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 I found myself laughing a little at what it would be like to go to the out-of-date gym, and wondering who goes there now.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.

speaking and seeking the truth about covid

I have been trying to write something about covid for over a year, and have almost finished several short essays, but have not quite been able to work it out. I have so many thoughts and ideas that need writing down, that I need to work through and share in this way, and yet I am scared to do so. A lot of what I’m going to say here is going to be partial, incomplete, not quite right, and maybe just wrong. But I’m so hungry for this conversation and dialogue that I’m going to take this plunge.

Covid seems to me to be a new avenue or axis of political struggle, analysis, and terrain, and with that come all the same difficult conversations and rending in the fabric of relationships precisely when we need them most. I have lost a couple of my closest and longest friendships in the last two years, and other friendships seem to be teetering on the brink. I haven’t handled everything the best and I know most of us are struggling in various ways. So, although I have started writing several times, I haven’t been brave enough to finish a lot of it. But there is so much gaslighting and half-truths about what’s really going on out there that it remains critical to my own survival, and I believe that of a lot of other people, to keep trying to talk out loud about what’s real and what actions, solutions, campaigns, and types of care are needed.

For me, covid has been a moment of absolute rupture. That doesn’t mean that a lot of these things were not happening before – the nexus of infectious disease, global inequality, disability, and climate crisis is not new. But at least for me, this global pandemic and the climate events that have occurred during it and which have perhaps driven it have been a major alarm bell. I cannot imagine my life ever being the same again.

Although one person’s individual actions can’t change the tide and don’t cause the problem, neither are actions neutral. I spent significant time, perhaps a full year, mourning and grieving the end of life as I knew it. It is sad to let that life go, but I do not think I will be returning to it given the embodied knowledge about the intertwining disasters of climate collapse and contagious disease that I have gained in the past two years.

In fact I have spent a lot of time grieving my life, my old life, and all the dreams and plans I had for the future. Many of those plans and ideas seem almost laughable now, and unthinkably selfish. It could be that I will not keep feeling this way – perhaps there will come a time when 6,500 people per day are not dying from covid (or another infectious disease) and I will feel very differently. We seem to live in very turbulent and changing times and that calls for a lot of flexibility and patience with ourselves as well as with each other.

I think however that this kind of turbulence and rapid change calls very much for mourning and acknowledging the changes. For me it has been personally critical to make the decision that there is no “going back to before” and that my old life (including my hopes for the future) has vanished. This is not all sad; the last two years have also been a time of growth, discovering skills I wasn’t sure I had, and working on some other abilities that need strengthening.

Without romanticizing the first two pandemic years, where millions have died and millions more have lots their loved ones and their health, it’s also important to remember there were also some gains made in the last two years. We should not want to go along with “getting back.” “Getting back” strikes me as an inherently conservative idea that also takes us back to a world without eviction moratoriums; where you owe the government interest payments on your education; where the government does not offer you unqualified payments so you can eat; and where more public money goes to the police for the purpose of advertising their effectiveness and arming themselves against us rather than for education, water, or anything that serves the purpose of life.  It is in the interest of elites – the rich, the politicians, and the media that they control – that we all “get back” to how things were. And it looks as if other people, namely middle-class white people, are most focused on getting themselves isolated from covid or its more serious effects, rather than working to protect everyone. Maybe this is obvious or predictable, but it is nonetheless sad, infuriating, frustrating, and enraging.

Of the many things that I am working actively on, I am struggling with how to do all of the following at once: hold on to principled forms of action and ethics for myself in difficult circumstances, how to remain in movement and community, how to keep punching up instead of down or across, not be judgmental, and think about helpful structures of accountability when something has social consequences. I am not great at this and none of it is easy. For me, one of the more isolating aspects of covid has been the inability to have these conversations and the seeming collective amnesia as the US has moved through different phases. It feels like lessons are not being collectively carried forward. Even if this pandemic is an unpleasant experience (of course it is), there have been some critical public health and other lessons! I am left with big questions like: why haven’t more people learned to take (or give) sick days yet? why aren’t we taking better care of ourselves and each other after two years of this? why aren’t more of us re-thinking the implications of travel in more fundamental ways, beyond just the current travel regulations or even covid?

I write this as an attempt to find or re-connect with folks who want to have these conversations. I believe now, as I have for a long time, that we need honesty and that we need each other.