Feeling, Grieving and Organizing

Published - 10 August 2021

I’ve been thinking about the essential role that grieving plays in our grassroots organizing and movement building work. With the death of family members during covid, the death and transformation of our ecosystem around us, I’ve had an intimate relationship with death and dying.

We’re all losing something, We’ve all lost something and we’re all losing something right now…and in my work as an organizer, artist and yoga teacher I really want to invite people to turn towards that so you can heal. Because, there is so much we’ve denied and patterns continue to persist.

To be Black, Indigenous or a member of any oppressed class in America is to know traumatic loss. As humans, we are hardwired for the fact that death is a natural part of life. While loss is deeply uncomfortable, we can learn to adapt to the natural phenomenon of loss. But when structural inequalities produce major and secondary losses, leading to widespread collective grief, death is out of balance with life. Individual and collective, repeated and generational, traumatic loss stacked on top of existing natural loss. We must tear down the systems, institutions and narratives that engineer death, fuel it and simultaneously distract us from it. This essential rebalancing act is at the heart of social justice movements.

Because death belongs; it’s not the burden. Death is a natural part of every life cycle. Our bodies will die. Our organizations will die. Our movements will die. Likewise, the specific conditions that oppress our families and communities will also come to an end. Endings are not to blame. Loss is simply an element of change. Change is the heartbeat of social movement. But, on either side of change is loss. Reimagining the world requires that we release the parts of the system and ways of being that are ready to die, and mourn the destructive losses that we could not control, despite our best efforts.

What becomes possible when movements are brought more healthfully to grief, and what can we do to support leaders, organizations and movements to get there?

Cheryl Espinosa-Jones, a grief counselor, author and the host of the Good Grief podcast offers 4 steps for moving through grief, which I interprete as an offering not only for individuals and leaders but also for organizations and social movements as a whole.

Step 1: Feel the loss fully. Espinosa-Jones makes it plain: ​“Grief knows what it’s doing.” Grief is wise and ancient and knows what to do. When we deny or ignore grief’s processes, it can lead to apathy, addiction and unhealthy forms of anger.

Yet, for centuries, systems of racial, economic and gender hierarchy have disenfranchised the grief of people of color, women, children, disabled people, queer and trans communities, and the poor. Dominant narratives about grief have turned gaslighting into the cultural norm we’re all immersed in, convincing us that it is safer to deny grief than to feel it.

At every turn, we are persuaded that grief is a wild, unacceptable emotion that must be handled, managed, overwritten and hidden. We are pressured by political and even physical force to prioritize productivity over personal well-being, to seek “a longer, eternal life” over embodied presence, even as we live through the most traumatic losses.

For each BIPOC life taken by police or interpersonal violence, how many spouses, siblings, children or parents had sufficient bereavement leave? What would happen if BIPOC communities were to fully embody the losses of land, culture and freedom emerging from white supermacist, colonial realities? Would agency or apathy be the result if immigrant communities could steep in the loss of land, language and family? Would Indigenous communities across the globe have more or fewer negative health outcomes if there were space to feel and then transform the grief of genocide? As we seek to breathe a new world into being, being an effective organizer demands the right and power to feel our losses rather than escape them. We must give our grieving bodies what they need, individually and collectively.

Stop conflating health and productivity. Stop giving positive feedback when staff immediately return to work, appear less emotional or don’t ask for appropriate accommodations following a major loss. The systems of inequality we seek to transform reject what Espinosa-Jones calls ​“a relational culture.” Meaning: a culture of noticing and acknowledgment. Violently enforced inequality makes truth, reconciliation, reparations and accountability impossible. Becoming aware of grief gives us more choices about how to respond to grief and opens up possibilities to approach grief not only with compassion for self and others.

Step 2: Seek solace and comfort. As we expand a broad awareness of grief, we learn to approach our own grief and the grief of others without judgment. We practice the art of accompaniment without projecting any part of ourselves out. Denying grief denies humanity. Yet, becoming aware of one’s own grief, reaching out for professional or peer support, and owning your grief journey can open your awareness until you see grief you didn’t even realize was there.

During times of massive collective loss, let us rebuke apathy by reimagining social justice organizations and formations as vehicles to metabolize and transform grief into agency. This requires resilient infrastructure and embodied methodology. Resilient infrastructure may include creating special funds and referral lists that support staff healing; offering extended bereavement leave policies; cross-training staff to increase organizational redundancy; and supporting staff boundaries. At the end of the day, the question is whether your leaders and staff have the skills to recognize grief and the resources to respond when it appears.

Step 3: Find inspiration. In the civil rights and Third World Liberation movements of the 1960s, organizations, campaigns and young people used song, poetry and other art forms to support the transformation of grief into a wise protagonism and active agency. Art in all its forms allows grief to reveal us, gives sorrow words, deepens our gratitude with grief’s weight and reminds each of us that only those who grieve profoundly can love deeply — and from loving one another, we grow our agape love for the world.

Step 4: Take action from this place of grounded grief. In our conversation, Espinosa-Jones reminded me that an individual’s psychology can heal by finding the courses of action that match one’s felt need— but there are no skipped steps. Sitting with discomfort is always first, followed by connection and inspiration — but at the end of the day, we need action to metabolize grief and transform our material and cultural conditions. Metabolized grief can power deep and lasting change infused with profound joy, while unmetabolized grief becomes an almost insurmountable barrier to it.

Something is dying, and we are desperate for something new to be born. We can feel it, quivering with hope at the edge of a century. It is a firecracker dancing across a night sky. Here. Now. Grounded grief is a vaccine against the morbid conditions bred by white supremacy, a patriarchy that has distorted our families and relationships, a concentration of wealth that has disconnected us from nature and directed everything brilliant and beautiful to profit. Only through the compassion and loneliness and love inherent in grief can we forge a world out of the fire that will not replicate ancient hierarchies.

To have a movement that heals us, we must build a movement with the capacity to grieve.