Grief as a unifier

May 2021 be different. May our grief be given space.

A few months back, when spring was in the air and the leaves were just beginning to return and the grass was sprouting again and the numbers, those numbers that had only weeks earlier begun guiding our lives, were finally trending down, I stumbled upon a makeshift memorial while out on my run. The gravel path bisecting an empty field was surrounded by rows upon rows of roughshod wooden crosses. Two thin pieces of wood, sawn with ragged edges and nailed together haphazardly in the middle and then planted, there, in the dirt. They had appeared literally overnight. The field looked full of those crosses but there couldn't have been many, just a few dozen on each side of me.

It reminded me of a low-budget Arlington Cemetery and at the sight of it, I burst into tears. Finally, I thought. Finally someone is recognizing the losses that are all around us, the losses that we had become numb to feeling. We heard about those losses as impersonal statistics, rattled off on the local radio broadcast: four more today, three yesterday, all with underlying conditions. A single death a tragedy, a million a statistic, as one of the most murderous dictators of the twentieth century once said. A grandmother, a mother, a sister, an aunt, these relationships lost to the facts of her existence, as the announcer recited her death as, simply, a 78-year-old Kerpen woman. A grandfather, a former professor whose knowledge influenced many became an 82-year-old nursing home resident with multiple underlying conditions. This was all we knew of them, their lives. And those are only the local losses we were counting. The photographs out of Bergamo that once stunned us into silence had stopped appearing in the newspaper. We knew nothing of those victims, heard only of the one or two who'd been Med-evaced to a nearby hospital.

From friends in New York, I was still seeing images of empty train carriages, an empty Times Square, empty streets; we knew, at least those of us connected to the city, that it was still in the midst of its extraordinary peak even as the German media had grown quiet about it, their focus on the numbers, the statistics, the prospects here of reopening. And even then, when those crosses appeared in the field, we were only at the beginning.

So perhaps that is why I responded so viscerally to discovering that those crosses had been planted not as a reminder of the thousands of lives lost to the virus but, rather, as a performance art piece aimed at drawing attention to the loss of biodiversity. The field I had run through had been leased to developers who wanted to pave over it, privatize our public park. A loss, surely, on its own, but the impending death of the earthworm felt so small, so minor in the grander grief of the moment that I found myself bubbling with rage.

Because even then, in the midst of our collective grief, we had had no public mourning ritual. The daily number of cases in Germany remained in the thousands and yet we pretended as though nothing were different while everything had changed. Neighbors fled the city, taking up residence in their second homes, near mountains or seasides or lakes. The Sunday night music performances from balconies and backyards, a ritual adopted after videos of Italians singing opera went viral, grew quiet.

Grief became a private experience, something we were left to work through all on our own even as it accompanied our every action. Grief as a shapeshifting companion walking with us through our days; it appeared in our lives on some days as bursts of tears, on others in ground-pounding fits of rage. Grief at the loss of lives. Grief at the loss of ourselves. Grief at the insecurity of the future, the inability to find meaning. Anticipatory grief, the "feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. ... There is a storm coming. We’re feeling that loss of safety."

Yet we couldn't allow this grief to be overwhelming. It would always be there and we had to still keep functioning. As Maggie Smith wrote, "Set down your grief for the life you intended to have but won't; the grief will be there when you're ready to come back to it. Now focus your mind on the life you intend to have. Commit to the present. Keep moving."

Commit to the present, as only the present we were sharing with the most intimate members of our family was worth focusing on; we were creating the only memories of this time worth keeping. By the time those crosses had appeared, those of us who could had remained shut in our homes for weeks: safe, warm, waiting. Focusing on the moment. A video circulated on Twitter -- an elderly Italian man insisting to his wife and his grown daughters that he must go out for his morning espresso. He dons his hat, his scarf, his jacket and leaves out the front door, his daughter yelling after him, before he reappears at the kitchen window, ordering his drink from his wife as though she is the owner of a cafe. His daughters laugh, a roaring laughter.

Everything was different, nothing had changed.

We may have been at home but we were each keeping up our private rituals in our own little ways. We were finding ways to laugh together. Finding what we needed to make it through these long days that all run together, time melting as in Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory.

But what of our rituals of mourning? Where had they been hiding? Where are they today, a year into this pandemic that has killed millions, leaving holes at our dinner tables, in our communities, in our hearts?

Notre Dame caught fire and all over Instagram people posted their selfies taken there, tourists posing before the cathedral, snapped on whirlwind visits to Paris, a broken heart as caption. Grief, in this way, had become a collective experience. A navel-gazing public performance of mourning. Celebrities and singers and writers died and favorite quotes of theirs became memes, #RIP, you meant so much to me. Performative mourning in the digital age, the superficial kind of grief that is only possible when you are not enveloped in the feeling. It is grief in which you center yourself in the life of another human being. Or the story of a building. Grief as narrative for public consumption.

With these deaths, these virus casualties all around us, though, there was none of that. There was, instead, a sudden, disconcerting silence. Alone in our thoughts, at a loss for words. Some of us still are. The influencers who did not know what to say returned after weeks of silence, reappearing on Insta, their lips a deep shade of red, an affiliate link in bio. On YouTube and TikTok new videos appeared, no allusions to anything out of the ordinary. Is it a sign of respect to carry on with your lives as though nothing has happened? Or is it a superstition that public displays of grief without an end in sight is too much, too early?

Why does it feel like I am asking too much that we, collectively, do something?

In other cultures, I am told, mourning is something that can be done in groups, with dancing and singing. In Zambia, the Budima Dance is performed both at weddings and at funerals, on any spiritual occasion. It is, UNESCO writes in its acknowledgment of the ritual, "a unifying factor for the communities concerned."

The Budima is not the only dance that honors these rites of passage, including the somber ones; other cultures have included song and dance as part of their funerary measures as far back as we know. What's striking is less the dances themselves, striking though they may be, and more the coming together in shared song and dance, the acknowledgment that to gather in grief creates an element of unity. These rituals are disappearing in many communities, yet they are the occasions that cement the relationships in our societies. And they are what feels missing in western cultures, especially here in Germany. We share a collective grief in our communities, yet we are each left alone to resolve it.

As Cheryl Strayed writes in Brave Enough, "If, as a culture, we don’t bear witness to grief, the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live — well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease.

We do not help them: we tell them that they need to get help."

This is useful for those power but not necessarily for humanity. As one Indigenous scholar wrote, "you break down Indigenous peoples ties to one another, you individualize problems, thus undermining their ability to fight back." This lack of collective mourning is thus the tragic logical conclusion of centuries of colonialism and individualism. We are all cycling through the stages of grief, yet no one carries their grief the same; we are not all on the same level. Many, including the politicians whose policies have impacted the amount of grief in our communities, remain stuck in their denial, tell us to learn to live with the killer even as we are still learning to live with its aftermath. They have turned community issues into individual ones. It's no wonder that others deep in the cycle of grief have had their lives taken over by rage.

May 2021 be different. May our grief be given space. May there be mourning in our communities. May we remember this year as one in which we were less alone in this tragedy. Everything is different. Everything is changed.