Why Today Feels Like Grieving The Loss Of A Loved One
The grief I felt after the election of Trump made me confront a tragedy in my past.
What I remember most are the slippers. I don’t remember putting them on my feet, how they stayed on as I scrambled down the hall of my dorm; a flight of beer-sticky stairs and into the icy night. They were ridiculous slippers––my sister and I had each gotten a pair for Christmas — thick with memory foam and as fuzzy as a long-haired chihuahua. I remember only the snow as it began to seep through the thick foam, how it seemed strange — my fat, ridiculous, ugly slippers in the brutal snow and ice of a Northeast Ohio winter. It’s strange that I would remember the slippers so vividly now, because at the time I was only vaguely aware of the wet and cold that was beginning to seep through the thick padding. Only one word circled through my brain as I ran through the snowy courtyard between two dorms: Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
“Katie, wake up. The worst thing in the world has happened.”
It was my freshman year of college. I had passed out on my bed a few hours earlier. In the few weeks since Sam* and I had stopped seeing each other, I followed a general routine: get blackout drunk, find Sam at some party, demand he talk to me for the umpteenth time about “what went wrong,” cry until a friend steered me home, pass out on bed.
There was only one time someone came to get me out of bed instead of tucking me in.
Evan’s eyes were big and green and painfully earnest. Even in the dark, half drunk and sleep dazed, I could tell he’d been crying.
“The worst thing in the world has happened.”
Thinking he had come to discuss his love life, I groaned.
“It’s fine, Ev, we can talk about it tomorrow.”
“No,” he said, crying harder now, “there was an accident.”
Relief spread through my body, incongruously sharpening my addled brain. Less than a week ago, some of our friends had tripped on acid and played a highly unfunny joke on Evan, telling him they’d been in an accident. It was happening again.
“They’re just fucking with you,” I said, though this made Evan cry even harder.
When he spoke next, he was louder, though the tears dulled his words: Sam and Jay are dead. There’s been an accident and Sam and Jay are dead.
“No” I shook my head, “Sam’s in his room.” I had not seen him earlier that night. Sam’s roommate had been the one to walk me home, to console me as I wailed about all the things I had been wailing about for weeks. Still, I was certain Sam was in his room, asleep. I would prove it. I put the slippers on and ran.
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
I think of this night often, but I do not often feel it. I have gotten proficient in narrating this story, in my head or to someone else, without going back there––without feeling the icy water sting the balls of my feet.
On November 8, 2016, I came home from work with the flu. I took off my pantsuit, turned the TV on to hear the election returns, and then fell asleep in my bed, where I had sweaty, fevered dreams. I woke up confused, unsure if what I was hearing were the vestiges of a nightmare or something far more frightening and real. For the next several hours, I sat on my couch in my flannel pajamas, achy and hot, with my knees pulled up to my chest. I watched as a map of the United States began to turn red, a slow sweep from the right side of the screen to the left. All I could see were the red states. There must have been blue as well . . . of course there was. But I just remember the red, left to right. Red where there should have been blue. Slippers that were never meant to go outdoors, much less tear through the Ohio winter night.
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
I’m on the phone with Dr. Reiss. I tell him I am writing an essay about grief. About the individual grief experience vs. a collective grief experience. About Sam and the election. About why my brain refuses to stop cycling between those two nights. About the relief I feel when someone says, in the days following the election, “it feels like someone died.” About how I say, “yes, it does,” but don’t elaborate.
As a society, we are bad at grief. We don’t know how to do it; we don’t allow space for it. We repress it.
“As a society,” he tells me, “we are bad at grief. We don’t know how to do it; we don’t allow space for it. We repress it. When there’s a collective grief, like after The Challenger or Newton, that grief comes out.”
When I opened the door to Sam’s room, he wasn’t there. His bed was made. A group of my friends sat on the floor with puffy eyes. At that moment, I went from a person with only the most tenuous grasp on her emotions to someone whose last threads snapped. My thoughts and feelings galloped off in a thousand different directions and I was dragged fractured and helpless behind them.
“The first story we are told is happily ever after,” Dr. Reiss says. “The second is good things happen to good people and vice versa. Learning that the world doesn’t adhere to those axioms, especially if we learn it suddenly or at a young age, is traumatic.”
I went to sleep on November 8 still convinced that there must have been a terrible mistake. No one else seemed to think this, so I kept it to myself. I climbed into bed shocked, defeated, and still harboring hope that I would wake up the next morning to the news that it had all been a mistake.
“There are two layers of trauma,” Dr. Reiss tells me. “The loss itself is one layer but the second is a shift in worldview. It attacks the fabric of your sense of reality, your sense of stability.”
I knew, of course, that Sam was as mortal as any other human, but his death still didn’t make sense. He had been central to my world, if only for six months. I put him on a pedestal far above any other person in my life. Someone of that significance is not simply here one day and gone the next.
It attacks the fabric of your sense of reality, your sense of stability.
In the days following the election, much was made of the surprise of liberal white women like myself. Marginalized groups have long known the prevalence of the kind of bigotry that got the Republican nominee elected. I told myself that my shock had more to do with the certainty of the polls leading up to the election than my ignorance about the depth of America’s intolerance. But after talking to Dr. Reiss, I realized I had to reconsider the genesis of my shock. Superficially, maybe it was my reliance on the polls, on a belief that things would be as they always had been: predictable. But the fallibility of Nate Silver would not shock me to my core. It wouldn’t make me feel as though the fabric of my reality was fundamentally different on November 9 than it was on November 8.
There was no doubt that my experience of reality did change. Things I had believed to be true no longer were. Did I know that rape culture was all over the goddamn place prior to the election? Yes. Did I think we would elect a president who was recorded bragging about getting away with sexual assault? Maybe. Compounded with all of his other issues? No. I didn’t. I knew that much of our country not only accepts and condones misogyny, but practices it outright. I didn’t realize how much of the country was eager to openly celebrate their hatred of women.
“We experience the world as suddenly more dangerous,” Dr. Reiss tells me. “But that doesn’t mean it is.”
It was always there. The widespread bigotry, the intolerance. I thought I knew it. I knew it in the way that I knew that we are all made of flesh and blood and bone, and that we are breakable. I had lost people before––my grandfathers, an uncle. But I still wasn’t prepared for Sam to vanish overnight.
Ignorance is a defining characteristic of the protected. I feel uncertain in my grief.
The fact that this reality is becoming so clear to me now is the result of my privilege. Ignorance is a defining characteristic of the protected. I feel uncertain in my grief, unsure of how much is appropriate to share. This too brings back memories of 2004.
There was a collective grief happening among my group of friends. We had all lost two friends. My brain was stunted in that room, or perhaps I was just selfish. Because what I circled around again and again to was I’m never going to resolve things with Sam. I’m never going to understand. How is the future possible if there is no Sam in it?
My friends looked at me in disgust. Was I really going over the details of our semester-long relationship now? Had I forgotten entirely about Jay, our other friend who had been killed?
I hadn’t, though I don’t blame them for their reaction. I could hear myself sobbing about all the wrong things, replaying details of a relationship that was among the least consequential of Sam’s short life. I could hear myself, I could see myself, and I had absolutely no ability to stop myself.
My brain got stuck in a circular, self-centered grief from which I couldn’t escape.
“What happens in any kind of shock is the body goes into fight or flight mode. Denial is part of that. If you’re paralyzed with fear because you’re facing a lion, denial is incredibly useful. It allows you to focus on getting out of the situation.”
My brain got stuck in a circular, self-centered grief from which I couldn’t escape.
Sam’s high school girlfriend, whom he had been on and off again with throughout college, flew out to Ohio after the accident. I was terrified of her. She was everything I wasn’t, a fact even Sam understood (a few days after his death, we found a journal in which he wrote of our breakup, “Katie’s great but she’s not Lydia”). Lydia was in the circle closest to the tragedy, and yet when she came to Ohio, she approached me with a hug and comfort, perhaps because I had so obviously lost my mind; perhaps because she’s just a kind person. Likely both.
Almost 13 years later, I am still ashamed of my reaction, though I have the distance and age to understand it was beyond my control. I was too young, too stunted, too brokenhearted to be as empathetic as I should have been.
She’s not Lydia.
“No one wins The Suffering Olympics,” Janelle Stanley says wryly, a few days after my conversation with Reiss. She would know. Stanley works with students at a transfer high school in East Harlem. Her students have had severe delays in their education — often because they’ve faced significant challenges: abuse, teen pregnancy, or coming to the United States as refugees. “Emotions aren’t rational.” But maybe they should be, I say. What if, the day after the election, I had walked into a classroom full of your students — students who have undocumented family members, students who are Muslim — and said: “Hey everyone, I’m really worried about my health insurance now that Trump’s going to repeal Obamacare?” That would be inappropriate on, like, every level, right?
Stanley tells me that her students would likely not be offended by my ignorance. We deal with the challenges that are most immediately before us. For me, the concern about the election might be my most immediate concern. Her students have other, more pressing challenges. They have family members with scheduled deportations. They have foster care relocations, abusive home environments, all posing challenges that are here and now.
“Besides,” Stanley repeats, “human emotions are not rational.”
We talk about the “Ring theory,” also known as “comfort in, dump out.” Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. Stanley uses the hypothetical of her having breast cancer, in which case her name would be in that first circle. Outside the circle, draw a larger circle. In that ring, put the name of the person next closest to the trauma — Stanley’s husband, for example. Draw more and more circles, like rings on a tree. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Close friends in smaller rings, casual friends in larger ones. This offers a framework for offering support to those who need it most (comforting in) and seeking support from the people most equipped to offer it (dumping out).
“It’s a nice model. But it’s just a model. If I get cancer, yes, it makes sense for my husband’s friends to support him so he can support me. But that can’t always be the case. Sometimes it’s going to be challenging to have a best friend whose wife has cancer. There may well be times where it’s appropriate for me to offer my best friend’s husband support. Emotions don’t work rationally.”
Why, though, did I get stuck on that stupid, selfish loop after Sam died? Why did I see the tragedy of his death so narrowly as what would be missing from my life as opposed to the incredible human being who was now missing from the world?
“Suffering and grief comes to us naturally,” Dr. Reiss tells me. “Mourning has to be learned.”
“When people don’t understand their role within the community experiencing the grief (family, a group of friends), they don’t have the chance to process their grief within that role. It used to be that cultural and religious traditions would dictate how people in each role should mourn, and that mourning was respected by others. When those roles are murkier, and it’s every man for himself, or whatever you want to call it, rather than feeling supported, that grief quickly turns into anger. That’s when you start looking for someone to blame, because you haven’t really mourned or processed the loss.”
So how, then? How do we process grief? How do we move through the uncertainty of a world that continues to veer around strange and unknown curves at every turn? How do you allow yourself to be vulnerable after you’ve felt the painful consequences of your vulnerability?
Stanley and Dr. Reiss have similar answers to this question.
“Process the grief,” Dr. Reiss says. “Mourn.”
How do we process grief? How do we move through the uncertainty of a world that continues to veer around strange and unknown curves at every turn?
Ceremonies, religious or otherwise, are an important part of that processing of the grief, of respecting the magnitude of it.
Dr. Reiss and I talk about the Women’s March on Washington. It’s activism, yes, but it’s also a kind of large-scale funeral. It was not designed to change the outcome of anything, but was instead a way for people in pain to come together and experience that pain among others who are feeling it too. To stand together and say, “this is not what we wanted. We do not think this is right. We may have no choice but to accept these results but we want to make it clear that having to do so is heartbreaking.
Stanley puts it more bluntly. “You roll up your sleeves and you get to work. You know that it’s going to be painful as hell and you do it anyway.”
Grief teaches us two things — that our ability for human connection, hope, and love, is boundless. It also teaches us that the time we have to fight for those things is limited.
We do not have forever. We must face our grief now.
After Sam and I broke up, we exchanged a few emails. One of the last ones he sent me ended like this:
“There are a million more things i want to tell you, but i have forever to do it so i won’t write a novel write now.”
We do not have forever. We must face our grief now. We do not have time for denial, natural as that tendency might be. We cannot count on having the chance to say and do tomorrow what we need to say and do today.
The time is now.
*names have been changed