important to have AND be tricky or complicated.

I think that this year people are realizing how much is wrapped up in these conversations about death — money, race, politics, gender. Lots of people have a hard time talking about those things on their own, let alone when they’re tied to someone’s death. So I think COVID has opened the conversations — and it is encouraging people to be more understanding even when the talk of it continues to be hard.

You write about grief on your blog with lots of great advice for those navigating social media, working from home, seeking friends or counseling. What do you see as the biggest challenges for those who are grieving during this pandemic?

The pandemic has made it very challenging to keep routines for healing and connections with the community. Yes, Zoom exists and phone calls are accessible — but it’s not always enough, especially as we approach the one—year mark of the first major lockdowns. It’s been challenging for people to be isolated from the kind of care and support that they’re used to — whether that’s a simple hand on the shoulder or huge family gatherings.

Also, the normal day—to—day experiences that we have just moving through the world can lift pressure and stress on the hardest days of grief. For example, one of the seemingly simple ways that I’ve always relieved my grief and sadness is wandering the grocery store. A shopping list gives me something to think about other than my mom, walking around got me off the couch, and I could interact with other human beings without having to be fully switched on. And in the beginning of the pandemic when we weren’t going to the grocery store much at all, I found that not having this little outlet made a huge difference for me.

Because of this, it means that many of us have had to rethink how to receive and ask for grief support. The things that we’d already identified as being helpful or useful might not be available at this time (or at all anymore), which means that in the midst of grieving — which is already exhausting — we’ve had to come up with new ways to take care of ourselves and new methods by which we can ask for help. Hopefully, though — that’s where grief guides, grief coaches, and grief counsellors come in — to help people who are struggling to find new ways to cope.

What gives you strength in these difficult times?

Thinking of what the future will be like when we’ve all gotten used to talking about death and grief on a regular basis. If we can have the first, hard, and messy conversations now — we will be more equipped to do so in the future.

Learn more about Alica Forneret and her workshops on grief in the workplace (Let’s Talk About Death at Work) and Shifting Deathcare: Tools for a New Paradigm, a course “created by leaders in the death and dying community about how to facilitate a good death for all.”

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