When I think of dying, I always see a hospital bed surrounded by family members who've come to say adieu. I see them lining up one by one to give their final kiss to grandma or grandpa. I see them passing around kleenexes. I see them accepting death as a natural progression in life. I see them leaning on one another to grieve.
But, sudden death doesn't always happen that way--sometimes it happens to the youthful, and people don't get a chance to say goodbye. According to the Washington Post's "Fatal Force" counter, this year alone 584 people have been killed by police. Of them 25 percent were black--a staggering statistic considering black people only make up 12.3 percent of the United States population according to the 2013 census.
Statistics don't say how many of those killings were recorded and reached people on social media, but we have felt the weight of those murders nonetheless. Police aren't always the culprits either, as we saw in the Trayvon Martin Case, but his death shook Black America because it was racial profiling, the same tactics present in many police forces, that caused Trayvon's death. In fact, Trayvon proved that we don't even need video, sometimes the 911 call and the news reports circulated through social media are enough to reverberate fear throughout Black America.
These murders that go viral rob mothers and sisters of the chance to grieve at their own pace. Yellow tape, investigators, and protest signage replace the bedside family members in prayer, as loved ones are launched into the social media vortex that spirals into trending topics and demands.
Then, something strange happens to the general population, too.
Millions of strangers then come to know the Michael Browns and Tamirs of the world only in scenes from the worst and last day of their lives, a time where they were not in control of their own story. Their legacies then become what was done to them, as the masses will never bear witness to how they lived.
And we'll feel like we knew them. Because witnessing their death, last moments on screens inches away from our eyes bluntly reminds us of our own mortality, of our father's, and so forth, and how quickly it can be challenged as a Black person in America.
As social media connects people more than ever, it maximizes potential to share joy and accomplishment, but also hurt. We have more capability to witness all the implications of being black worldwide, making our pain widespread. Our trauma plays in loops like cyphers, causing murdered black people to begin their afterlives in 140-character pleas for justice and photo captions about helplessness.
Black America is dealing with its own heartbreak.
For me personally, every summer for the past four years I've gotten my heart broken. Social media linked me to it: from Trayvon Martin in Sanford; to Mike Brown in Ferguson; to a church basement in Charleston; to Bland’s cold jail cell in Texas; to Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights in a 48-hour span; to the iPhone cradled by my very own palm.
As the saying goes, you "get your heart broken,"--it is something that is done to you, it's not reciprocated. I believe Black America is dealing with a heartbreak rooted in what is being done to us, and the fact that we can witness it tenfold as more and more deaths are recorded.
If you've ever had your heart broken, you underwent the extremely personal process of trying to heal. You felt the qualms and spontaneous uneasiness that plagued you whenever you saw something as menial as your ex's favorite candy.
You wanted to talk about that person all the time, even if it meant risking relationships with people who ultimately grew bored of your unwillingness to move forward.
You became slow to rise from bed like yeast-less dough.
You fumbled through clothes in your closet, debating if it was worth putting a presentable outfit together, or even showering for that matter.
You questioned how you'd ever exist independently again, because you hadn't had to deal with something that disruptive for a while.
As if those feelings aren’t hard enough, getting back on your feet after a breakup gets even harder in the digital era. The source of your affliction will continue to loom in your photo streams and timelines. You don't always get a clean break, because even if you unfollow someone, you're bound to see him/her in a friend's photo, or buried in old Instagram posts from the good old days. You might even get so used to the hurt that you inflict it on yourself--you go that profile, and mourn what could have been.
But feelings in a normal breakup are personal and isolated, and this healing process for Black America's heartbreak caused by back-to-back deaths is collective and incessant.
Death and heartbreak were once intimate things to grieve, as getting over the loss of someone in any capacity can be hard. Social media has changed that. Normally grieving was left to be dealt with by those closest to it. We would wait for grieving families to come around, send flowers and cards, and text prayers. We would give people space to do their thing. We would tread around the topic of death or that ex-boyfriend, not wanting to trigger anyone's irreconcilable sadness after having lost a loved one.
That is why there is something uniquely twisted about grieving death in social media spheres. We discuss the deaths that have broken our hearts in large groups and comment threads. With such access to violent Black murders, we can't give room or deny death when it's reflected from our iPhones and laptops. It becomes much closer. These constant murders become tangible, and with that tangibility comes a strange, twisted grief as you mourn not only for a life you'd never known, but for the state of humanity.
There's also something unsettling about having people's last moments in unscripted rawness at our disposal in the first place. It's a disorienting consequence of our technological advancements. With each view of a black person dying on camera; the footage of a woman being arrested at a traffic stop; the audio from a 911 call about a teenage boy with a threatening nature despite his skittles and juice in hand; or a Facebook Live stream from a woman documenting her boyfriend's last breath, a little bit of our collective humanity is depleted.
These heartbreaking images, videos, and sounds of death don't just go away, even when you do your best to disengage. When the names stop trending, residual reminders remain all throughout the internet--from your best friend’s Twitter rant begging that we participate in self-care in the aftermath of attacks on black men and women to occasional #Neverforget campaigns begging for justice. Even when you get off the internet, the posts that you've already seen trigger a different kind of traumatic stress that can be set off by a siren, the fear that your hoodie may make you a target, someone selling CDs, or an advertisement encouraging you to "taste the rainbow."
People in our lives have the power to cause a broken heart, no matter if they enter romantically or by way of a remorseful hashtag. They can propel us into dysfunction, as they remain in your lobes with the potential to revisit you, sometimes hauntingly, no matter how much cognitive distance you force. With each new and visible murder, your heart breaks, and you're launched into that "post-relationship dystopia" by people you've only known in death.
We don't bear witness in a vacuum either, but rather surrounded by the impending fear that it could be "you and yours" next because every murder cypher reflects people who look just like you, often killed doing mundane things. For every physical life we lose, another one is stolen from the emotional sphere.
It brings me to the question of our emotional life expectancy: what does this do to generations of people learning to accept and submit to this kind of heartbreak?
This generation has to find a way to mitigate the heartbreak that impacts our communities when these murders go viral. We’re uniquely positioned because no generation before us had the type of technology that would allow them such constant, direct access to these atrocities. Those who once had the privilege to disconnect and overlook discrimination and death can no longer do so.
My mother, a baby boomer, recalls a time when the television used to go off. There was no online streaming let alone late-night programming. Furthermore, the news, no matter how horrific and pressing, used to complete its cycle nightly and rev up again in time for the morning commute. This generation doesn't experience anything shutting off, and consequently our collective emotional tolerance is at risk of shutting down. We're learning to accept heartbreak, and potentially pass it on to posterity.
This heartbreak doesn't come from nowhere, no heartbreak ever does. Though in the immediate aftermath you’ll feel blindsided, as time passes you'll recall moments that reveal how things got so bad in the first place. Time eventually focuses the blurred vision that plagues those who deny change. That's when you can recall the fights, the eyerolls, the times your partner let you down, the bickering, the racial profiling, the redlining, the unfair school systems, the microaggressions, the prison industrial complex--all factors into what shook your world in the first place, even if you couldn't detect their foundation coming to fruition.
So how do we get over these heartbreaks that hurt our communities deeply? How do we cope with the images that teach teenagers to fear the inescapable impact of their Blackness? How do we reconcile that Black privilege means inheriting an ongoing legacy of racially motivated murders? How do we deal with the murdered men and women we never consented to be affected by, but cry for nevertheless? How do we save our emotional life expectancy?
Though not always wholly, I do know that broken hearts heal with time. However, the last thing a grieving person wants to hear is that they have to continue to live with their hurt for many more sunrises and sunsets.
There is no elixir for Black America that will remedy centuries of wrongs. The reality is, we will continue to feel and experience things that will pull at our fragile, connected heartstrings.
May we continue to find solace in our positive accomplishments, while banishing people who subscribe to the myth of Black-on-Black crime and think we deserve this pain because, allegedly, we “kill each other anyway.” May we continue to move on with our overweight emotional baggage and live our lives in ways that show that our lives matter, even as people take them. May we turn our collective heartbreak into collective healing, and choose to move onto things that make us happy and powerful.
We won’t be immune from heartbreak in the future. If you choose to love again, to take a partner, or to put your trust back into humanity in general, you will expose yourself to the risk of repeating the cycle of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance--not the kind that justifies the wrongs, but rather recognizes their need to be demolished. With each heartbreak, I hope we accept less of what drove us into our depression and anger in the first place.
There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that we are lucky that we have the technology to see these things. It makes us check our privileges. It negates our human tendency to deny such atrocities because of our inherent desire to stay optimistic because believing in the demise of humanity is unthinkable. With these powerful tools I hope we do more, say more, and enact more change to prevent the next murder cypher from playing in a loop before our very own eyes.