Politics and the Lies We Tell About Grief

Politics and the Lies We Tell About Grief March 9, 2017


by Brianne Donaldson

We grieve our dead because they are gone. They are gone, and there are no words or promises that will bring them back. Yet, this mortal truth does not stop people from offering words and promises to one who mourns, as though to somehow protect themselves as spectators from even a peripheral encounter with the seeming unbearableness of grief.

In Donald Trump’s first address to Congress, he offered this veneer of comfort to Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL Senior Chief Ryan Owens. Much has already been said about the moment as a whole—some calling it “presidential”; others identifying it as classic tool of war propaganda.

My interest here is Trump’s semi-theological afterlife account articulated at the end of his remarks related to Owens. “Ryan is looking down right now, you know that,” he said to Carryn, “and he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record.” This tidy quip was followed by awkward communal laughter among those who could finally swallow the last tasteless bite of their collective binge eating from the buffet of someone else’s pain.

Indeed, it did seem that Carryn was communicating upward, though I certainly do not know precisely what she was thinking, saying, or intending in any of those gestures, which I suspect were the touchstones needed to sustain the weight of so many lurid gazes upon her sorrow. But one thing is sure: Carryn does not “know”—nor do any of us know—that Ryan is looking down on her. Or at least she does not know it in the way that she knew his presence beside her. For if she did know the absence and the presence in the same, or parallel, way, there would be no need for the grief. Moreover, we do not “know” that Ryan is happy. We know that he is dead, and whatever our projections or hopes of his feelings or awareness may be, they are ultimately our own, and very few who grieve, I maintain, mistake one for the other.

One of the formative moments in my life was my mother’s death from brain cancer when she was 40 years old, and I was 10. It was formative, of course, because suddenly I was absent the most needed presence in my existence, and I had a sense that the lack created by her death would remain so for the rest of my living days. It was also formative because I learned that adults—many of whom I trusted and needed to rely upon going forward—did not, as poet Stevie Smith said “tell the truth about [their] grief, but laughed at it when the first pang was past and made it a thing of nothing” [1].

It was not literal laughter of course, but it was the disappearing of death, behind vacuous stories of afterlife. “Your mom is in heaven,” they said, or God needed her, or she is happy now, or looking down on my three siblings and I. These stories confused me, in part, because they attempted to sweep away what was so obvious to all of us—that a real person, who had constituted our world, was gone, and that we were now forced into a transformation of every aspect of daily life by an experience not of our choosing, that we did not want. As Judith Butler so aptly describes in her analysis of grief, “It is not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am” [2].  She goes on, “If I lose you . . . then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who ‘am’ I, without you?” [3]. Even as a child, I knew that adults were turning away from knowing and feeling the dissembling effects of grief, toward a story—or a silence—that might help them escape that knowledge.

This is not to say that those who adhere to a theological or philosophical notion of afterlife are fundamentally off kilter. Inasmuch as I do not “know” that my mother is in heaven, I also do not “know” that some aspect of her existence does not carry on. On the contrary, at least as a teacher, she impacted many lives—including my own—and lives on in tangible ways that continue to shape reality. Judeo-Christian theologies have diverse and nuanced views of death, and in some cases, speculations of afterlife, though they are not uniform nor as simplistic as often presented in popular culture. Internally-diverse traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Jainism, articulate an energy or core life force that transmigrates after death into future activity or new embodied life forms across time. In many cases, the notion of afterlife revolves around the need for justice—a possibility for reward or punishment beyond the present moment—whether by a deity or through the self-inflicted cause-and-effect consequences of karma.

As a mechanism of justice, a life beyond this one served as an ethical foundation, a carrot and a stick simultaneously, to inspire individuals to think, act, and speak carefully for the sake of self, society, and even, in certain cases, plants and animal kin. The promise that death is not the last word provided hope for Israelites perpetually exiled from their homeland. For the community around the person of Jesus, the reforming “messiah” executed by the state, the promise of life after death inspired courage in the face of persecution, and a commitment to stay the course of the social values for which he lived and died. In karmic perspectives, the prospect of reincarnation serves many purposes, not least of which is the recognition that full understanding of our complex reality, and subsequent right action within that reality, is hard to achieve in one lifetime, or in one bodily incarnation.

But grief is not annulled by these narratives of life beyond death. Rituals of death, and the desire to find meaning for those who survive, appear to be as old as our knowledge of humanity, seen in ancient archaeologies as well as animal communities. In my own experience, grief for my mother’s absence, and other subsequent losses—is a long-term relationship, revealing over and again how much I was, and am, constituted by others, and undone by their absence.

Attempts to resolve grief too quickly as a way to shore up the illusion of our impenetrability, appear, I think, much as Carynn’s did: forced to constitute herself as a functioning organism, the grimaced smile, the robotic clapping, the gasping for breath, the glaze-eyed stare. Because when we lose something essential to our being, we are not the same after, no matter what the onlookers may want to believe.

Carryn demonstrated to me a real face of grief, disoriented and undone, a state of existence that all of us want to avoid. I surmise that all in attendance were glad that it was not they who sat in the widow’s seat. And I suspect Carryn herself would have traded a thousand lifetimes of empty standing ovations for one day’s embrace with her beloved. That the crowd did not bury their faces in their hand for the memories of their own losses—the great griefs of those precious to us who have died, the inescapable lament of time passed, unresolved regrets, of beauty bloomed and faded, of the small rejections and disappointments, and the thousand hauntings of memory that are part of this strange fleshly life. It would, it seems to me, be the moment in which one says, “Seeing the face of grief, and seeing ourselves in that face, we will study war no more.”

But alas, Carryn’s grief was paraded as justification for more war. Trump’s proposed increase to military spending assures that even more of our citizens—so often disadvantaged and limited in options—along with others around the globe—will find themselves losing what is most dear, and losing a part of themselves that never fully heals, but merely fades into a background to be summoned up by a song, a smell, a moment of insecurity, or any of the countless ways in which memory weds us to the dead. Yet, those unwilling to acquaint themselves with their own grief looked on as voyeurs, as Trump opined that “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity . . . We will never forget Ryan.” Cue topic shift; camera pan left.

How is this grief-repressing afterlife theology any different from the misused promise of 72 virgins to Muslim martyrs who blow themselves up for the “greater good,” I wonder? When we do not take grief seriously—our own and another’s—but merely cover its wounds with a garish fairy tale of winking soldiers cheering from the clouds, we create the conditions for ongoing violence that plays fast and loose with this great, wondrous, and terrible, gift of life we each possess.

Trump’s thin theology of the afterlife revealed two lies, or I suppose, “alternate facts.” The first lie is that grief will be mollified with empty words and promises from strangers who have not known the feeling of being scraped raw themselves. While sorrow shared may be halved, as the adage goes, sorrow gaped at from a distance by those too fearful to face their own vulnerabilities, must feel tripled upon a solitary soul. The second lie is that dying for one’s country—especially a nation as militarized, moralizing, and resource-hungry as the U.S.—is redeemed with the consolation prize of heaven. This story is what English soldier and WWI poet Wilfred Owen called “The old lie,” Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” [4]. It may be grief alone, that dreaded friend and ennobling sage, which can save us from such untruth.

Brianne Donaldson is a public ethicist exploring the intersection of Indian and western thought, critical animal studies, and religion and science. The goal of this work is to rethink relations between plants, animals, and people, and to undermine systematic violence toward excluded populations. She is the author of Creaturely Cosmologies: Why Metaphysics Matters for Animal and Planetary Liberation (Lexington Books 2015), and two edited collections: Beyond the Bifurcation of Nature: A Common World for Animals and the Environment (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2014), The Future of Meat Without Animals (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016). She currently holds the Bhagwaan Mahavir/Chao Family Fellowship in Jain Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. www.briannedonaldson.com


[1] Stevie Smith,​ “No Respect​,​”​ In​ Collected Poems​, e​d. James MacGibbon​ ​​(​New Directions, 1983​), p. 5​2.
[2] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso, 2006), p. 22.
[3] Butler, p. 22.
[4] Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et decorum est,” In The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. C. Day Lewis and Edmund Blunden (New Directions, 1965), p. 55.

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