“Open grieving is bound up with outrage.”

Judith Butler

My father died on May 15, 2020. The next day we learned he tested positive for Covid-19 on the morning of his death. He had been in failing health for almost a year, suffering the ravages of vascular dementia’s assault on the brain and the body. But the news of the test helped explain his rapid decline in the week or so before he died. My mother, my husband, and I had been with him in his last hours. We have tested negative for the virus and have developed no symptoms. Our current self-isolation isn’t much different from the sheltering-in-place we’ve been doing since mid-March.

It goes without saying that grieving the death of a loved one in the time of coronavirus is impossibly hard and heartbreaking and weird. Wakes, funerals, burials, flowers, food, visits—all the ordinary offices and familiar rituals of death that are part of the necessary grief work of the living have been disrupted, modified, or done away with. It is difficult to know what the lasting effects will be on those who have been denied the full power of these deeply embodied practices of mourning the dead.

What should not go without saying is that this pandemic has revealed who it is we consider grievable—whose lives are worthy of our collective mourning and whose are not. Among the tens of thousands who have died so far of Covid-19, it seems that prisoners are not as grievable as celebrities, and that we do not mourn African-American women from Chicago’s South Side as much as we do white men from the suburbs.

But what makes someone grievable? What status must be afforded a person or a community for all of us to meaningfully mourn their loss? In her book Frames of War, philosopher and social theorist Judith Butler suggests that “if certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense.” I am writing this on Memorial Day when Americans sacralize the deaths of women and men who died in combat, some of them personally known and deeply loved by us. But the frame of war necessarily makes other women, men, and children—human beings who do not register as real to us—targets for destruction. In our public grieving of our own war dead, inside the frame of war, those we have killed exist with “no regard, no testimony, and [are] ungrieved when lost.” Because this is true, we ritualize days like this not with horror but with sentimentality. We couldn’t manage it otherwise.

Frames are saturated with power. Given the ways that power works at the intersections of and through the frames of race, class, gender, ability, health, nationality, etc., higher Covid-19 death rates among black and brown people have to do with decades-long, systemic injustices like redlining and lack of access to good work and quality healthcare. The stresses of this kind of carefully constructed poverty are predictors of conditions like hypertension and diabetes—the comorbidities epidemiologists talk about and the illnesses which make our African-American and Latinx neighbors more likely than whites to die from coronavirus.

Butler also suggests that at the edges of the frames through which the world is organized for us, it is possible to apprehend, if we are paying attention, the precarious condition of all those whose lives are targeted in one way or another. And this apprehension of another’s precariousness is implicitly an apprehension of our own. She writes:

“The recognition of shared precariousness introduces strong normative commitments of equality and invites a more robust universalizing of rights that seeks to address basic human needs for food, shelter, and other conditions for persisting and flourishing.”

While human biology has humbled us of late—we are all precariously situated vis-à-vis this novel virus—we are not all equally vulnerable. The vulnerable have been mostly invisible. But what if seeing the vulnerable and grieving the vulnerable dead became the measure of our actions in these precarious times? What if we took the outrage that always acccompanies grief and put it to work?

  • We might recognize that much of the rhetoric around the demand to “reopen the economy now” is really about disaster capitalism, which has always preyed on the most vulnerable.
  • We might decide that the Church is, in Pope Francis’ words, a field hospital for the sick–the opposite of a self-referential, dispensary of goods and services to which we think we have a right.

“It is to the stranger that we are bound,” says Butler, “the one, or the ones, we never knew or never chose.” It is in this recognition that we have the hope of finding grievable every precious life lost to Covid-19.