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Interview: Cindy Milstein On Grieving And Mourning Losses From Structural Forces

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Cindy Milstein, the editor of the book, Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work Of Grief,  joins the “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast for an interview on why we should not bury or make private our pain when we grieve from death or loss as a result of injustice or systemic oppression. She talks about creating space for open grieving, as well as the authoritarian manners in which many citizens are expected to grieve.

Milstein contends that grief can open cracks in the walls of the system and create “possibilities for contestation and reconstruction, intervulnerability and strength, empathy and solidarity.”

It is the first in a series of interviews from contributors to the collection of essays available from AK Press.

To listen to the interview, click the player at the top of the post or go here.

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Below is an edited partial transcript from the interview:

GOSZTOLA: What about the bonds of loss from grief, which you write about in your introduction?

MILSTEIN: The impulse behind this book is both personal and political. s someone whose longtime done organizing through an anarchist lens in collectives and movements and others struggles and living in this world today, [I] have understood that this experience is in a way signing yourself up for really facing the profound grief and pain and loss that this world is producing at the moment.

What I think is different about this book from a lot of grief books—because there are many—is that this one is looking at it through the lens of what it means to grieve and mourn losses that come because of structural forces. Obviously, the human condition is we’re born into the world knowing right away that we will die. So we will experience loss.

We’ll experience heartbreak, death, a host of other human things that are about pain and suffering. And we can’t alleviate that. I don’t even think that’s a goal. The human condition is that we will feel pain, and I think that is a beautiful thing in a certain way because you only feel pain and grief over things you love and care about. If you didn’t care about them, you wouldn’t care they were lost.

But this book is looking at this moment when overwhelmingly the zeitgeist is people are experiencing profound forms of loss on multiple levels and pretty ubiquitously, almost everybody. They are losses that most of us understand wouldn’t have to happen if the world were structured in more egalitarian, humane, ecological, non-hierarchical ways. So this book looks at the relationship of when there are structural losses how do we who live in this world as human beings and/or organize to try and create a better world—How do you figure out ways to collectively grieve and in non-instrumental ways make that a daily part of work we’re doing to lessen structural losses?

There are 37 contributions in the anthology. They are all very poetic and bittersweet and they all touch on a myriad of different types of losses, from structural sources from murder by police to what it means to live in a world where it feels like our entire species is at risk of extinction due to climate catastrophe.

Our assertion is when we figure out ways to bring that into our everyday collective ways of resisting and struggling toward a better world and understand collectively how we can grieve together that it helps us better grapple with our own pain, give it meaning and worth, give our lives meaning and worth, and bring out different types of human emotions.

I think that pain is a human being. In a way, us bringing that to the forefront and making that visible and sharing that collectively is accentuating our very humanity and the range of emotions that we feel as human beings and doing that is much more loving and empathetic and caring. Right now, so many of us bury pain because we’re told that our pain is individual and it’s private and we need to step away to do self-care and come back when we’re ready, when we’re done with it. Which is really at odds with how pain works.

I’ve done some events around this book, and someone shared this beautiful image to me where they said when a human baby is born it has to come out with someone’s hands touching it. Someone has to bring it into the world, and it has to be nurtured for a while. You can’t just set it down, and it will survive on its own. So we are also brought into a world of social relationships and interdependence and vulnerability with each other. So how can we make that last through the whole of our lives? Part of that is sharing our pain collectively, I think, will strengthen our social relationships.

And right now, when we’re told to keep it inside and not share it with others, I think the burying of that, the hiding of that, the invisibilizing of that actually allows for these structures that are killing most of us or destroying us to further be hidden. It also means that we feel divided from each other, as if we are the only ones experiencing this. And that pain is still there so it comes out in other ways.

I mention one loss we will all experience is heartache. I can imagine that heartache would still hurt, but it would feel a lot different if I didn’t live in a world that was patriarchal and heteronormative, for instance. So the way in which certain people express their pain is sometimes very violent or brutal or lashing out at others. Often pain expresses itself as hurting someone else instead of being open that we’re all experiencing different sorts of pain and could share and support each other that would make that more bearable and allow us to express those emotions that might actually create a better world in the process too.

GOSZTOLA: It is almost possible to see it as a way of universally appealing to people who have these same shared human experiences. Because everyone is going to deal with the loss of people they love, and the way you can appeal and get them to empathize and maybe get them to recognize structural oppression that is creating the loss of untold numbers of human lives or creating untold numbers of suffering is to appeal to that emotion and let them that in this case, in many cases what we are talking is not life running its course. These are cases that can be prevented.

To steer the conversation, I want to bring in what you eloquently wrote in your prologue for the book, where you said, “Our grief, our feelings as words or actions, images or practices, can open up cracks in the wall of system. It can also pry open spaces of contestation and reconstruction, intervulnerability, empathy and solidarity. It can discomfort the stories told from above that would have us believe we are not human or deserving of life-affirming lives—or for that matter, life-affirming deaths.”

There are two parts in that paragraph worth discussing. First, what examples would you share related to the potential of opening cracks in the wall?

MILSTEIN: There are so many examples from some of the poignant examples in the anthology and many examples from what we’re experiencing now. I’ll take one example now. I was in Houston after the hurricane, and there’s a lot of people there that were doing do-it-yourself mutual aid disaster relief, which means not through the state or through police or FEMA but just person to person. People looked up and realized there were neighbors and people they didn’t know that needed mutual aid from each other so they started helping each other.

One of the ways that expressed itself was the water went down pretty quickly, and apparently you need to gut the insides of your entire house down to the bare bones of the house. The image is almost like a gutting death of the house. You have to throw all your things out quickly because it creates all sorts of hazardous molds and be life-threatening and cause all sorts of illnesses. So there were some 30,000 or 40,000 homes that were being gutted really quickly.

A person was sharing how when they went into people’s homes to help them, and they didn’t even know them, the person would stand there unable to bring themselves to take things from their home and toss them outside. What they ended up doing was fifty percent demolish and cart out the entirety of their homes but also fifty percent grief work in a sense. Not in a paid way, not in an instrumental way, but again in a very human way, where they realized people had to grieve over the entirety of their whole lives. They’re throwing away pictures and things that have meaning for them or a space that they had lived their whole lives and had attachment to and might not be able to come back. And then they were having to basically throw their life in a heap on the street corner.

In these moments when we think we aren’t doing grief work, we had a conversation in Houston about how we would be more clear that is actually part of the process of mutual aid disaster relief that doesn’t happen when police or the state come in and they’re just needing to figure out how to get people water or this or that. They aren’t taking time to listen to the stories and look at pictures and let someone stay in their home for a couple days, maybe longer than they should, because them grieving is more important than whether they’re going to get a little more sick if they stay there for another day or two.

That’s in a way a very human thing that happens in these moments when people are doing what they understand to be both political work and organizing but also just very human care work that’s fully integrated. So part of what this book is arguing is this isn’t something external to the work we’re doing to change the world. Mutual aid disaster relief work is trying to come up with other ways that we would house ourselves and feed ourselves and survive what is going to become the new normal of weather patterns, as whole communities are almost totally destroyed and we have to take care of each other.

Increasingly, we are going to have to take care of each other. So how do we practice both taking care of each other in material ways but also emotional ways and use the space of loss and grief as prefiguring the quality of lives we want, being better to each other in those moments and hopefully sustaining that longer?

There’s a lot of stories from movements that look at cracking open spaces. I touch on one in the piece. I write about when I was living in San Francisco’s Mission [District] until I was evicted out by the eviction epidemic there. But people kept coming together. The police were murdering people pretty frequently in the Bay Area, and they’re were two young men who were both Latino in the Mission, which is primarily a Latino neighborhood. It’s been ground zero for displacement and gentrification and people brutally kicked out of their homes—many whom die almost right after they’re kicked out if they’ve lived there for decades. It’s really hard to lose your entire life, which is your home.

Two young men were murdered for no other reason. The reason they were murdered the neighborhood said this was because of gentrification. They’re trying to cleanse the neighborhood and scare people out. They came within nine months of each other, and the second one in particular, just suddenly everyone in the neighborhood poured out and created this outdoor spot on the sidewalk where he had been murdered by the police that became a shrine and a place to share ideas, for organizing, and to share all the other losses other people were experiencing.

It also became a space where everyone was grieving what was happening in that neighborhood—the multiple deaths through police murdering people, arsons by landlords to get people out that actually killed people, profound loss of people kicked out of the city, the loss of cultural and bohemian and radical and political spaces. It’s really profound. It’s like a very intense war zone. Under capitalism, it’s the most expensive place in North America to try to stay.

So it became a space where without us knowing it we were creating space for talking about how hard it was and sharing tears and laughter and anger. Out of that, it just made us want to fight harder. People through that came up with much more creative self-empowering ways to fight back and ways that were going across lines that had divided us in that neighborhood; so across racial lines and age lines and class lines. After that, some of the most powerful organizing happened there for a while because they understood we cared about each other and we were all losing something big that was this neighborhood and community.

It’s not to say silver linings come out of these horrible losses because that’s not the argument of this book. None of these pieces have happy endings or even have endings. More than anything, it’s that they don’t have closure because our losses and grief will continue. But they point toward, what is qualitatively different this time? This time a person got shot by police, but what was different? How did we treat each other?

In that case, people instantly figured out he was a young Guatemalan man, who’d come to San Francisco to try to make money to send back to his family. People instantly were able to figure out and find translators and the village he was from, a really tiny village that spoke a Mayan dialect. They found someone who spoke it, and we called his family directly instead of letting the police call and inform them and that created relationships between that village and San Francisco. So, in the process we do life and grieve and organizing and struggle better, and being human better.

Fidel Castro. Photo via archives.gov.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."