Make Space for Grieving

How can communities grieve in a time of social distancing?

I write this as we learn about yet another mass killing: 6 women of Asian descent in the United States, in a time of rising incidents of hate crimes against AAPI people in this country, in a time of a global pandemic that’s taken over 2.5 million lives, in a time of a racial justice and climate awakening that’s forcing us to reckon with reality of the many people who have died because of racist and unjust systems. It is not the first time I’ve written about mass death and hate, and it will not be the last time.

In contemporary US culture, we have few avenues for community grieving. News headlines will share the facts and social media will amplify the outrage, but the deepest feelings of sadness and grief so often are kept in private. Five years ago, the queer community in the United States came together for a grieving of the violence in Orlando. I wrote about it then after attending a ceremony in San Francisco: “The most powerful thing about a candle isn’t the light — it’s that a candle can light another candle. A candle is social. A candle is viral. A candle contains in itself enough fire to light a room and counter the nighttime sky.”

Today, COVID-19 makes it difficult for us to come together in the same way. A dear friend of mine has been navigating grief this past year, and I’ve not had a single opportunity to hug them or take them out to dinner or share space with them. Instead, we text regularly, talk on the phone and trade photos and videos on occasion. One time, they sent me a picture of themselves, and I realized I hadn’t seen their face in over a year.

“You look so sad,” I said.

“I am,” they said.

They’re not the only friend I’ve said this to after they sent me a recent selfie. Around the world, friends whom I used to see regularly now navigate their grief in much smaller communities than they might have had before COVID-19. Some of them navigate their grief entirely alone.

Self care is an important practice in times of suffering, and so is community care. In a time of social distancing, community grieving is no less necessary than before, but it might take new forms now. Here are a few things I’ve learned this past year.

Be gentle with yourself as you experience your emotions. And be gentle with each other.

In a time of shelter-in-place, emotions often come through stronger, or more erratically, or in new forms, than they did in the before times. Be gentle and kind with yourself as these emotions arise. Sometimes, simply naming them and saying, “I am experiencing grief,” is a way to be present with them without trying to suppress them on the one hand or let them totally consume you on the other.

The same applies for others: expect that those suffering grief — and that’s almost everyone these days — may experience stronger and more unexpected emotions than before, too. These emotions are what make us human. Being gentle and forgiving with each other is an important part of how we allow for grief to take its course.

Make space for grief — literal space.

During Day of the Dead ceremonies in Mexico and Mexican diasporic communities, there is the practice of the ofrenda, or altar, which contains photos and memories of those who’ve passed. Ofrendas appear in homes and also in public spaces. In the United States, I often see street memorials for victims of road accidents. The world over, murals, processions and monuments make space for community members who’ve been lost.

What does that look like in these times? There are safe ways to create community memorials and spaces for grieving, especially outdoors. Digitally, we can use profile photos and backdrops to carve out spaces online. And then there’s home: try finding a corner in your home to create a small space where you can grieve. Spaces for grieving can also be spaces for healing: it can help to print out reminders of and from loved ones who’ve helped you along the way.

Work to find the right digital medium for community grieving, and bring in a few physical actions.

In a time of Zoom fatigue, video chat is not always the most effective space for collective grief. For reasons I’ve written about before, video chat sometimes creates an uncanny valley effect that can be especially alienating during times of vulnerable emotions. Consider mediums like audio or text or even a virtual world, where people can express their hurts and fears and words of hope in community. Sometimes, just sitting in silence is the best medicine.

We are still embodied beings, and although we cannot literally light each other’s candles in physical space, it can be helpful to bring in some physical actions. This includes waving and virtual hugs, placing a hand on the heart, holding up candles to each other. Grief is a very physical experience, and finding ways to use our bodies while holding digital space can be a way to work with this very physical side of emotional experience.

Remember the preciousness of life.

Dark side of the moon, light of side of the moon — it’s all moon. Life inevitably leads to death, and it’s in this realization we have opportunities to evaluate how we live today, how we care for each other today. I hope we can remember to tell the people we love that we love them, and to be kind even in our hurt. Death reminds us of the preciousness of life.