The work of grieving can seem too overwhelming, too complex for mere civilians to comprehend. We understand how to mourn, why to mourn. We go through the rituals of burial and accepting or providing condolences after losing loved ones, enduring a national disaster, or absorbing the new normal reality of a terminal medical condition into our lives. Mourning is easy because it can become more understandable and acceptable in private, beneath the shadows. More often than not, we are expected to mourn in private after a prescribed period of time (usually one year) so as to not interfere with the lives of the more fortunate. After all, dark clouds will always break up and the sun will come up tomorrow, right?
In Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief, editor Cindy Millstein has compiled 25 challenging, interesting, pointed reflections on the importance of learning how and when to mourn outside the box, to rage against more than just Dylan Thomas’s “darkness of the night” and expand that anger to the glare of the noonday sun. It’s the idea of working collectively, the necessity of understanding that those on the journey — from initial mourning to grieving (finite or long-term) — must have a guide. There needs to be a focus. More importantly, there needs to be an understanding that pain and suffering is not something personal to be endured behind closed doors.
For Millstein, who writes in “Prologue/Cracks in the Wall”, the mission seems clear. Life is cruel, and one of the cruelest effects of the way we operate as a society is “…the expectation that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatized — a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our… losses.”
In other words, the personal is political. An inability to get through that concept will make it difficult to accept the premise of this text. Millstein notes that the topics of the essays here range “…from colonialism to incarceration, climate catastrophe to poverty, rape to chronic illness, one’s culture to one’s dignity…” Rebellious Mourning is certainly about loss and sadness, the common feelings that come from never being able to understand suffering, but through the loss and sadness there needs to be a sense of empowerment and ownership. This is my grief, the writers are saying. This is how I am processing it. What seems to matter most here is not the need for reader endorsement or relatability so much as testimony. This is my story and I need to tell it.
There’s definitely some revelation and beauty in the rubble of the stories told here. Take Benji Hart’s “Feeling Is Not Weakness”. In his article he writes of organizing marches to protest the murder of a 22-year-old black woman in 2015 by an off-duty Chicago cop. The protest, which he called “They Don’t Care About Us”, drew the community together, but for Hart the risks remain. “The most intense violence… the intentional erasure of history… will never dissuade us from fighting back. My sadness is proof of my love…” In her essay “The Condition of Black Life Is one of Mourning”, writer Claudia Rankine goes deeper:
“We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here… Anti-black racism is in the culture… The Black Lives Matter movement can be read as an attempt to keep mourning an open dynamic in our culture because black lives exist in a state of precariousness.”
These are facts, clearly and systematically delivered. What works best and runs through the bulk of the works in Rebellious Mourning is the absence of histrionics and agit-prop bellowing. Writer Lee Sandusky is effective in her essay “Dust of the Desert”, about the precarious nature of life on the US/Mexico border and the fact that the lack of media coverage about so many people lost and mysteriously disappeared is systematic of American sensibility: “Yet I do not grieve alone,” she writes. Later, “…our grief is not necessarily in solidarity; our grief is our own.” These pieces are not suggesting there’s unity in grief or the grieving process. Instead, they’re advocating for an acknowledgement of different styles of the grieving process, different varieties of rebellion, and for us to let the process play itself out.
Kevin Yuen Kit Ho’s “Fragments Toward a Whole” is a devastating account of the author’s sexual abuse at the hands of a camp counselor in Nova Scotia. In 1992, when he’s 14, he watches Sinead O’Connor’s famous Saturday Night Live protest against child abuse in the Catholic church. “My world shatters. It is the first time I connect those words with what happened to me…” It’s an effective image for those who remember that broadcast, how the complicit silence of the TV audience spoke volumes about the world at large.
Wren Awry’s “Lungful of Mountain” takes the reader into the changing economic conditions and terminal physical states of some coal miners on West Virginia: “Collective grief meant not just holding hands in eulogistic prayer but also liking a Facebook status that quoted Mother Jones…” Mari Matsumoto and Sabu Kohso’s “Rages of Fukushima and Grief in a No-Future Present” brings the reader to Japan, nuclear fallout, and the uncertainty of everything:
“The nuclear disaster doesn’t have an end, and therefore healing by mourning is out of the question at this point. What unites us is rage…”
Jeff Clark’s “To Mourn and Strike” nicely illustrates the idea that the very word “grieve” to initiate a “grievance”, means to move forward, to advance on the streets or otherwise, to make yourself visible and known. Clark’s section is an interview with artists who have created public memorials to the departed (accompanied by replications of that art). Artist Micah Bazant, who created a haunting black and white portrait of slain trans activist Keisha Jenkins, puts it this way:
“We love to look at faces, make eye contact…The memorial drawings always intentionally show someone making intense eye contact…I want people to be forced to connect with someone who has literally been erased in life and death…”
It’s this type of truth that makes the majority of material in Rebellious Mourning so immediate and important, so refreshing in a literary marketplace more comfortable with simplistic sayings and Chicken Soup for everybody’s soul (except maybe not yours). Loss is never comfortable. Mourning is never easy. Grieving is a strange mixture of rage and silence. If art can force viewers to confront those who had spent their lives in a marginalized netherworld (no matter who put them there) then it’s certainly doing its job.
Sarah Schulman’s “The Gentrification of AIDS” is a long, complicated, yet fascinating account of how she sees white gay men (whom she has long championed) as guilty in the slow but certain gentrification of neighborhoods in New York City. “Although I have spent thirty years of my life writing about the heroism of gay men, I have also come to understand their particular brand of cowardice.” If her argument is that writer Andrew Sullivan’s 1996 declaration that we had reached the end of AIDS is indicative of its whitewashing (that less whites were dying of it therefore the pandemic had ended), then she more than makes her point. More deeply, though, she argues that the national tragedy of 9/11 in NYC was the final mark of the gentrification of AIDS:
“On 9/11, 2,752 people died in New York City. These human beings have been highly individuated… The disallowed grief of twenty years of AIDS deaths was replaced by ritualized and institutionalized mourning of the acceptable dead. In this way, 9/11 is the gentrification of AIDS.”
It’s certainly an audacious claim, but she more than supports it by asking questions. “Where is our catharsis, our healing? Where is our post-traumatic stress diagnosis? Where is our recovery?”
Again, none of this is comfortable or convenient. None of this is easy to take, nor should it be. If mourning is the initial expectation, grieving is the next stage, then essays like Schulman’s should be necessary parts of the national healing process.
There are other highlights in this book. Harmony Hazard’s “What Is Possible” is about her experiences in Mexico, and this discussion of revolution sets her tone: “I have a friend whose high school history teacher was also a dancer, and so he explained revolution by breaking the word down to revolve… and demonstrated this by spinning slowly in front of the class.” Cindy Milstein’s “Ghost Stories/Rock, Paper, Ashes” looks at personal family loss and bearing witness in concentration camps in Poland. She evokes the feeling of disconnection and unity and the need to find common ground:
“I grow confused, mixing up decades, blurring centuries… I become obsessed, seeking continuity at every turn… This translates into compulsion to pay homage to all those murdered.”
There are slower parts to this text, essays that might be wandering through the same territory as others and not shining a better light into the darker regions. Milstein is a judicious editor and a fine writer in her prologue and essay contribution, but this volume could have been trimmed by perhaps 25 percent and been twice as powerful. The sin of generosity is understandably human, though, and for that Milstein should be absolved. Her line about getting confused is what works best in her work as a writer. Cindy Milstein’s Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief is an important book, especially in international times where the worst natures in the worst of us seem to be amplified with each passing day.