Ramtin Arablouei: The coronavirus is stealing our ability to grieve
Burial rites and mourning customs give shape to absence; they provide cues for how to behave when your world is shaken—and for how slowly to make the transition from acute grief to normal life. As we build new practices for this moment, we must name the void: To mourn in a moment of collective grief is to experience not one but multiple layers of loss. As my friend the scholar Sonya Posmentier, who lost her father to cancer just before the lockdown began, told me, “There’s the immediacy of the pandemic and the sense of grieving as a metaphor, more abstract—not for a body but for a life. And then there is grieving for the body, the person who is gone.”
Grief in normal times is confrontation with the implausible that is, alas, all too real. The world tilts on its axis. What you’ve taken for granted vanishes, often without explanation and sometimes without preparation. I remember thinking, after my mother died, that I was no longer sure the sidewalk would be solid when I stepped on it. In a pandemic, death becomes, brutally, less implausible. To lose someone in this moment is to experience grief laced upon grief, but it is also, as Sonya put it, to feel not alone. The strangest thing about mourning is that you leave the room of your sorrow, try to return to the behaviors and events of everyday life—a job, a social life—and find yourself at odds with those around you, for whom nothing is radically changed. How can the world go on, you think, when my mother is gone? “Usually you feel out of step in grief,” Sonya said. “But I feel unintentionally in step.”
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What we don’t know yet: how death on this scale will change the life of the nation, if it will. Perhaps it will lastingly affect the life of New York City—which has once again found itself at the center of a national tragedy, as it did after 9/11—but not of a small town in Arizona that goes largely unscathed.
What we do know, or ought to know: Mourning together is at least as important—more important?—to our survival as the divisive arguments about whether restoring the economy or protecting vulnerable people matters more. In this election year, every aspect of the pandemic and the nation’s response to it has been politicized, and there is no collective, top-down mourning process—an absence that is exposing the unseemly seams of our barely stitched-together society. Right now, our mourning feels individual, not collective, with fights breaking out about masks, freedom, “fake news,” and the like.
A formal feeling, as Emily Dickinson put it, sits in me, a sense of remove I want to eradicate by walking among the bodies of the living instead of sitting at home alone. What feels out of step right now is not my grief, but my distance from the community that shares it.