VIEW: Time to Mourn, Time for Care

There is no going ‘back to normal.’ There is only re-entry. We must take time to reflect and to plan how to re-engage with each other in the wake of failures we have witnessed in health care, education, law enforcement, media, and government.

Social scientists have estimated that for every death there are at least nine people — family, friends, neighbors — who will mourn that person.

Since February 2020, over 613,000 people in the U.S. have died from the virus. Even if we reduce the estimate of mourners to 5 per death, that’s over 3 million people in mourning. And we have been mourning under extreme circumstances, when rituals like funerals and wakes, neighbors bringing meals to the bereaved, visiting gravesites and sending flowers, have been disrupted or outright abandoned. 

Loss impacts our health too. Stressful, grief-filled events like death of a loved one can impact both mental and physical health.  So too can job loss, surviving natural disasters, or witnessing a loved one experience severe illness. 

We have experienced these events at times when getting a hug or a visit from a loved one wasn’t safe or possible due to COVID-19 risks and shutdowns. 

One of my dearest, oldest friends died tragically during the pandemic. I am still recovering from the loss, still wishing he was here. Instead of saying “I’m fine”  or “I’ll be alright,” I am telling people “I’m gutted. I’m devastated.” Because it is true. 

I need time.

Time to sit with the range of emotions, memories, and physical manifestations of stress to figure out how to heal, how to recover, how to make sense of all the conflicts and contradictions swirling around us.  

So many of us need more time to process and heal, and so many of us are denied it due to the restrictive demands of earning a living and cultural scripts that encourage us to “suck it up, buttercup” and “move on.” 

It is a time to stop and rethink how we experience time, how we restrict ourselves and others to timelines that are not amenable to care and repair, rest and rejuvenation. The Industrial Revolution inscribed society with a new time signature, a fast-paced, productivity drive with ever-increasing competition to do more.

Now social media, job coaches, and even college counselors encourage us to have our own “brand;” to “sell ourselves” to prospective employers, clients, and admissions offices; to make every selfie and Tweet count towards potential personal gain. The grotesque promise is that our lives will be seamless between work and play — everything with a possible profit advantage. 

Even meditation — through pricey courses, apps, and dimly-lit special  rooms in the workplace —  is pitched as a means to become a better worker, a smarter boss, able to return to the workplace refreshed and ready to make more money. 

Where, in all that, is there room to mourn, to heal, to recover from harmful, shocking events? 

It should not be a privilege to have time to mourn. Death comes for us all, and all of our loved ones. Paid bereavement leave should be part and parcel of labor rights. No one should be made to feel like they are “inconveniencing” the boss or co-workers to absorb a loss. Just as paid sick leave is a necessity for equity and — bonus — robust public health, so too is time to process traumatic events.  

To be sure, some will say “who will do the work that needs to be done if we are all on leave all the time?” And we have gone through a year when folks whose labor is usually devalued were referred to as “essential workers.”  That framing wasn’t in service of the health of everyone — it was in the service of the health, convenience, and profit for some of us. 

Essential workers in farming, grocery stores, janitorial services, care homes, public transportation, hospitals, and other sectors were not given raises. Few employers created incentive packages to hire new folks to meet the demand and allow for reasonable time off, let alone supplying adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).  Many were not even categorized to be at the front of the line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once it was available. 

And folks wonder why there isn’t a rush to go back to work. Too many of our institutions are acting like it’s time to get “back to normal” when so few have even caught their breath in the wake of the relentless tragedies that have befallen our society: a pandemic that has killed more than 613,000 and counting; surges of racist attacks and killings; an attempted insurrection; forest fires that send ash to choke us thousands of miles away; floods that sweep cars off streets and homes off their foundations. 

We have been shown how vulnerable we are, and how our institutions — whether they are inadequate, in denial, or flat out neglectful — have not responded in ways that center wellbeing, care, safety and recovery for all. Logics of efficiency, profit, and strategic forgetfulness seem to be directing their actions.  

We need so much caring right now. As others have said: We need an economy of care.  An economy of care that recognizes not only the historical gender, class, and racial inequalities and injustices of imbalances in caretaking work, but also values and lifts up the need for caring as a key part of sustainable, equitable life on this planet.

Having an economic model that puts citizens’ wellbeing, not profit, at the center, would be an amazing thing to behold. What is heartening about what has emerged from the past 18 months is that people are more willing to try, to experiment, to think differently about what our society could look like.

From mutual aid networks and cooperatives to housing justice activism, from refusing to take on underpaid jobs or overtime to insisting on flex time, more and more folks are resisting the logic of industrial time and questioning the dehumanizing economic models that assume we are individuals driven to maximize efficiency and profit for ourselves. 

What might a large-scale economy built on a care-time scale look like? New Zealand — one of the few industrialized settler nations to come through the pandemic without such extreme death rates — has started to put in place measures of wellbeing as part of its economic calculus.

Instead of over-relying on gross domestic product (GDP) or stock market indices to model what is good for the economy, New Zealand’s Treasury has developed the Living Standards Framework (LSF) to create an index of wellbeing to gauge whether government policies support a society where “people can live lives they have reason to value.” 

The LSF’s measures include civic engagement, health, cultural identity, housing, social connections, and how folks use their time.  For example, if a portion of the population does not have time to exercise, visit friends, engage in cultural or religious practices, it is a clear signal that the country’s political and economic policies aren’t supporting the wellbeing of all citizens.

Everyone requires and deserves time for rest and rejuvenation, no matter where they live or what they do to earn money. The pandemic has underscored the need for our society to have policies to provide living wages, paid vacation, paid family care leave and sick leave, paid bereavement leave, and workday shifts that don’t leave folks so tired and out of breath they cannot do more than recover from a day’s work before having to go back to do more.

It is time to structure public policies and economic thinking so that no one estimates what is the “acceptable number” of lives lost to “keep the economy on track.”  Instead, we must take the time to ask how we can collaborate and care for each other and our environment so we live resiliently with opportunities to experience joy and sorrow, to savor moments with loved ones, to learn and play and grow without fear.