The Role of Unacknowledged Grief in the US Election
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
On the night of November 8, 2016, my husband and I were lying in bed, stunned and confused. We were both trying to accept the results of our country’s presidential election that evening. We heard the front door open, followed by footsteps slowly climbing the stairs. And then I felt the weight of my 17-year-old son as he dropped his body onto our bed. We listened to an intense monologue woven of fears and concerns (“What about your health care, Mama?” “What will happen to all the civil rights that have been achieved recently?” “Will he lead us into some nuclear war?” and the most often repeated one – “How in the world could this have happened?”).
I felt as if I were sleepwalking through the following day. As I attended to my work, I frequently found that I had exited my body; during meetings and appointments, I struggled to remain present and focused. But when I did turn my attention to the situation, I felt engulfed with waves of fear. As I stood looking at yogurt in the grocery store, I glanced toward the woman standing next to me; “Did she vote for him; does she want to take away my healthcare and the rights of people I love?” I wondered, “Should I be afraid of her?”
When I got home that afternoon, my son said to me, “I feel numb. Is this my first big loss? Is this grief?”
Yes, it was. Everything that we each were experiencing ~ the numbness, the confusion, the anger, and the fear ~ is a part of grief.
Anyone who has lost someone or something significant is no stranger to the vast landscape of grief. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross labeled five different stages of loss (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), but those of us familiar with grief know that there are many, many more. We also know that calling these features in the landscape of death “stages” can give the impression that the grieving process is one that can be (and perhaps should be) mastered by going through a fixed, static program of steps.
I am not claiming that everything I was experiencing then (and continue to experience now) can be attributed to grief. I experience outbursts of righteous anger and of fear for myself and others. But I have become exceedingly aware that I also have been in mourning since November 8. That mourning often does feel like fear (and I am comforted by C. S. Lewis’ wisdom that, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” ~ Lewis, A Grief Observed). Sometimes it takes the form of depression, sometimes of agitation, sometimes of magical thinking (for instance, fantasies that this is all a dream).
What I know from years of exploring loss and grief (in my own life, through my hospice work, and through Spiritual Direction with others) is that grief is never something to be mastered; rather, it is something we must allow to master us. So I decided shortly after the election to allow myself to grieve, to follow the process wherever it led, and to try to honor the losses I had experienced in ways that felt supportive and sacred to me.
I often found myself reading pieces in social media posts that felt almost assaultive to me. When I heard comments that seemed to imply that I and others who voted like I did were just “sore losers”, I thought, “How can they not see the pain we are in? This is not just about losing something like a football game. This is deep grief ~ of beliefs, of feelings of safety, of hope, of so many things”.
And then I read something that blasted open my mind and my heart ~ two areas I found I had locked up tight for safekeeping as the election results rolled across my computer screen that night. A friend of a friend commented on some Facebook post, “Now you know how I have felt for the past eight years.”
Wow. Yes, NOW I did know. And this was something I had not allowed myself to know before. As this new awareness began to filter throughout my being, I felt the weight of remorse.
I felt remorse for not seeing the pain of the people who disagreed with me. I’m a progressive (some would even say radical) liberal, as is everyone in my household. So we have been rejoicing in the changes that we have seen happening in our country. And our rejoicing did not allow us to see that others were grieving. I still rejoice in all those changes; and I still fervently believe in them. But this does not negate the fact that they were causes of grief for other people.
I continued to explore this remorse and the areas where I had blinded myself to others’ grief. And soon the question began to arise ~ it was almost imperceptible at first and eventually it became deafeningly loud ~ “What role did unexplored grief play in this election?” Looking through this lens of loss and grief, I began to wonder if some of the agitation, the anger, the confusion, and the fear that I had witnessed throughout the long, chaotic, intensely shocking election process could be related to unexplored and unexpressed grief. And my experience of remorse greatly grew.
While I was applauding (and even working toward) the end of white male privilege in our country, I never once considered that its demise would mean significant losses for some people ~ loss of beliefs, of feelings of safety, of hope, of so many things. All this was dying all around me, and I failed to see it.
Indeed, I think many of us did, including the people experiencing those losses themselves. Had some of these people whose great losses ~ of income, of jobs, of ways of life, of beliefs ~ not opened to expressing the grief they were experiencing, choosing instead to be stuck in what Kübler-Ross would call the “bargaining” stage of loss? Did they console themselves with mantras like, “If he wins, I can get my job back?” Did they shove aside their experiences of deep loss, channeling all that energy into rage?
I have seen the massive destruction that can be caused when grief is not expressed. I have witnessed it in my own life, in the personal lives of others, and on bigger levels ~ in communities and organizations. In fact, I once was involved in an organization in which unexpressed grief led to an outburst of anger and fear that touched everyone in the establishment and eventually imploded the entire community. A death of sorts had occurred years earlier, but it remained unacknowledged by those involved; in essence they just pushed their loss aside and channeled the energy of this suppressed grief into other areas. As the wise Richard Rohr says, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” This is what I believe happened to the organization. The pain was not transformed (through expression or exploration of any sort), so it was transmitted to everyone involved with the community. And that loss, for so long denied and hidden, led to more and more loss ~ of dreams, of relationships, of belief in spiritual communities.
Did something similar occur with the presidential election? I realize that there are a multitude of reasons not only for the result of the election but for the entire atmosphere in which it was conducted. Experts have many diverse opinions about all the factors involved, and frankly my mind cannot hold all of them together.
What I do know about intimately is loss, and what I have come to believe is that loss did play a significant role in the election ~ in its process and in its results. When someone dies, we often go through a period of believing that they will return; and that’s also true when something dies. Vast numbers of experts, from fields as diverse as theology and economics, argue that there is no way we will ever return to a world that looks like the one in which many of us were raised. The era when many people (people with privilege) knew with certainty they could graduate from high school, work hard at the same job for decades, and retire with benefits ~ that era is over. And beautiful things may (I believe will) result from its passing. But that does not negate the passing. In order for a seed to be born of compost, something has to die fully, to be broken down over time. And honoring the death and the breaking down is something that is important to me. I regret that I did not do that as so many of my fellow citizens were experiencing these deaths.
Here’s an analogy that helps me put this situation into perspective, although my family members hate hearing it: By many lines of reasoning, my death could benefit great numbers of people, perhaps more than my life does. Millions of dollars (yes, literally, millions) have been spent to keep me alive; it is likely that this sum will continue to increase greatly throughout the rest of my days. What if we could channel that money into healthcare for people who are much healthier than I? That same amount of money could keep many, many people (hundreds, maybe?) alive and well. And my organs that are healthy could serve the same purpose ~ to keep more people alive and well. So, perhaps from the largest perspective, my death could be viewed as good for a large number of people. But that would never negate the loss that those people who love me would experience when I died.
That’s how I have come to view the losses that led to our current political (and socio-economic) situation. I believe that, from the largest vantage point, they will function to serve a great number of people. But the thing about that large vantage point is that it does not allow us to see one another up close. And by staying way up high in my observations, I did not see the pain and suffering of so many people. I regret that.