The coronavirus pandemic of my experience has been a slow eruption of omnipresent neighborhood and planetary grieving, in a year that was already characterized for me by grief above all else: my mother died of cancer in London in November 2019. Before the virus’s death toll began accruing, I’d been doing research, belatedly, on collective death doulas, good deaths, death cafés, and the death positivity movement. As luck would have it, I was recruited into a neighborhood “grief circle,” directly after Mum’s death, by a flyer posted outside my house. I have been attending ever since. It is convened by the cofounder of Philly Death Doula Collective, Kai Wonder MacDonald. It’s in that space that I have grieved the fact that Mum didn’t have a particularly good death, nor even, for complex reasons, a real funeral.
Grief circles are confidential, loosely anonymous gatherings that are free or priced on a sliding scale. They exist for the sole purpose of bearing witness to the grief of others, and being witnessed in one’s own. The core premise is that witnessing grief reciprocally is an ancient form of mutual aid. There is no toxic positivity and no advice-giving. Ours currently takes place weekly and draws between six and fifteen attendees, about three of whom have remained constant throughout.
Our grief circle stepped into overdrive this spring, for obvious reasons. Kai now schedules specific circles for so-called “essential workers.” COVID-19 deaths, especially for the racialized populations that are bearing the brunt of the virus, are rarely good deaths. Kai’s “trauma-informed” practice holds that lonely, fearful, disenfranchised deaths, in turn, breed trauma among the living.
At every single grief circle, I’ve heard two or three or four or five new stories from people who have lost someone to an opioid overdose—the epidemic before the pandemic. It shouldn’t perhaps have taken so much to drive the reality of this crisis in my city home to me, but it did. It took my breath away. Now, drug users in Philly (including the sex workers who run their own community center, Project SAFE) face a perfect storm of lethal risk. Overdose rates, we think, are already rising as a result of lockdown measures—more people using on their own in social isolation—not to mention COVID-19-related economic contraction, disruptions to the drug and sex markets, and suspensions of some outreach and harm-reduction services.
Operators on the national “Never Use Alone” hotline stay on the phone with people while they use. But, as Sophie Pinkham noted in the Nation, “people are wary about disclosing their drug use and address to a stranger, and many of Project SAFE’s participants don’t have stable access to a phone.” On account of the isolation that causes deaths from overdose in the first place, I fear there will be a great quantity of grief, borne of more overdose deaths, to contend with imminently.
There have been myriad other species of death aired at grief circle: unexpected ones and planned ones, good deaths and bad, experiences of dying well, experiences of dying stubbornly and in denial. Shootings, car accidents, suicides, complications from diabetes, cancers. Multiple deaths. One’s own imminent death through terminal illness. Break-ups. Dead hopes and dreams. At grief circle, we witness it all.
Before the time of coronavirus, our gatherings were hosted in Kai’s living room. Nowadays, the circle, like every other goddamn thing in life, takes place on Zoom. But it works. Our grief is geographically dispersed now; it feels like consciousness-raising. Recently, the alternative intimacy of the muted virtual listening, and the sensitivity we’ve begun to develop to each other’s facial cues on gallery view, unleashed a wave of collective crying I had never experienced before in that forum. All eight of us were crying along with a healthcare provider in Oregon who was unbearably exhausted, overwhelmed by the fear and death that COVID-19 has unleashed in her workplace. After that, we cried for someone who felt utterly bereft: a life-partner of fifty years is dead, and the pandemic lockdown measures are only compounding her hopeless loneliness.
Grief whirls like wind. It often does not go away even after the same twenty conversations have been had with patient friends. It tires, maddens, frustrates. Or it reorients desires, sometimes fruiting in the form of lush anti-productivity. Grief can bring both anhedonia and joy, fug and lucidity, desire and depression, to an alienated life.
When our grief has structural causes, it can be the ground of struggle and a utopian political force. As adrienne maree brown puts it, “grief shows us what we love, what we most want to protect.” Like death, it can be bad for the economy. The laws of value accumulation would have us rush it. The clocks of capital tick out austere rations of “compassionate leave” for the bereaved. In a better society, we would have great numbers of places “for public weeping,” like those Anne Boyer planned to build before she got sick with cancer: “a temple where anyone who needed it could get together to cry in good company and with the proper equipment.”
At the end of February, having listened plenty during grief circles to my vertigo about society’s unwillingness to speak ill of the dead, and my anguish about my mother’s lack of a funeral, Kai offered to help me conceptualize a memorial. “That’s a great idea,” I immediately said. One with cigarettes and vodka, in her honor, at the nature reserve. We had a planning discussion. The date I picked was April 25. I don’t need to tell you that it turned out to be yet another appointment transferred from meatspace to Zoom.
Thirty people ended up participating—including my two friends who helped with Mum’s transfer from hospital to the hospice, and a substantial number of unconnected friends who’d been bereaved of their own parents and were simply hungry for ritual, or else willing to bear witness. Kai looked on. My heart felt full and serene. Poems were read, and songs sung, according to the program I’d drawn up. I had spent the best part of a week on a slideshow studded with several gigabytes worth of photos and music, ample quotations from her writing, video of her in the hospital, and even an audio clip from her 1970s radio-documentary work on German-Jewish refugees living in the UK. I sucked in rancid cigarette smoke indoors, and day-drank, and felt truly that I was in her presence. I exhaled. I admired the incomplete tapestry of her painful, beautiful life I had constructed out of PowerPoint. I returned, insofar as that’s possible, the virtual gaze of my laughing and weeping friends. I got some respite. I felt proud. I still do.
Sophie Lewis is a writer and occasional translator living in Philadelphia. She is the author of many articles and essays and of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso Books, 2019). She is a member of the Out of the Woods collective, which has just published Hope Against Hope: Writings on Ecological Crisis. You can support her writing at patreon.com/reproutopia.