Mourning in the Age of Social Amnesia

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Photo Sarah Whiting

Dad wished for a quick death. He witnessed his father suffer before dying and his mother struggle with dementia. Once, Dad told my older brother that if he was ever diagnosed with a terminal illness, he’d drive his motorcycle off a cliff. Like many people, he didn’t want to face the pain of a slow death, and he wanted to save others the pain of witnessing it.

What kind of human runs into dangerous situations as a military police officer and runs after wild animals to shoot them for sport but runs away from his feelings? My dad was a white man in the United States, raised and socialized to hide his emotions. What was he running toward as he was running away?

Even though there was a vaccine that could fight against Covid-19, a vaccine that my mom, my siblings, and I took, my dad did not take it. He said he wasn’t afraid of a disease killing him, so maybe he thought it was heroic to reject it. He expressed regret for this choice as the EMTs loaded him into the ambulance. He died a few days later.

What was going on in his mind the last few days of his life? Was he thinking about the personal responsibility he valued so much? Was he thinking about the hospital staff, his children, his wife, his siblings, his parents? Was he thinking about how his choice meant we had no choice but to bear this loss? As his body and breath fell apart, what was happening to his mind? Was he suffering in more than one way, unable to breathe, unable to forgive himself?

I could have gone to the hospital and told him how I felt. I regret not being there, but I know he wouldn’t have wanted us to see him in pain, so I let him hide from us one last time, choosing to be at home with my family.

Earlier that summer, I dropped him off for his surgery to repair a torn meniscus, probably from walking around concrete floors all day working the garden department at Home Depot. Later, as I watched him struggle through physical therapy exercises, one fear raced through my mind: “If he gets sick with Covid, he won’t survive.”

We celebrated my dad’s life with an event at our home, but there has been no cultural or political reckoning or processing of the loss that many of us experienced during the pandemic.

Groups like Marked By Covid are trying to get lawmakers to establish a Covid memorial holiday. But even President Biden has admitted he “stopped thinking about” the pandemic.

We need time to process loss, not in response to a 24- hour news cycle. We need stability to mourn — stability that comes from conditions created collectively, not decreed by authority figures beholden to volatile markets.

We know what happens when we don’t reckon with our pain. The violence of war, guns, policing, ableism, racism, sexism, transphobia, borders, and capitalism continues. When our political economy depends on mass death, our culture masquerades sacrifice as necessary, normal, and even heroic. Death is a normal part of life, but profit from death is not. We cannot numb ourselves forever. As artist and organizer Chiara Galimberti writes, our capacity to love is deeply connected to our capacity to mourn.

My dad said he wasn’t going to live in fear, but fear is a starving animal. Denying our fear lets it grow feral. We must let it feed, or else it will tear us to pieces.

When I was a child, I remember hearing my dad cry quietly in the dark on the first anniversary of his father’s death. I asked if he was okay, and he admitted he was sad that he had lost his dad. A decade later, after I moved out of the house, he asked me if he was difficult to talk to. I said it was easier to talk to Mom, but I didn’t want to admit the full truth. Mom never lashed out in anger like he did, and I was still scared of him as an adult. Do we all inherit this hiding?

The theory of intergenerational trauma suggests that soldiers and war victims can pass down unprocessed trauma to their children. But what about fear? Dad, who was raised by a Korean War veteran, said he wasn’t going to live in fear for himself, but he acknowledged his fear of loss. Family is forever, he said, but he acted in ways that pushed us away. He wanted us to need him, and we did — we still do. But we also needed protection from his unpredictable outbursts when his lack of emotional discipline translated into physical violence.

If I had been with him as he died, I would have told him I forgave him. I would have read to him. I would have prayed. I didn’t agree with his choices, like he didn’t agree with mine, but I understood why he made them. He was scared. We all are.

We are running away from death and simultaneously running toward it, fueled by silent suffering and by pain unspoken, carried alone, buried deep. When we mourn a death, we are mourning a life shortened, but what if that life is instead released? What if my dad is here with me right now and everywhere I go? Can’t the spirit of my dad be alive in me, in the truck he drove, the tools he used, his DVD collection, or my memories?

If we were given the capacity to mourn and regularly practiced facing our pain by processing and listening to our fears, what problems could we solve together? What could we build? We could give each other love so liberating and welcoming of the darkness inside us.

Amie Stager (she/her) is an aspiring poet and artist studying nature and history. She covers Minnesota’s labor movement for Workday Magazine and holds a bachelor of arts in journalism from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with minors in art and anthropology.