so much time and none it to grieve

This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

Earlier this week, a friend texted our group thread a big block of text. Get ready, she said, because I need to unload. Over the weekend, a student of hers had been shot. The chance of survival was small. This student had been promising, a delight, beloved — although, as she was quick to note, it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t “promising,” because the salient fact was that they were a student, her student, and their life mattered.

If this had happened in pre-COVID times, the school would’ve come together, in person, and wept and talked about the student and felt the absence. Instead, she was dealing with emails from administrators and the prospect of turning on her computer to a screenful of this student’s former classmates. There were grief counselors available to chat, again through Zoom, but it wasn’t the same, just like nothing that we do virtually these days is quite the same. Sometimes grief requires solitude. But it also often demands fellowship — and space to linger.

Somehow, we have neither. My days feel like one endless string of sameness, with little to differentiate one from another; time somehow both billows out and disappears beneath me. I feel at once hopelessly busy and like I’ve done nothing at all. There’s so much time, and none of it to grieve.

Back in March, one of the first viral quarantine articles pointed to just how poorly we were recognizing the build-up of grief in our lives, even then. “The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air,” grief expert David Kessler explained.

Kessler also outlined the effect of what he calls “anticipatory grief”:

…that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

I know a lot of people holding that sort of anticipatory grief right now. For white, liberal, middle-class people whose jobs are secure — and for whom the COVID recession is effectively over — a lot of that grief centers on the president, on politics, on fears that the election will be contested, that we’ll fall into constitutional crisis, that QAnon and Proud Boy militias will fill the streets.

This is a real and existential fear, and I don’t wish to diminish it. It haunts the corners of my mind. Sometimes I realize my stomach has turned on itself — as I did just one minute into the debate this week — and it’s just that now familiar psychological cocktail of dread, fear, and sadness. That’s grief! It’s just that it’s for society! And instead of grappling with it, I just write some tweets and send a bunch of texts with barf emojis!!!

It’s a privilege, albeit a twisted one, to be able to grieve on such a philosophical level. I’m able to do so in part because I’m not currently bereft by personal loss. My family is isolated and lonely but able to remain physically safe and economically stable. I’m effectively floating through my year but also have the wherewithal to figure out how to change my address on my voting registration. I feel pretty consistently untethered but have not lost members of my close community and extended family to COVID. I am so angry at how dysfunctional every corner of our government has proven itself but I am not warding off eviction.

To recognize all of that as privilege is both essential and just heart-throttlingly sad. It should not be a privilege to feel physically safe and economically stable; it should be the norm. It should not be a privilege to have a modicum of security about your ability to vote in a democracy; it should be the norm. It should not be a privilege to live in a place where the government does all that it can to contain a deadly virus, and it should not be a privilege to be able to avoid eviction. All that shit we now call “privilege” should just be the baseline of existence in countries as supposedly developed and rich as ours.

And these quasi-new-but-not-really-new lines of this privilege are reinscribing all the old ones. Only 35% of black women and 47% of Hispanic men who’ve lost their jobs have recovered them— compared to 61% of white women. The COVID death rate for black people is ten times higher than white people. If you are Native, and live on or grew up on a reservation, that reservation has almost certainly gone through — or is still going through — a massive outbreak, and have struggled for months to even have infection rates reported accurately. Filipinos make up 4% of the nursing force in the US, but 31.5 percent of the nurse deaths. One out of every 1000 people in Mississippi has died from COVID. In New York City, the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID were also the poorest. As Marissa Evans wrote in The Atlantic last week, “the grief has not been evenly distributed.”

We know this. It’s so difficult to know what to do with despair that feels, for whatever reason, comparatively less. But less grief does not mean no grief. A refusal to feel it is an invitation to feel nothing at all — which, over time, only alienates us from others’ suffering.

Whatever grief you are feeling, whether related to COVID or otherwise, whether anticipatory or existential, whether related to your own health or the world’s or your community’s — it matters. It doesn’t matter more, but it matters. And that means we have to continue to find words for it, continue to allow it to shape our lives, continue to allow it to piss us off. If you can’t face the depths of it in this moment, that’s okay. But again: grief doesn’t go away when ignored. It blackens and sours. It turns us away from others instead of towards them.

It’s difficult to actually understand the twists and turns of others’ sadness right now. But the thing I keep close is that it didn’t have to be this way. It just fucking didn’t, and we should be collectively and righteously furious about that. The massive mishandling of this pandemic on virtually every level has transformed a virulent disease into a cascading societal crisis. And it’s certainly okay to grieve that. Grief, after all, can be a profoundly galvanizing and clarifying force.

Here’s what’s been clarified for me: all these systems that are supposed to protect us from this sort of grief, or at the very least ease it, are broken as shit — and have been for some time. That brokenness has created new inequities, but it’s also exacerbated old ones. The grief is not evenly distributed now, and it was not evenly distributed before.

To grieve is, in many ways, to honor. And honor, in this moment, requires listening: to ourselves; to others and their immediate needs; but most importantly, to those who’ve been trying to make us see the contours and causes of their grief for years.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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