When My Church-Going Grandmother Was Hit With Depression

My paternal grandmother was a praying woman. I mean she could really “pray heaven down” as the old, church-going folks used to say. Her strong soprano voice was unwavering as she talked to God. She would later teach me how to pray, and it was more than reciting the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Her prayers were all about healing, hope and getting to heaven.

When my grandfather, her husband of 52 years, passed away in 2005, she still prayed, but this time it was different. Her voice wasn’t as strong as tears streamed down her face. They were from a place of grief. The only man she ever loved and father to her four sons was gone suddenly without warning or sickness. I could see the hurt and pain in her face every time I went to her home to check on her. The grief was beginning to show in her face and overall appearance. This was the first time I saw my grandmother neglect her appearance. I mean, this was the lady who would wear a strand of pearls and paint her nails just to go the grocery store, but now that didn’t matter as her chipped nail polish reminded me of what used to be.

As a mental health therapist, I immediately recognized the symptoms of depression. She would sleep long periods of time and have crying spells. Her appetite was practically none existent, her kitchen cabinets nearly bare. No longer was her house filled with the aromas of savory, Southern dishes. I was deeply worried; however, many of her friends denied depression and charged it as “heartbroken” and “grief stricken.”

When I asked my grandmother if she would like to talk to a therapist or psychiatrist about the way she was feeling she boldly announced, “I’m not crazy, and I’m not laying on nobody’s couch. I’m just hurt. God will fix it.” Her mouth said one thing but her face and heart believed another.

She kept voicing her reasoning for her decision. “Harriet went through the same thing when Joe died,” she said of a friend who had also lost her husband. “I will be alright, baby. I’m just gon’ keep praying. That’s why I go to the altar every Sunday.”

I gently grabbed her soft, yet aged hand and replied. “Yes, He will fix it, Granny. But that’s why He sent people like me to help you talk about how you feel. You can pray at the altar and lie on the couch, too.”

She looked at me with tears in her sad, brown eyes and slowly shook her head no. I wasn’t satisfied. She was hurting. I was hurting. The whole family was hurting. We’d lost our grandfather. We could not lose the matriarch, too.

One day I went to visit her after work and we sat together on one of her favorite spots — the porch. Out of the blue, she asked what happened when I talked to people about their problems.

“Do they believe in God?” she asked.

I patiently informed her all about the therapist and patient interaction. I told her of how many of my clients attended church on Sunday and still came to therapy on Monday as the spring breeze carried a familiar scent of forecasted rain.

She played with the bottom of her favorite floral house dress and avoided eye contact for most of the time as I talked, but I could tell she was listening.

Her tears were in sync with the rain as it fell from the sky. I left the house that day and said a prayer for my grandmother. I, too, prayed for hope, healing and heaven, just like she taught me.

Later that day when I got to my parent’s house, my father said my grandmother called and asked him to make an appointment for her with a psychiatrist. My grandmother attended weekly then monthly therapy sessions to combat depression and help cope with her grief. She also continued to attend church to cope with any negative emotions and symptoms associated with the depression and grief. The red nail polish and pearl necklace worked their way back into her trips to the grocery store.

Mental illness can be a very touchy and taboo topic in the African American community. Many people won’t talk about their mental struggles because they believe it is a sign of weakness. Many African Americans who also practice Christianity believe the words “mentally ill” can’t be mumbled anywhere near the church because it’s “from the devil.” I believe this is the reason many African Americans struggle in silence, because of the shame, judgement and stigma associated with mental illness. And who can blame them? No one wants to be labeled satanic or evil for announcing how they feel. The struggle is indeed real.

It’s OK to pray at the altar and lie on the couch. Matthew 11:28 says, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” This includes rest from emotional pain, grief, depression and any other burden that causes pain.

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