Considering capitalism’s treatment of grief, how do we heal?

At 17, I quickly learned of capitalism’s demands following the loss of a loved one. The summer of 2017 came and I felt a euphoric excitement after receiving a full-ride scholarship to the University of Portland, attending their acceptance weekend, and knowing that I’d move away from home for the first time. This elation was broken when my mom came early to pick me up from visitor’s weekend; on a bench in the quiet of the campus’ woods, she told me that my cousin, Nicky, had suddenly died.

Nicky and I were more like siblings. We chose to be annoying together, him a loving menace and me, an inflammatory match. On car rides to the river, we’d play an aggressive version of I spy, and everything he did, I had to copy. When he said his favorite movie was Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” it was mine, and when he said he was the best at something, I had to beat him — hence our bike race, and my subsequent trip to the hospital in summer 2010. I think most siblings know this dynamic, fighting to the death one second, but in every moment, knowing that the only thing that could ever separate you from them is death. 

As of last month, the type of grief I experienced following my loss has been classified as “Prolonged Grief Disorder” by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — nicknamed the “psychiatry’s bible.” The APA’s website states, “In prolonged grief disorder, the bereaved individual may experience intense longings for the deceased or preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased, or in children and adolescents, with the circumstances around the death.” As a result of the classification, funding for treatments like naltrexone, which can help prevent relapses into drug or alcohol abuse, will likely accelerate, and clinicians can now bill insurance companies for treating patients with the disorder. Those in opposition cite concerns over the pathologization of grief as well as pharmaceutical companies creating a growth market in prolonged grief. 

Setting aside these founded concerns is the central question of how one may mourn under capitalism, under colonial structures, and within America’s principle of individualism. Separated from the collectivist practices which foster resilience, the rush into healing becomes defined by a capitalist timeframe, as exemplified by the DSM’s six-month and twelve-month markers for diagnosis of prolonged grief. The APA’s decision tells us that to receive care, our grief must be disordered and diagnosed. But, as many of us know there is nothing abnormal in the grief process, and treatment, as well as care, should not be predicated upon diagnosis. 

On this construction of grief and normalcy, the founder of Project Let’s Erase the Stigma (LETS), the advocacy network for liberated healing, Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthinkhulu says, “There is truly no better irony than the updated DSM-5 creating a medical diagnosis for prolonged grief in a country that refuses to face its own present reality with mass death. AKA, ‘you have an illness if you can’t get on with life like the rest of us.’ There is no space for grief in a culture that defines mental health by your ability to function.”

For my family, there was little space to mourn Nicky. We had to bury our baby and return to work the next week, something I did not know how to do. 

The only memory from the following months is of me, laying in the center of my mom’s king bed, my vision focused on the skylight. In that state of detachment, my mom told me to “get up.” At the time, these words seemed harsh but I now understand them as a mom’s protection.

She knew, before me, that in American culture there is no space to live with your grief, there is no space for remembrance as the demand is to push forward. 

As a consequence of immediately returning to work and to a new school without my support system, I fell into a severe depression — an experience aligning with research on the positive relationship between collectivism and resiliency and the negative relationship between isolation and resiliency.

Looking at collectivist cultures we see the myriad of practices that foster resilience from bereavement. In Lakota communities, grief ceremonies are rooted in the philosophy of mitakuye oyasin, “we are all related,” as in understanding life by connection through creation. In Judaism, there are six stages for grief, which are intentionally set to weep, reflect, remember in community, and find acceptance that allows for reintegration into life. 

Despite the differences in various collectivist cultures’ practices and understanding of death, a commonality emerges in their refusal to pathologize grief and impose a construction of “normalcy” upon those mourning. 

In America’s settler colonialism, as noted by American Historian Natalia Molina, the spiritualization of work ethic (distinctly witnessed in the politics of the South West annexation’s land grab) and subsequent capitalism is divorcing us from our right to mourn and remember our loved ones. At present, there is no federal law that allows for paid or unpaid bereavement absence. On average, most employees receive four days for the death of a spouse, three days for the death of other family members (like a sibling), and zero days for a friend. 

The cultural issue at hand is best encapsulated by bell hooks’ words in “All About Love,” “rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” To face the collective grief at hand from the pandemic, the climate crisis, systemic racism and violence is to face the fact that healing and finding a way to live with our grief will not come from capitalism’s isolation and grind culture. 

And, as I personally know, there is no timeline for grief. From the bench in the woods, to withdrawing from my first college and finding a new path, the process from grief to acceptance has been an ever-changing one. Through the changes, I’ve found bell hooks’ words to be true; in community, and in communion, there is healing. 

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