I don’t know what my grief looks like outside of social pressures to perform it in acceptable ways
I wish I could hold my grief as mine alone, even when it’s shared. Especially when white people try and share in it with me.
My heroes are never buried when they die, at least not at first. As soon as I hear the news, I borrow their face from their still chilling body to post alongside a hastily written message of grief and well-wishes. I want to be the earliest to write about their loss, for everyone to see what I tweet. I’m not completely sure where this desire comes from. I never want my grief to be public at any other time; I am usually sensitive about how public grief might be exploited. But when it is my hero, something changes in my calculus of vulnerability. This grief couldn’t possibly be dangerous because it’s shared amongst everyone—at least that’s what I tell myself.
In the post accompanying her face, I write something about ancestors never leaving us, even though I forgot to talk to my deceased grandmother again this week, what to speak of setting up her altar. I know she has been trying to reach out to me. Trying to not be buried too. But in 280 characters, there is only enough room to celebrate one hero at a time, and only protection when enough others are posting about that person too.
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After I have taken their face, I then borrow my hero’s body and voice in clips of their most significant speeches and interviews—and by significant I mean the ones that are easiest to sum up, that are snappy and zinger-filled. I know which ones to use because I am an editor, and writing headlines for the digital world is my job. I do not acknowledge her most searing indictments of me and my actions, her controversies, my disagreements with her.
Toni Morrison said, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts,” but never talked about the pain of bringing a dead thing back to life in this type of commemoration before letting it die again.
At some point, she gets her body back to be buried. Or maybe to be cremated like my grandmother was. When I am done with my posts and writings, I don’t pay much attention to what happens next—don’t even acknowledge the hurt anymore. It is not safe to. Or it is not profitable. Maybe those are the same things.
I did tell my friends I will read the work she left behind again in chronological order, that I will engorge myself on her perfectly crafted words for the year to come, but the truth is I never read all of them while she was here. The truth is I don’t really read many books anymore. I am writing all of the time, and I know that the writing suffers for my lack of reading. I know that it promises to do things that it won’t more and more these days. But the writing gets me paid twice as much now than when I had more time to spend perfecting it, so it must be worth it.
When my heroes die, I always talk about how their lives were worth it. How they made an impact. How they changed the world, because they changed me. Made me smarter. Wiser. Me, still incapable of changing the world myself. Me, still suffering under capitalism and white supremacy. And it must be true because everyone else is saying the same thing, right?
I wish I could grieve differently. Outside of obligations. Outside of the need to assimilate alongside other grievers, but still get their support and protection. I wish I could hold my grief as mine alone, even when it’s shared. Especially when white people try and share in it with me. I wish I could exist outside of capitalistic pressures to tweet and write about my grief, and outside of the tiredness that makes me want to reject writing about it when I really might have something to say. When I really might need to say something; when the words are literally bursting out of me.
I wish I could grieve outside of society’s ideas of what is worthy to be grieved and what isn’t. Outside of needing the world to be changed by cataclysmic events like the deaths of my heroes—so much so that I lie and say that I know it has been changed, though really it just feels like the world is still spinning the same. Though really I am even more terrified despite the protection I receive from echoing everyone else. Though really I am even less optimistic about the world and my life than I’ve ever been now that one of the few people I believed had the power to make it better is gone. I wish I could grieve so dangerously that I could explore these feelings and not fear what happens in the midst of that vulnerability. Not fear being called the fraud it sometimes feels like I am. Not fear being criticized for making it all about me.
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“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” – Toni Morrison
If language is the measure of my life, perhaps I am sorely lacking. I haven’t found any language that makes losing my heroes okay. That gives me space to celebrate all of them, even the ones no one else will ever know. That makes any of this writing feel like enough for the people I love and lose. But I am searching for more, today. This is a little more dangerous than most things I’ve written in the past. I am learning to give myself space and time to come to the language I need, even if I rushed it at first.
I may not be changed enough yet, but I am changing. Learning to face my fears around being discovered a fraud or making mistakes. I know this because my ancestors keep reaching out to me, knowing how much I want to reach back. Knowing there is still a chance I will, as long as they hold me accountable. And the words she left behind, they do that for me. They do that for all of us.