The bathroom door was shut tightly, more to keep me in than keep anything else out. Grief was a groundswell of embodied emotion I didn’t trust myself to touch. Certainly not in wide open spaces. I needed to feel contained in a moment when I couldn’t trust my own bones and skin to do that work, so I turned to the smallest room of my apartment and stayed there until the wave passed.
The most important part for any reader to know is that the wave does pass. It will come again, barreling with the force of a hundred storms over your precious survivor body, rattling the foundations of whatever place you currently call home (even if it still feels like you’re looking for what that could possibly mean). The process of homecoming in survivorship can be the work of years, even a lifetime, of meaning making. It is worthy of your patience and tender progress. Keep seeking.
One of the most vexing things about wild grief is that it is never about only one thing. When the tears, rage, deep avoidance, or cunning bargaining find us, they never come alone. It requires not simply reckoning with this moment which tenuously holds the unconscionable police murder of George Floyd and ongoing violence against protesters nationwide, many of whom may be our friends and self-made family.
Nor is it grief only for COVID, for its baffling death tolls and the ways it’s tasked communities to stretch beyond what we dreamt possible to support each other online. Nor it is only for COVID’s long weeks in isolation and thousands of layoffs, or the distrust it’s built in us for each other and the very air we breathe.
Nor is it only for rapidly escalating violence against Trans People of Color, including the murders of Riah Milton in Ohio and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells in Pennsylvania, both of which occurred within twenty four hours of each other; or the humiliation and preventable death of Layleen Polanco in New York (trigger warning: the link to Layleen Polanco’s news article contains very triggering video footage); the police murder of Tony McDade in Florida; and the murder of Nina Pop in Missouri in May.
These crises, the murder of George Floyd, the COVID pandemic, and escalating violence against Trans People of Color are inextricably bound to each other as crises of justice. Grief over them is bound together as well. Let’s pause there for a moment and hold space for the sheer enormity of that noble feeling. It takes so much courage to show up for humanity through raw grief work; Alok reminds us, “loss creates the space for something else, the cycle, stubborn & unyielding of a forrest [sic] set ablaze only to bloom again.” Something is burning here. It may be your city, your old ideas, your ability to sleep, friendships you thought would withstand the end of the world, all suddenly reduced to ash and pepper spray. That’s okay, brave one. As absolutely not-okay as it feels to a body alight with panic, may you take some comfort knowing it is urgently necessary for many things to burn in moments of deep grief. That is even a resplendent part of the work so that stubborn new growth can find its way through.
Rather than being indicative of personal failure or weakness, the enormity of our grief is a powerful reckoning against the injustices of our world. Grief work matters, and in time it helps communities find space and language to regrow after the unthinkable. It must not be rushed.
Now that we have paused to consider, however briefly, the objective enormity of carrying this moment with all of its fear and unthinkable hurt, it’s important to turn towards the extra weight that being a survivor of violence brings to this moment. Many survivors find themselves facing increased sleeplessness and nightmares, agitation and restlessness, flashbacks across the sensory spectrum, relationship difficulties, numbing out or sensation seeking behaviors, and dissociation switching with amnesia. Any traumatic symptomatology one normally has can be adversely affected in times of societal trauma and collective adrenaline and grief. I find some comfort knowing that I’m not alone in this and that it is a natural biological response based in our wiring as herd animals. I’ve written about this and COVID elsewhere, and bring it up again here to remind us all that we are biologically attuned to what everyone else in our “herd” is feeling in order to survive. Research by preeminent trauma scientists like Peter Levine suggest that survivors of violence may become hyper- or hypo-attuned to these collective threat messages based on our how our body was or was not able to successfully respond to past experiences, and that these varied arousal states are carried with us through life until we do deep healing and trauma release work.
What that may mean for those of us who are experiencing deep grief now is that we are finally processing embodied trauma through the window of this moment. That trauma may reach all the way back through our past since grief and trauma don’t separate time like we do. That is part of the reason why nightmares from childhood can become so much worse in a global crisis like this one even if the subject matter feels unrelated to our waking minds. What it also may mean for those of us who feel disconnected from our grief is that our bodies or environments don’t yet feel safe enough, however subconsciously, to “go there.” Though it’s a highly gendered book, I strongly recommend the book The Courage To Heal for learning to build safety and work with emotions, relationships, spirituality, and memories as a survivor of Child Sexual Abuse and Safe Passage to Healing for a very gentle guide to building safety after ritual abuse and mind control.
My therapist reminds me often that the ways in which grief seems to zig-zag from one topic to another is anything but superfluous or self-indulgent. It’s how the brain naturally sorts, makes sense of, and eventually heals overwhelming information. Though many people like to ascribe linear stories to traumatic events, (and the legal system will require a linear story if we go to it to seek justice), the brain actually sorts traumatic material based much more on association than linearity, and that association can be based on any or all of the sensate experiences giving feedback to the traumatic event. It’s no wonder, then, why experiencing such deep grief now can also open the floodgates to something that happened five or thirty-five years ago when that same deep-grief emotion was first viscerally felt. These associations are appropriate and necessary for the material to be “sorted out” and healed, and it’s also necessary to be particular about where and when we allow that sorting to happen so that we choose safe receptacles and respect others’ boundaries while they grieve these murders and pandemics too.
Through it all, it’s crucial to remember that the waves will pass, and though it feels like it will pull your very life up by the roots this grief work is worth it. You are not in it alone. Check out FORGE’s many resources for hope and inspiration to keep going on your healing journey. I believe in you.