Grief: From the Election to the First 100 Days of Trump
I have been grieving since the election, and it sucks. As the former Deputy Director and Senior Policy Advisor for the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, I never expected that a change in presidential administrations would be a reason for grief. But it was for me, and for countless others across the country. April 29th, Trump’s 100th day in office marks six month since the election. Apparently, six months is the earliest you can come out of grief but the process, ironically enough, can last up to four years.
The 2016 election was going to be a pivotal moment for our country regardless of the outcome. I needed to prepare myself for the transition. Whether it was Clinton or Trump my life was going to drastically change — friends would leave DC, I would be out of a job, and Obama would be gone. People warned me and shared how to process leaving the White House and what to do through the transition. A former military friend told me the acclimation back into a post-White House lifestyle would be similar to how veterans transition back to civilian life. He spoke more truth than I realized. Despite all the attempts to prepare for this shift, nothing was adequate for what was to come on November 9th. That day, I was quickly pulled into this cycle of grief, mirroring each phase — beginning with denial and bargaining, moving to depression, anger, and finally — coming to acceptance.
I took personal time to volunteer for Hillary, so the day after the election I was in my home-state of Ohio. That morning I woke up feeling like I had been dumped and for about 10 seconds, I forgot that Trump won. It all seemed like a dream until I remembered the new normal. The day was filled with a constant stream of tears down my face, a heaviness that was almost too much to carry, and a desire to be invisible. The desire was unique because typically, I spend each day insisting the world see, hear, and know that I am present. I was on edge and heartbroken, but nonetheless had to get on that flight back to DC. I had to figure out how to survive as a Black woman in America. How was I going to interact with the world? With people — some who probably voted for Trump? In the airport, people were talking and even giggling rather than weeping which alerted me that I might be around “one of them”. A Trump voter. I was thinking, go ahead say something, all the while silent because I worked for President Obama, and representing him always came first.
Despite loving my job, going to work on November 9th was the last thing I wanted to do. Before the election, I walked into work each day channeling a combination of Michelle Obama and Olivia Pope — humbled, a bit intimidated, but extremely proud. If you didn’t work for the administration, and especially the White House under President Obama, it is hard to understand. The Obama years were something special — almost magic. I would tell myself no matter how challenging or exhausting the job is, the moment you stop feeling the magic, leave. That day never came.
For many people of color, November 9th brought a deep sense of fear. Progress had been made over the last decade, but racism and sexism are still very real. The election felt like America said, “Nah, we good”. My belief in hope and change were all but gone. I have seen terrible and horrible things happen to communities and to our country, but the election signaled that there would be a leader that thought the terrible was tolerable. I still had hope when Trayvon was killed, or when Michael Brown was killed and riots broke out in Ferguson, or when they choked Eric Garner, or when they drugged Freddie Gray’s limp body, or when we said good bye to the Emanuel Nine, or when three Muslim Americans were killed in Chapel Hill, or when they never said Sandra Bland, or when we learned about the Pulse night club shooting. Those tragedies required me to double down on the change needed in the world — but I did so with a steadfast hope. But, November 9th felt different. Here we were fighting for justice and equality for the first Black president and the country had given the middle finger to everything we represented. I walked into the White House embarrassed and shameful. My shame existed because my confidence, potential, and accomplishments were just at their fullest potential, but stopped because they were considered boastful, entitled, and Black. My embarrassment was for those who stopped it.
In the office, I ran into my boss. Our eyes met, I shook my head, fell into her arms, and sobbed. She held me and said it would be okay. Others were huddled together in their rooms sitting silently. The building was somber. I cried, I consoled, I cried again. On White House grounds, you don’t get to linger. You are either going somewhere, coming from somewhere, or doing something. On November 9th, everyone moved in slow motion. What was the rush? The team had spent the last decade, with early mornings and late nights, missing important moments of friends and family for a greater America. That day was the beginning of that greater America slipping away. Shortly after the election, the President invited his team to watch him address the country. Masses of people made their way through the West Wing to the Rose Garden. A group of 200 staff and press huddled in the small outdoor garden, where it was quiet enough to hear a photographer’s camera flash. No one giggled in this crowd. The President told us to set an example by finishing our work and encouraged us to be helpful in the transition. In that moment and for the very first time, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to follow the boss’s orders.
Two days after the election, the White House schedule was in full swing. Trump was meeting with President Obama, and the Cleveland Cavaliers were visiting to celebrate their championship victory. My colleagues and I convened a meeting with the championship team to discuss criminal justice reform — a meeting we never would have imagined would take place in the backdrop that it now did. The room was heavy and absent any excitement. There was no ignoring that Trump was sitting just steps away in the Oval Office. I sat there in a daze while the athletes and senior administration officials had a discussion. That was the thing about the White House — it never stopped being awesome and special, even in the worst moments. The meeting was flat. I should have been more prepared with clear next steps but in my mourning, I wasn’t. That was unacceptable. No matter how much I wanted to sulk, I couldn’t — I had a job to do. President Obama asked his entire team to work to the end and transition gracefully. He deserved that much from me. And so that day I stopped crying, tried to stop thinking about Trump and the pain he would inflict, and did my job to the best of my ability.
The weeks following the election, I did some quick research to see how the Electoral College could push for a different outcome. I considered the recount efforts being launched. Soon enough, I realized those were both dead ends. I couldn’t change the election results; however, perhaps I could change the impact. I started having thoughts about how can the Obama folks — White House staffers, campaigners, cabinet secretaries and political appointees — continue, even after the inauguration. I thought if President Obama just told everyone who believes in him to follow some new organization he was going to set up, we would be okay. I continued to bargain and strategize, and then continued to hit dead ends.
Before I was prepared for it, January arrived, and so did my last day at the White House.
Here’s where things got real. I could no longer pretend that Trump was not in office. I had gone on my post-administration vacation, no longer had a job and the new administration kept announcing one hurtful policy after another. I woke up one morning to another problematic report on a decision made by the Trump administration. I reached for my Blackberry to check for any emails needing a response. That was a typical reaction as a White House staffer — you always checked your Blackberry. The only problem was that I was no longer a staffer. I no longer had a Blackberry and Obama was not the president. I stayed in bed and stared at the ceiling that morning. I had no desire to do anything — yet it seemed like the entire world was engaging in protest and resisting Trump.
I went to a few rallies protesting the Muslim ban and then another regarding the Supreme Court. I worried for many communities, included my own, but it felt like I had nothing to give. I used to have a fight in me that would coordinate buses to the sixth circuit court for an affirmative action protest or to challenge the mayor around street restrictions for the African American Heritage Festival “Block Party” at Ohio State. I had kept my fight alive for the last 15 years of being some combination of a high school special education teacher, a freelance journalist, a lawyer by training, a community organizer, and an activist. I brought all of those years with me each day I came to work at the White House. But this was different; the contrast and impact of Trump seemed to wear me out. Less than two years ago, I was coordinating an event for the President to visit his first domestic mosque and sit with Muslim American leaders from around the country, and now this administration was banning Muslims from entering the country. I was down in Selma with Congressman Lewis and the entire first family as they marched across the bridge to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. I met and built relationships with residents and protestors from Ferguson just weeks after the riots. Now, Jeff Sessions was in line to be our Attorney General.
My social media feeds were on fire. Demonstrators were taking to the streets, others were still litigating the campaign. Folks were throwing shade at people for not being woke enough. But me — I was still stuck. I was overwhelmed with self-imposed pressure of who I was going to be in this moment of crisis.
Each day got harder as friends and former colleagues all started to leave DC. The devil of social media and the lack of human interaction would lead me to believe that everyone else had moved on while I was stuck grieving. Most of February was spent sitting alone or with a friend trying to figure out how to fill my days. I flaked on social events, stop responding to most emails, and was irritable. Unlike immediately following the election, I did not want to be invisible. Instead, I just did not know how to show up.
By March I was doing some travel but everything was getting on my nerves: a rude customer service agent, running out of coffee beans, getting change back in fives instead of tens. These simple things would normally have no real impact but now seemed to grab hold, nestle under my skin, and anger me. I know the election of Trump and the implementation of terrible policies was enough justification, but this felt different. So many people woke up in shock on November 9th. People couldn’t believe someone who publicly demeaned Black people, brown people, Muslims, people with disabilities, women, those from the LGBTQ community, and every other marginalized group during the campaign had been elected President of these United States — our United States. The shock quickly led to denial that any -ism (racism, sexism, etc.) played a part in the election since many of those Trump voters were also Obama voters. I found myself in conversations trying to explain why the two were not mutually exclusive.
I shared my experiences, explaining to friends and acquaintances about my elementary school music teacher. In class, we would sometimes play Musical Wheel of Fortune. My teacher would allow two students to serve as Pat Sajak and Vanna White. I wanted to play Vanna, but my teacher told me I couldn’t because Vanna, both literally and by way of her last name, was white. I was a Black girl and that just didn’t match up. In that moment, as a third grader, I heard from my teacher that I can’t be great, I can’t be pretty, I can’t be important, and I can’t be what I want to be because I am Black. My white peers likely learned through that experience that discrimination was okay. My teacher was wrong — her racist actions and her ability to grade fairly, which she did, were not mutually exclusive.
People of color have regular experiences of earning a good grade but being denied the Vanna opportunity in this country. The denial of this reality is insulting. I stopped having those conversations with many people because I quickly realized their denial was provoking my anger.
People talk a lot about self-care. It means something different for everyone. Andre Lorde says, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Denial, bargaining, depression, and anger can ruin someone. They take hold of your life if you neglect self-care. I was privileged enough to be able to grieve. Others were not, and many more decided to postpone the process. When you can and are ready, allow yourself to grieve this experience. Others will be there to continue the fight as you heal.
I have always struggled with the serenity prayer. Accepting the things I cannot change feels weak. Angela Davis says, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept…”. That is because acceptance is not surrendering. You can accept what is reality as a reference point for engaging with the world. Accepting the reality that Trump has been sitting in the Oval Office for 100 days is not weakness. It is not me surrendering, but rather a point of reference for the change I seek to bring.
My acceptance has come with grace but also provides compassion. It comes with the willingness to teach others as well as to learn. I am working to accept others where they are on their journey. That means for the shocked folks on November 9th, the dismissive folks, all the folks that voted for Trump, and those that stayed at home and didn’t vote — I see you. I hear what you are saying. Accepting they exist means I get to choose how I will engage — that gives me power.
At the time, I did not know I was grieving, but now I accept that it was a necessary step in the journey. My acceptance comes with a new resolve to keep bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice. My acceptance is returning me to the fight and the work.