Grief at the Grocery Store

Barbara McAfee Posted by Barbara McAfee.

Barbara McAfee is a musician, coach and consultant with over twelve years of experience in organizational change.


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.

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.