It seems like so few people in America know how to hold grief together. We are often isolated in all its crackling expanse, raw depth, and the ways grief makes its own fissures into each of our lives as uniquely as the designs of each snowflake that can already be seen in small flurries across the Midwest. While people often talk about the widely known five or seven stages of grief as a nonlinear framework for understanding the emotions most commonly traversed as one grieves, there can be a cacophonous silence in the wake of actually feeling them in public and private. It is into this silence that I hope to offer some meaningful noise as we come down from Trans Day of Remembrance while still shouldering the ongoing universal devastations of COVID, climate crisis, and the most aggressive wave of anti-trans legislation America has seen in years, each of which we know can be especially traumatic to trans and nonbinary people.
It’s important to first clarify that I am not a licensed mental health professional. My reflections on trauma, grief, and healing come from lived experience and precious work in community as a Disability and Mad Justice rabble rouser and crisis responder, harm reduction advocate, and Jewish wrestler with all that is miraculous, mundane, mortal, and morbid in this life. While my experiences of trauma in my own life and in my communities has taught me much about healing and stewardship, it hasn’t taught me traditional therapeutic approaches to grief work that may benefit some people. For that, I recommend you check FORGE’s guide on accessing affirming therapy.
Whether or not you engage in grief work with a therapist, learning to embody and process grief in a society that often demands it be kept contained, tidy, and private is a skill I believe all trans and nonbinary survivors can benefit from. I’ve found myself thinking, writing, and talking about grief nearly every day over the last few months. It’s a common topic for me in general as a trans and nonbinary focused trauma healer at FORGE, but after receiving greater clarity that my degenerative disease is terminal I realized just how ill prepared I, my community, and America as a whole is to hold grief tenderly and fiercely. The common model for grieving seems to be that someone’s grief flows outward while their community’s support flows inward to meet them: This can be useful in that it sets up a familiar binary between self and community, and gives clear directions for how overwhelming processes “should” move between the two. This model can offer a useful map to help everyone figure out how to navigate the experiences of grief that often feel completely uncharted even if we can rattle off its purported stages from memory.
But, Trans Day of Remembrance demands that we upend the model and plunge into a grief that is as collective as its care. It is a day in which directional models of grief lose their salience because the binary between self and community dissolves completely: We grieve together as wide and watercolor as sunrise, color and dark smearing into possibility after our darkest hours, or at least presence with what already is. We care for each other and ourselves with all the mutuality we can muster because we know the list of names is as long and incomplete this year as it was the last and will be again. We care messily, desperately, with the grounded belief that our care can shorten that list for future generations, that caring and grief threatens the very empire that propels the day’s recitation, that these practices of tender survival make blessings of those we remember.
Grief threatens empire. I learned this most clearly from my brilliant teachers of time and reclamation, Elana June Margolis and Annie-Rose London. It guides everything I do moving through my own terminal prognosis and through Trans Day of Remembrance as an agender survivor doing healing work in community. This kind of grief often rejects formulaic stages and maps, even if it borrows their wise scaffolding, to instead roar and whisper open in the moments when tidy grief is most demanded and silence seems too great a weight to shift. It screams on the highway with the windows down or into softly lit rooms without apology for how our housemates or the nurses outside might hear. It refuses to say “fine, thanks” when people ask us how we are, remembering how queer, chronically ill, survivor poet Andrea Gibson teaches us, “fine is the suckiest word” and we can instead do the work of “building a museum for all the treasures [we] unearth in the rock bottom.” It rejects normative and polite timelines and instead continues to ripple across time and space authentically: Crying in the subway, lighting candles three or ten or thirty years later, naming our beloved dead over dinner, telling new friends and lovers about their favorite music when it comes on the radio or making that joke you shared that maybe no one else now understands but fits perfectly. Grief threatens empire by rooting us in our bodies and communities with pulsing messiness, beautiful and wrecking non-linearity, and non-productivity. It challenges toxic individualism by reminding us to lean on each other with hearts scraped raw and pushes back against transactional models of relating by allowing us to show up absolutely heartbroken with nothing to give and having that be enough, be held, be holy. When I think about how grieving in community threatens empire, I reflect on how communities around the world have often criminalized women who grieve publicly by wailing together in acknowledgment that their outpouring of heartbreak and outrage can start a tidal wave of change, a necessary shift towards healing where before stasis ruled.
The night before Trans Day of Remembrance, I gathered with a handful of my community to welcome in Shabbat at the community church where we hold services holding that wailing in my heart. The heat was broken again, but the warmth that swelled from praying together, our voices rising and cracking in song both aching and joyful, won out over winter’s chill. My friends who were leading talked about how healing, transformative, and resistant it was to come together and sing as a community of so many trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer people. Too often, our voices mark us as targets for violence, discrimination, ridicule, and oppression. Too often, we are forced to change our voices depending on the audience or how we are perceived in that moment, or to choose silence altogether to stay safe. To sing, remember, grieve, rejoice, and resist is to reclaim trans euphoria, survival, sanctity, and hereness. Tears streamed openly down into my mask while they spoke and I reflected on how trans and nonbinary survivors may know this fraught decision between silence and throwing our voices especially well, and how reclaiming them through song, community, and storytelling heals not only ourselves but entire communities and generations. Before we left, my Rabbi offered that “We do the work of remembering and honoring the resilience of trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer people every day- not just today.” I have carried that in my heart since as a reminder to keep building Gibson’s museum even when our community has outlasted its Week of Visibility and Day of Remembrance; to make raucous grief and raucous resistance, messy love and messy healing, our life work in our own bones and in our communities.