Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Grief Can Be Subversive


My home and housemates in San Francisco have, at long and inevitable last, been diagnosed with the life-threatening illness striking so many homes and tenants here: the eviction epidemic. This cruel disease causes much physical and emotional suffering, and in too many cases — the majority — is incurable. Too frequently, it’s also fatal on a variety of levels. The remedy sounds both simple and possible: an end to private property. But such medicine is far from forthcoming.

So alongside “solidarity not charity” eviction defense to keep people — at least a few — in their homes, to win some meager victories here and there, there’s a way in which, informally, many of us are doing eviction emotional defense. We are doing pre-grieving care work with and for each other, while we’re still here. We’re nursing each other through the pain that’s here now, and the pain that will come. Such anticipatory grief, as I’ve discovered, is invaluable when one is compelled by sicknesses of all kinds (cancer or capitalism, death or displacement) into being a sort of refugee on a journey that steals your sense of place in this world. One begins to practice, as it were, what the depths of despair will feel like, once one is actually, say, sans papers, sans family, or sans roof over one’s head.

Such anticipation isn’t equivalent to the grief that arrives later, of course. So the larger question is certainly: How can we be there for each other, once we’re flung apart by forces beyond our control, to continue the collective sustenance that, for instance, eviction emotional defense supplies now?

In a couple weeks, I’m headed to Madison, Wisconsin, to join 34 other folks for a short, new program called “grief support specialist,” and I’ll do so again in early November. I’ve no idea what will emerge from it, save for already being grateful in the knowledge that I’ll sit with others in conversation about how grief of all types shades and shapes our contemporary society.

Already, I’m grateful that my walk toward notions of “care” and “grief” have handed me newfound “empathy” and “growth,” not to mention “love” from unexpected corners, including inside myself. Such categories, in fact, have given my life newfound meaning, which perhaps is why I’m drawn to noticing and striving to engage in eviction emotional defense. It’s why I’m drawn to the program in Madison and, relatedly, aspiring to coedit a book on “transforming grief.”

For now, I and so many others here in San Francisco, and so many other metropoles that are suddenly alluring to the rich and powerful, are having to decide how we will face up to — stand up to, act up to — the grief that is washing over us as we begin to lose house and home, friends and neighbors, communities and landscapes. I know now, too well, that one can lose a lot. A whole hell of a lot. And past loss wells up when new loss careens into one’s path.

It’s how we respond, individually and collectively, that matters. I see way too much evidence of people, particularly (alas) people who identify as one form of anticapitalist or another, tearing each other apart in and from their grief. Or turning to an egoism or nihilism that means caring only for one’s self or small circle, and/or determining that the best we can do is destroy that which destroys us. Or giving up altogether, on politics or possibility, on one’s friends or self, or even on life. How we respond — versus react or shut down — can make all the difference in terms of getting through the griefs that are parts of this fragile human condition we inhabit.

I don’t know the answer — more than ever — of what it means to struggle individually and collectively in a world that seems to portend no future, or at a minimum, seems to prove that capitalism and hatreds of all kinds have won, are unstoppable.

Yet I am returning again and again of late to the questions: What do life-affirming deaths look like, if we are catapulting toward collapses of all horrific types? What does it mean to affirm and try to sustain life precisely within the choices we make, through and with our grief? How do we not ignore or wallow in our grief but instead see grief by definition as transformative, instead view grief as subversive, a journey of truly bringing us to life? How we can we tenderly and tenaciously embrace our grief, together?

One could call this strategy “palliative care” (and sadly and perhaps ultimately here in San Francisco, “hospice care”): focusing not on cure but on quality of life. We could see our best antidotes as, on the one hand, the alleviation of suffering as best we can, yet on the better hand, offering each other collective and consensual care, empathy, honesty, comfort and kindnesses, the attempt to meet each others’ needs and desires — creating, precarious as they likely will be, lives worth living, or becoming undead within what time we have left.

As Francis Weller puts it in Entering the Healing Ground:

“Grief is subversive, undermining the quiet agreement to behave and be in control of our emotions. It is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small. There is something feral about grief, something essentially outside the ordained and sanctioned behaviors of our culture. Because of that, grief is necessary to the vitality of the soul. Contrary to our fears, grief is suffused with life-force. It is riddled with energy, an acknowledgment of the erotic coupling with another soul, whether human, animal, plant or ecosystem. It is not a state of deadness or emotional flatness. Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated. It resists the demands to remain passive and still. We move in jangled, unsettled and riotous ways when grief takes hold of us. It is truly an emotion that rises from soul.”

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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, taken in East Lansing, MI, summer 2013, between my father’s death and mom’s death soon to come, both in hospice.)



One comment on “Grief Can Be Subversive

  1. maimonides13
    September 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on maldichos and commented:
    Not sure where i came across Ms Milstein’s writings, thoughts. A political person who is trying to remain human. That is rare among those of us who consider ourselves anarchist/communists. Rare but important for us.

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This entry was posted on September 23, 2014 by in Dispatches from Gentrifying San Francisco, Dispatches from Life.
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