Mourning in a Time of Global Grief

I want to write about sitting at my grandmother’s death bed, a small cot in a simple room, watching her chest rise and fall, listening to the surprisingly forceful snore of her body expiring. It was April. Bubbe had just turned 98. Or close enough—I never knew her real birthday. Facts like these were lost along with her entire family in the Warsaw Ghetto, in bombings and trains and camps that Bubbe, as a teenager, narrowly escaped, alone.

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They told me she could hear me, although she wouldn’t talk anymore. Alive, Bubbe could never hear me, I’d have to speak up. But it felt uncouth to shout into the ear of a dying woman. Luckily, there was nothing left to say. A lot has been said. Among all the things Bubbe was for our family, a dancer, a Rummikub player, a plastic bag hoarder, a tub-of-whitefish freezer, a body ogler (Did you lose weight?), a body shamer (I love you, I just don’t love your beard), a soap opera watcher, the hero of my first book, an encourager of all things life and love (get married, have a baby, make love whenever you wannit, it’s very natural!), she was a voice, a voice that sang songs from the old country, a voice that recounted her losses and griefs, her sister’s plea for a shtickle fun broyt—just for a piece of bread—her mother’s laments, her father’s demand to tell the free world what they did to the Jews. Without stories like Bubbe’s, we would never have come to understand why we always feel so hunted, even when there is nothing looming over us but shadows.

An old person dies, you tell people it’s okay. She lived a good, long life. She had six great-grandchildren. That’s all that I wannit, Bubbe said, by the time she had just four. She died peacefully, avoiding pain, surrounded by family. A good death. I understand good death, having heard of such bad deaths, unmarked graves, and the rituals of remembrance replaced with fear and running.

“It’s ok. It was time.”

“But she was a Holocaust survivor,” a friend said. “That’s… a significant loss.”

A strange feature of what gets called inherited trauma is the sense that one’s ancestors are more significant because of the horrific things they succumbed to or endured. From this legacy is born a strange logic: the more we suffer, the more significant we are. To grow up descended from a Holocaust survivor is to learn how to peddle your suffering in the domestic economy of attention. There is only so much time and space for so many displays of discomfort. Does your stomach hurt? Well, there’s been shrapnel in my hip for 45 years. This is, it turns out, good practice for the attention economy, where only one tragedy can go viral a day and you better choose well with your one wild and precious post. But the descendants of survivors have always known that grief is no match for a marketplace. If you really had to choose whose pain matters more, you’d never be chosen a day in your life.

Descendants of survivors learn that storytelling catalyzes grief; because suffering must be witnessed and shared to earn its significance, and significance grants purpose to pain. But the witnesses are dying, as they inevitably do. So where do we put the significance? Into songs and movies, onto bookshelves and newsfeeds. And so the significance of the dead is ever hoisted onto the shoulders of the living. Significance is heavy, on top of grief. And all this grief and significance is heaviest still in the transcendent view from nowhere, a place we imagine but have never been, where we grasp the truth: that no one person, that no one people, is more significant than another.

Is this why the Talmud teaches: save a single person, and save the world? Because accounting for loss is a fiction that blooms in paradox. Because in grief math, 1+1 is infinity. But there are only 24 hours in a news cycle.

Lately, I read too many manifestos, polemics, apologetics, jeremiads, philippics, pamphlets, closing statements, statements of solidarity, commencement speeches, keynotes, tutorials, advertisements, takedowns. Or I read elegies, eulogies, laments. I want to write an essay that doesn’t end with a call to arms or a flag of defeat.

So I will offer, for this one essay, not an op-ed nor a dirge, but an ode. My grandmother used to sing about love. Anita, kum aros tzu mir aleyn. Come to me alone. But no, it doesn’t translate, she’d insist, whenever she tried to English-ize her Jewish songs. So I had to trust her. The untranslatable requires trust.

So trust me, this is a love song, a praise poem, for grief. Let us celebrate grief. Let us understand grief. Let us distinguish grief from mourning. Mourning is the ritualized display of loss; Grief is the way it feels to lose. Mourning is public; grief is private.

Mourning is performance; grief is invisible. Mourning is the sign; grief is the signified. This essay is mourning; grief is the thing I can’t show you.

Since Bubbe died, I found I’ve inherited her habit of filing my nails, which makes them grow longer. Bubbe used to file her nails on the couch while Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy or the soaps blared in the background. I do mine while lying morosely in bed with a heated blanket. I’m really not interested in long, sharp nails—my fingers are forever caked in pencil and ink, I keep scratching myself—but nice nails were always important to Bubbe, like makeup for her scars. Her left hand was injured in the war by a Nazi. He’d entered the farm where she was disguised as a Catholic and startled her into a straw-cutting machine. Even dying, she wore chipping orange polish. The rhythm blanks my mind and yields me a moment of control, some symmetry, beauty through pulverized proteins.

This is grief, but now that I’ve told you about it, it’s mourning. We retreat to our private rituals once the public ones—the funeral, the shiva, the commemorative games of Rummikub—are complete. We mourn in public because we can’t grieve in public; it’s impossible. Grief is in that class of things we can’t see or measure and so we often ignore: consciousness, soul, spirit. Grief is deep in the what-its-like-to-be-me part of me. We can’t count it; we can’t authenticate it; we can’t like it or share it, so it often goes untended to, uncared for. Grief lives at the locus of care.

Caring about is to caring for as grief is to mourning. We can care about those we aren’t caring for. We can care for people we don’t care about. We can grieve without mourning and mourn without grieving.

What does care look like? At my grandmother’s death bed, it looked like my aunt dipping a sponge in ginger ale, Bubbe’s favorite, and running it along her drying lips. It looked like my uncle’s fixation on her left leg, which was tucked awkwardly underneath her right. (May we all die straight.) It looked like the nursing student who didn’t even work at the nursing home anymore but came just to sit on Bubbe’s bed and massage her unstraight legs. Care may not undie the dying. Care is a final destination.

How far does care reach? We are concentric circles: self, body, family, kin, tribe, people, humanity, world, universe. Care burns at the center of these webs. Can care traverse the circles? Can a Jewish person, for example, feel connection to Palestinian agony, can they allow the grief of 35,000 dead into their innermost circle, commingling with the grief of being a Jew, 1200 upon six million upon upon upon? Maybe some can’t bear this much grief. Maybe those who try, will bear it poorly. What does care look like for strangers across the world? How many vigils, how many posts? The numbers of our care may not evidence the truth of our care: the invisible, uncountable thing that we can’t show anyone.

My grandmother said once that she wished she could draw, so she could draw her mother’s face again, just to bring her back to my eyes. There are no pictures of my grandmother’s mother; her existence is undocumented. What I can draw is her absence. Caring about people we don’t know and can’t see directly is necessarily abstraction. The logic of time and space prevents me from turning this caring about into caring for.

Caring about is to caring for as grief is to mourning. We can care about those we aren’t caring for. We can care for people we don’t care about. We can grieve without mourning and mourn without grieving. We may mourn to mark space for the grievers, because grief without mourning settles into the griever like sediment, transmogrifying their sadness into something caked and permanent.

Bubbe white abstract scaled e1717172213390

Our ability to care for is finite, but is it possible that our ability to care about is limitless? Maybe caring about lives in the land of grief math: one, two, infinity. Can I ask you to care about Bubbe? Let’s leave the door open to infinity. Caring is our only bridge to the transcendent view from nowhere. We’ll never play Rummikub there, but maybe, whenever a grandmother dies, the bridge comes into view.

This essay is not a treatise. I’ve said nothing about anger, about fear, about justice. I don’t know what you should do next. But you can keep singing this song, hum it to yourself, to the part of you that no one sees, where you care and where you grieve, for your own private losses, and for the global losses we try, imperfectly, to bear together.

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