The Politics of Grief During a Pandemic

By Lily Kay Ross, PhD|May 7, 2020

The grief we live with during the COVID-19 pandemic is political.

Illustration by Orian Lathrop

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The grief we live with during the Covid-19 pandemic is political. The threat of death stalks the streets, and so we grieve the freedom of movement and the lives we had a few months ago. As a consequence of overwhelming and outrageous failures of leadership, the grief of losing loved ones will touch exponentially more people than it might have otherwise. Capitalists urging workers to get back to serving elite economic interests incites grief for the hope that maybe a crisis like this would elicit more human compassion and consideration. 

Disappointment can be a form of grief. And while there are ample examples of mutual aid, generosity, and solidarity, these points of light coexist with the emotional, relational, and political realities of our grief.

We are actively grieving who and what we have already lost, and experiencing anticipatory grief of what we stand to lose. Some of our losses are ambiguous. We can’t always see or name what we feel slipping away. We aren’t just bereft of loved ones, we are losing access to precious moments. When people we love die from COVID-19, we can’t be by their side, hear their last words, tell them we love them. We can’t see or touch or bathe their bodies. We have no material proof that they are really gone. These abstractions compound grief.

I remember a day in late February when it hit me: the world I woke up in the week before, the month before, was gone. What lay ahead was unknown then, and remains unknown now. We have to dwell in a prolonged uncertainty that is laden with threats.

It’s not all brand new. This is also a period where we are forced to confront the uncertainty that has long been leaking through the fissured surface of late capitalism. So many people already live at the edges of those fissures. The inhumanity of our social, political, and economic systems is laid bare at the same moment that these systems face an existential threat. Toxic systems were the devil we knew. We can see the devil’s face even more clearly today than we could three months ago.

I am among many whose political critiques are rooted in psychedelic insights of interconnection. These insights help me understand and resist everyday assaults on life, ecosystems, and humanity commited by imperialist white supremacist capitalist [hetero] patriarchy. The incursion and colonization of psychedelic spaces by capitalists, charlatans, and leeches grieves me because what I have learned from psychedelics guides me in times like these. It grieves me to see psychedelics diluted and co-opted to reproduce the hegemonic social and political structures that psychedelics inspired me to resist in the first place. 

There is fuel inside of this grief. It shows me what I care about. My grief and its siblings—rage, hope, sorrow, love—mobilize me to continue resisting madness and working toward a more just, egalitarian, and humane configuration of our society and shared resources.

Our grief now serves a powerful, political function. There is work to do, now and over the coming months, toward dismantling oppressive systems and building a better world. Our grief informs that work. Our capacity to be present with who and what we have lost, and what we stand to lose, can enhance our sense of connection to our values and to each other. In grieving together, we stand to build and nurture relationships that are the seedbed of collective resistance and hope.

I know I am not the only one whose sensitivity to grief—and the tools I’ve developed to process it—derive from psychedelic experience. It was because of psychedelics that I pursued training and education in clinical chaplaincy. My time with families at the bedsides of their sick and dying loved ones taught me how showing up for grief was a way of affirming life. That’s one reason I believe we need to stay present with our grief throughout this pandemic: because it keeps us attuned to love and life as nothing else can.

Here is what I have learned about grief:

Be with it. Give yourself time everyday—maybe three minutes, maybe three hours—to stare at the wall and feel the emotions and sensations of grief, whether acute, abstract, or anticipatory. Maybe you’ll weep, maybe you won’t. Maybe there’s a song or movie that’s sure to get a river flowing on your cheeks. If the tears are coming, let them rock. 

Make a list of things you find self-soothing, and keep it readily available; different states of grief can make it hard to know what you need or how to soothe yourself, so having a ready-made list is like a love letter to your future self, offering a roadmap to comfort for moments when you’re distressed. Try baths, walks, making art, building a fire, or cocooning in a blanket. 

Remember that current griefs can make old griefs feel alive again. If you know someone has lost a lot of important people in their life, be aware that they may need extra care right now.

Talk about it. Ask people about their grief or what they are afraid of losing, and respond in ways that normalize it. Share. If someone you care about is experiencing death and loss, ask them about the person they lost and invite them to reminisce. What stories do they remember? What did they appreciate about that person? Listen. Be kind. You can ask questions and offer engagement, and even if the invitation of engagement is declined for now, you have signaled that you are available. Just knowing support is on hand is its own comfort.

The road ahead is long and too twisted to see what’s next. Where we are now is a complex jumble of emotions and basic human needs. There is so much to tend to, so much to do just to survive, and so little comfort. Grief is not a thing people feel, it’s a thing people do. And in these times, it’s an asset to our survival—especially if we grieve together. 

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Lily Kay Ross, PhD

@ LilyKayRoss

Lily Kay Ross, PhD has been taking a feminist approach to theorizing ethics in psychedelic spaces since 2009, especially with regard to sexual misconduct, abuses of power, charlatans, and the dominance of traditional gender norms in psychedelic spaces. Her PhD research looks at how neoliberal discourses burden victim/survivors of sexual violence with the directive to individually overcome social problems, and the trouble with posttraumatic growth. Her other projects advance best practice and evidence based policies and responses to sexual harm. She is a feminist writer, educator, and violence prevention facilitator. After a five year hiatus from psychedelics, she’s happy to be home.