grieving what was never good

Right now, I am swimming in a sea of grief more days than not.

The other day my driving route took me through a small, vibrant downtown. I found myself kind of interested in the shops, scoping out the coffeeshops, and wondering if the multiple new Asian fusion restaurants were good or trying too hard and awful. I found myself laughing a little at what it would be like to go to the out-of-date gym, and wondering who goes there now. But looking at the businesses and the people, I mostly felt like I was visiting the past. I struggled to believe that I was in the moment.

I have been lucky, and I have experienced the privilege of class and race over the last two years, and so my grief is more for places, things, and ways of living forever gone to me than people lost. In the astonishing number of souls lost directly and indirectly to covid-19 in the last two years, I have lost surprisingly few people close to me. I have experienced this enormous loss more as a diminishing collective light, as a resounding lack of elders to guide us through these troubling times, as the pain I see and feel around me in the grieving of others, and as the first echo of what is coming when we talk about the end of the Anthropocene.

Sometimes it is hard to make a proper place for the grief of the loss of things and concepts when so many that I know and love are grieving the loss of dear ones. And yet another part of me knows that grief is grief. It will have its due whether I make space for it or not.

I know I am also grieving the life I believed I would have, the one that I was, finally, very excited for. It included arranging my work schedule permanently so that I could travel regularly both for pleasure and work, and do international work that was important to me. In fact, I believe I have grieved this and for the most part let it go, but I have not found something to replace it. And I have not found a way to do international work and I am scared that I will not see my friends and comrades outside the US again, some of whom were once some of my closest people. That part really scares me and it makes me really sad.

Though it’s hard to admit, even to myself, I am grieving the life I had, the one where I ate at a restaurant every week and went to the movies. Or where I traveled for pleasure, or did a thousand dumb things more easily than now. I am an anti-capitalist and it’s not true to say that I want to rebuild that lifestyle for myself or anyone else. There are many ways that I am glad to have ripped the band-aid off and to have reduced my dependency on the underpaid labor of others in a lot of ways in my life (I am interested in finding more pleasurable and constructive ways to do similar things together without that!). But the brilliant adrienne maree brown has recently reminded us both that grief is complex in that we can grieve people and things we had complicated feelings about to start with, and that capitalism is quite tricky in how it feeds us empty calories to make us think we are enjoying it even when it is not really satisfying us.

I have hesitated – for two entire years! – to write much about this because this grief feels selfish. There are clearly more urgent issues to address, and because it is not that I want most of the things I miss to come back. But this grief is also lonely. Deeply, hollowly, empty lonely. And finally, I thought perhaps I am not alone with this feeling.

Disenfranchised grief” is grief not recognized socially. It can be harder to move through. Perhaps, I hope, there will be a reason to talk to each other in this grief and to connect over it as humans. Perhaps that is the way through, because the capitalist trap is to continue to hide or even subvert our feelings, and to try to do things by ourselves—although doing things “ourselves” almost always means relying on the paid or coerced labor of others.

I know better than to think that just because others have lost more, that my grief is not real. Although it can be really hard, we need to make space for everyone to feel and express their grief, large and small. We do not need to equate those losses, but we can create appropriate spaces for each other to acknowledge that they happened. So many of us are grieving, still forced to move through the world of the past, unsure (and afraid) of what the future will actually be.

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