Dr. Steven Kniffley uses his professional expertise to show up for those engaged in the ongoing protests in Louisville, KY. Dr. Kniffley sees that one way of understanding what is happening in the streets is to look at it as an expression of grief. Grief requires certain types of community care. Dr. Kniffley is providing it, not as a substitute for systemic policy change, but as a complement for those struggling to achieve those changes.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Grief isn’t just experienced after the loss of a loved one. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, grief is a normal response to a loss during or after a disaster or other traumatic event. Spalding University Psychologist Dr. Steven Kniffley said the over 120 days of protests have been a collective grieving process for Louisville with the city and protesters moving through the five stages of grief:
“We are witnessing across the country numerous Black and brown folks lose their lives, and there’s a grieving process that goes along with that,” said Dr. Kniffley, the director of the Collective Care Center at Spalding. Their work concentrates on helping people of color to work through trauma caused by racism and discrimination.
The first stage, denial, played out in the delay of when the protests started. Breonna Taylor’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit that was made very public by nationally recognized civil rights lawyer Ben Crump via Twitter on May 11, 2020. However, the first day of Louisville’s protests started just over two weeks later on May 28, 2020, which was triggered by the release that same day of Kenneth Walker’s 911 call.
Dr. Kniffley said the denial was also felt the day the grand jury announced the charges.
“There were some things we just didn’t want to be true but ultimately ended up being so,” he explained.
Dr. Kniffley said the current stage of grief protesters are in is anger.
“Martin Luther King has this quote that says, ‘Rioting is the [language] of the unheard.’ And so, not necessarily wanting to call it rioting, but just essentially saying what we are seeing is a lot of anger for folks right now.￼”
Dr. Kniffley says protesters are grieving for identity, authenticity, validation, and affirmation given the frustration with the charges announced Wednesday by the attorney general’s office and also the bigger picture of ongoing systemic racism.
Dr. Kniffley said he hasn’t seen the third stage, bargaining, play out yet. However, he thinks that could play out in what’s called respectability politics.
“So you will affirm me; you will validate me if I assimilate to the dominant culture. If I appear to be less threatening to you. If I just do what you ask me to do, instead of ‘stereotypical behavior’, then maybe you will see me as a valid and whole human being.”￼
Dr. Kniffley said the next stage for protestors will be depression. As the founder of the racial trauma healing center, Collective Care Center, Dr. Kniffley said the center has already seen this stage with people coming in for free mental health services.
“Folks come in experiencing this chronic sense of hopelessness; where they feel like there’s nothing that they can do to affect change in these systems that have been oppressing individuals for a very long time,” Dr, Kniffley told Spectrum News 1.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. Normally, that’s when a person accepts the reality of the situation and move on in their life.
However, in the case, Dr. Kniffley hopes no one ever reaches that stage in the context of this movement.
“I hope that we never get to a point of accepting that systemic racism is okay,” Dr. Kniffley explained.
Dr. Kniffley said in addition to awareness about Breonna Taylor’s case, the protests have also offered three things for the protesters’ own mental health:
🔸 Emotional catharsis
Dr. Kniffley explained that emotional catharsis is the release of pent up emotions, such as anger, sadness, and anxiety.
“Shouting the chants, movement, all of those things allow space for folks to release the emotions that they are having and to not allow those to be pent up in the inside because when we build up or pent in our emotions, then that causes psychological damage, and so we have to have a space where we can engage in what is called emotional catharsis,” Dr. Kniffley explained.
“Many folks are living in isolation, where they are feeling like their experience is not believed. It’s not affirmed. It’s not validated,” Dr. Kniffley said. “So when they are in a space with other protesters, they are around folks that are like-minded, that can say, ‘I can see what you are going through. I’m experiencing what you’re going through, and I believe you.’ And so having that community is extremely important to one’s psyche, as well, because it can help boost self-esteem. It can help one find a sense of self-worth in the midst of all the injustice that we are seeing now,” Dr. Kniffley said.
According to Dr. Kniffley, Louisville’s protests have helped bring awareness to Taylor’s case, but it’s also brought awareness to the pain and suffering that people of color face.
“It’s international. There are folks in other countries that are aware of Louisville and Breonna Taylor and of the challenges that we’ve been facing as a city, and so there’s been a significant amount of awareness that has arose, as well,” Dr. Kniffley said.
The majority of the three months of protests have been peaceful, but some have resorted to acts of violence, like vandalism. Dr. Kniffley references the second part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote regarding that, which states, “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
“So if we want those things to stop then we have to see progress. We have to see justice. We have to see folks becoming more aware and offering affirming spaces for persons of color to exist in. So it’s a mutual responsibility that we all have to share for what we are seeing now,” Dr. Kniffley explained.
Spalding University’s Collective Care Center understands that racism occurs in everyday micro-aggressions or it can be more traumatic and sudden. Regardless, the center’s website says that fighting racism can affect a person in many ways, including:
Getting poor quality sleep
Feeling edgy and irritated
Needing to disconnect from the news cycle and society
Causing you to question your most important values
Upsetting your relationships with your children, parents, friends, or partners
If you can relate to the experiences described above, the Collective Care Center currently offering free services t0 help people work through and navigate the trauma caused by racism and discrimination.
Alternatively, Dr. Steven Kniffley hosts a free racial trauma therapy group to provide an atmosphere of validation and understanding of Black and brown people. It also serves as an outlet to discuss and heal from race-based trauma. The group meets via Zoom on Wednesdays and Fridays at 11 a.m. ET – 12 p.m. ET.
For more information on the center or the virtual support group, call 502-792-7011.