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Madeline Levine Ph. D.

Why You Need to Take the Time to Mourn RBG

Right now, the stage is being held by political hijinks.

In almost every religion, grievous loss demands a prescribed way of mourning. There are good reasons for this. Mourning, both individually and collectively, allows us to sit with difficult feelings and make some sense of them. When people mourn collectively they feel the support of those they love and care about and also get to share memories and thoughts. In this way, we can extract what was meaningful about the life of the person who died and integrate it into our own narratives about what is and what is not important. This is what we pass on to our children.

 Steve Petteway / Public Domain Wikimedia Commons
Source: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, Photographer: Steve Petteway / Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

In the midst of the pandemic, when every one of us has lost some control of our lives, the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been crushing. As a psychologist, I have grown accustomed to daily communications around COVID, job loss, distance learning, and the near impossibility of working, parenting, and teaching simultaneously. While sad, frustrated, and angry, these texts, calls, and emails generally maintained a bit of humor – the COVID-19 pounds, the absurdity of going into a bank with a mask on and asking for money, the mocking referrals to our kids' teachers (us) drinking too much. These kinds of comments have helped to blow off steam and keep a degree of perspective on the trials we are attempting to navigate. The humor stopped on September 18. Every communication I have received since then has forgone any attempt at buoyancy and instead have been profoundly and utterly dark. “I’m not sure I’ll get out of this one.” “I’m in a solitary and dark hole.” The sense of loss, isolation, and lack of any potential resolution is ominous.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was dead for exactly two hours before the conversation turned from what her loss meant into a political firestorm. The period of time that should have been devoted to honoring her memory, to parsing out the parts of her life that were most meaningful to us both individually and collectively, was not simply neglected but was in danger of being erased. We were not given the time or the space to pause and think about what it actually means to the living to lose one of the greatest models of integrity and character that this country has produced. The magnitude of what she stood for was unacknowledged when within 24 hours all front-page headlines were about her replacement while her obituary was on page 10. Having just lost John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, we are struggling to find the meaning we would ordinarily find in collective mourning.

It is important to understand that mourning is not only about emotional catharsis or community support, although those functions are critical, but it is also about our cognition, our understanding of what we have gained and what we have lost. This is what moves us from passive grief to the desire to be active, to reflect another’s values so that they are not lost. Without it, we run the risk of complacency and apathy – positions that are untenable and dangerous in this critical moment of our country’s history.

A good friend of mine said that losing RBG was “like losing our collective godmother.” The sorrow is lessened by being in a room with those we love or by being able to participate in the rituals that give us space and time to process this loss with others. The comfort of a friend feels very different in text or even zoom than it does when there’s an arm around you and a shoulder to rest on. Losing the giants of feminism and civil rights within eight weeks of each other leaves a profound void in leadership shaped by ethics and compassion. It is beyond disgraceful that at this pivotal moment, when the country is in desperate need of understanding the losses we have incurred, that center stage is held not by thoughtful guides but by political hijinks.

“Stronger together” matters. Do whatever you can to share your thoughts and feelings with friends and family. Talk. Listen. If we don’t, we risk becoming more suffocated by feelings of helplessness and apathy. In this nexus of the pandemic, with over 200,000 Americans dead, and the resulting economic collapse for many, accompanied by racial injustice and political divisiveness, all our resources are strained.

It would be a tragedy if RBG’s death was a coup de grace to our ideals and desire to see a more just world. Take the time to think, “What would Ruth do?” Then go do it. It’s how we can simultaneously mourn and celebrate her life.


About the Author

Madeline Levine, Ph.D., co-founder of Challenge Success at the Stanford School of Education, is the author of Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.