Symbolic Imprisonment, Grief, and Coping Theory: African American Women With Incarcerated Mates

Avon Hart-Johnson, Walden University


African American men have been incarcerated at unprecedented rates in the United States over the past 30 years. This study explored how African American females experience adverse psychosocial responses to separation from an incarcerated mate. The purpose of this qualitative grounded theory (GT) study was to construct a theory to explain their responses to separation and loss. Given the paucity of literature on this topic, helping professionals may not understand this problem or know how to support these women. Disenfranchised grief and the dual process model of bereavement were used as a theoretical lens for this study. Data were collected using semi-structured interviews conducted with 20 African American women over the age of 18, from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, and who had incarcerated mates. Systematic data analysis revealed that women in the sample experienced grief similar to losing a loved one through death. They also were found to engage in prolonged states of social isolation, emulating their mate's state of incarceration. As a result of this study, a grounded theory of symbolic imprisonment, grief, and coping (SIG-C) was developed to answer this study's research questions and explain how loss occurs on psychological, social, symbolic, and physical levels. The findings from this study may promote positive social change by informing the human services research community of SIG-C and assisting helping professionals with a basis for context-specific support for affected women to contribute to their well-being during their mate's incarceration.