Sometimes, We Grieve By Not Grieving

Sometimes, We Grieve By Not Grieving

We feel guilty about not being melancholy, about seemingly not grieving. And this terrifies us. "The mourner who asks, Why am I so preoccupied with the normal? is asking, really, Is this normal now?"

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This week, I'm writing another meditation, this time on Emmett Rensin's "The Alien and Mundane," published in The Believer on June 7, 2017. An in-depth look into the "alien" and "mundane" ways we grieve, it starts off, like most of his articles, in a very riveting way: Rensin had a friend at the University of Chicago whose mother died when she was little, and although she finished mourning long ago, "she had not yet overcome the need to mourn. I never saw her more disturbed than on the day she realized...it was the anniversary of her mother's death. She had nearly forgotten." She wasn't crying for her mother, but rather Rensin "saw her cry for her guilt."

He labels these types of mourning "guilty mourners." On forums all over the internet and self-help books all over Barnes & Noble bookshelves, people all over the world grieve not for the lost or the tragedy, but for their guilt. They are "worried that they are heartless freaks. They worry because they believe they are getting over total disaster with too much ease. The world has changed forever, they insist, but they keep forgetting. One woman on a message board wrote about her first response to the Twin Towers burning on September 11, 2001, as the towers were still burning on TV: "Oh, this is really going to fuck up my date tonight."

Everyone, in these forums, asks the same question: "Is there something wrong with me?"


Sigmund Freud in "Mourning and Melancholia," examines the question of grief. For him, this condition of banality and mundane is the "redirection of the conscious mind"and "a work of mourning." This is described as "healthy mourning," where we "divest the dead of their importance." "The fact is...when the work of mourning is completed, the ego becomes free and uninhibited again." We start to worry about food, work, and other everyday concerns. Freud explains that the only alternative to feeling this way is melancholia, and melancholy is "the failure to mourn" which sometimes results in suicide.

However, if we applied rules of Freud's work universally to the human condition, we would clearly be in a lot of trouble. But we can learn from his differentiation between healthy mourning and melancholy. "The guilty mourner is troubled, more troubled than they are by death itself, because there is something narratively backward in their healing." Simply put, it's not what we expect from mourning - to be mourning our own guilt instead of what actually happened. The Freud narrative is the alternative, that "the return of the mundane is not the failure of action, but the action itself."

Rensin returns with another example, this one one of the extreme. He uses a case from when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a "catastrophe for which there was no language....not a violence anybody knew to be possible." Even in this, as shown in John Hersey's "Hiroshima," we see the mundane form of grieving in one character, Dr. Fujii. Dr. Fujii was in an extraordinary amount of pain from his burns, but his first remark to another person was that "he looked like a beggar, dressed as he was in nothing but torn and bloody underwear."

Another character featured in "Hiroshima," Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, walked across a ruined street in the middle of the burning city. He saw that houses were destoyed, people were screaming for help under many of the ones that were burning. But he ran past them to find his wife - and the only thing he says upon seeing her is "Oh, you are safe." Reverend Tanimoto and his wife go their separate ways, and Tanimoto realizes that he pays more attention to the mundane of his family than to the devastation of the city. "After all of this, it is odd to remember that he has an ordinary life. But he does."

Rensin then references the story of Jo Ann Beard, a colleague of five people who had died in the 1991 University of Iowa Shootings. She goes into work on Friday and has to leave work early - she needs to take care of her dog, who is old and sick. After she leaves, a graduate student then kills five of her colleagues and then kills himself.

Beard knows that "the word changes," but nevertheless, the shooting is only "a brief intrusion. It is a brief atrocity, dispassionately related in a single section, up-ending the whole essay." After the brief moment of terrifying grief, life goes to a new type of normal - she returns back to the couch she's sleeping in, still taking care of her dog, "just as they were before."

"We don't struggle over the pit of melancholia, tempted by our grief. Ordinary life can't help digesting tragedy. The mundane sees the alien and consumes it, just swallows it up." Rensin goes on to note that the mundane conquering the melancholy of the alien is not a distraction, but a sign of something more.


The mundane is not the absence of grief, but the processing of it before we are ready to actually be melancholy. "These banalities are at odds with whatever catastrophe is at hand, and the fixation on them functions as a distraction, or as a necessary element of mourning, or as a sin, until the catastrophe can be processed and absorbed into a reunified experience of life." In both stories of Hersey and Beard, life goes on, regardless of whatever catastrophes happen, but there are two different ways that life goes on. For Hersey, "life goes on, but there is no 'return' from something like the atomic bomb." For Beard, "one returns to the mundane because there is nowhere else to return."

We feel guilty about not being melancholy, about seemingly not grieving. And this terrifies us. "The mourner who asks, Why am I so preoccupied with the normal? is asking, really, Is this normal now?" This guilt is not a trap to not grieve, but rather a warning. Tragedy is around us everywhere. How much time would we truly have if we were to mourn every single injustice and devastation in the world, from school shootings seemingly every other week to tsunamis and earthquakes that kill thousands? The mundane, for better or worse, teaches us to survive. "Has the world changed so much and so suddenly that I can no longer even feel the difference? the guilty ask. The answer is yes, and it is happening, has happened, all the time."

I distinctly remember last December when I came home for winter break. My mom picked me up from LaGuardia airport, and immediately I noticed there was something different - her voice was more hoarse, there were new scars around her neck. "I have thyroid cancer, and just had surgery," she said.

"Oh," was all I responded.

We moved on, and I talked about what it was like at school, and how things were at home, from topics as mundane as the latest issue with our car to whether I was eating well at school. I know now that that was how I grieved upon finding out the news. The mundane is a survival mechanism - not a lack of empathy.

"Things are fine," she said. "Just worry about school and make sure you're eating right."

"Oh. Okay," I said.

I woke up at 3 a.m. the other night, shaking, uncertain what about but just with the sense that something was dreadfully wrong, that the new normal maybe shouldn't be the new normal. For me, the mundane is the precursor to the melancholy - and sometimes, we grieve by not grieving. We feel guilty about our lack of mourning. We put off the melancholy for a later time because sometimes we're not ready yet.

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Filipino-American Mental Health: It Starts with a Conversation

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When it comes to talking about mental health struggles, I feel like a lot of Filipino-Americans share a similar attitude—sure, it happens, but not with my family. Whether it is because the language is still inaccessible to our communities, or we refuse to approach the topic because of fear, or a little bit of both, a lot of us have yet to really contextualize and express how this particular topic shows up in our daily lives. So you can just imagine how radical it was when a group of Filipino-American health professionals, academics, student leaders, nonprofit leaders and more participated in the first ever National Forum on Filipino American Mental Health held at the Philippine Embassy. On that day, members of our community said yes, mental health struggles absolutely happen, and they are experienced by our families too.

I participated in the forum as an EPYC Ambassador for the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). The EPYC Program, in its sophomore year, hopes to empower the next generation of Fil-Am leaders across the country by assisting in the personal and professional development of students and young professionals. As an ambassador for the Capital Region, I was quickly introduced to the scene in the D.C. Metro Area. I made my way from one community event to another, increasing my networks and learning about the resources that I wished I knew when I was younger. But it was, ironically, the topic of mental health that made me very anxious to attend the forum. At the time, I was going through one of the hardest college semesters of my life, and I was afraid to participate in an event dealing directly with this very topic. I woke up that morning with every intention of fading into the background to listen rather than to speak.

But that is not what happened. The hosts made it clear that they wanted to hear what the young people had to say. Jon Melegrito, a local community pioneer known fondly as "Tito Jon" said that that day was about sharing our stories, because we rarely have the opportunity to do so. The room had prominent scholars like Dr. Kevin Nadal (who sat next to me!) and Dr. E.J. Ramos David, but their eyes were focused on us. And so we spoke. We talked about dealing with stigma both inside and outside the community. We talked about the structural barriers (like costs) that make it hard for anybody to get support, regardless of their ethnicity. On the topic of collaboration, I mentioned that it was important for us to address that Filipino-Americans are not a monolith, and that we must always strive to center the most marginalized among us.


Pictured: Austin Chavez, Kevin Nadal, Andrew Bartolome, Jon Melegrito, and Janis Manalang. Photo by Lia Macadangdang


There was one topic, however, that we kept circling back to: the disconnect between parent and child, between first gen and second gen, between the homeland and the diaspora. I often find these conversations to be very interesting, because as someone who identifies as 1.5 gen (someone who immigrated to this country as a child), I serve as a good example that those conversations are not black-and-white. If there is anything I learned from being pushed into the diaspora it is that this life is very hard. No amount of Filipino resilience can prepare you from dealing with so much loss when you are away from your people. What diaspora asks of us is to rebuild and re-envision a new life without having much of a blueprint to borrow from. So who should we be? What kind of life should we have? These are some of the broader conversations our communities will need to have for some time.


Quezon City, Philippines. 2003.


And what we are seeing now is that more and more of our people are willing to have them. Recently, Instagram hired Filipino-American student Jazmine Alcon (@pettyofcolor) as an Instagram Ambassador. Alcon uses her platform to create online spaces for youth, specifically Filipinx youth, to talk about mental health issues. Malaka Gharib of NPR has published a heartwarming multimedia piece on Filipino-American Mental Health with the help of Ryann Tanap of AARP. Academics like Nadal and David have been making a name for Filipino-American psychology for some time and still continue to make breakthroughs.

And we should not stop there. We also need to take a look at what Ruby Ibarra is doing, what Bambu DePistola is doing. We must engage with Elaine Castillo and Jose Antonio Vargas. We have to ground ourselves in the work of Dawn Mabalon and Carlos Bulosan who did so much work for our people when they were here. We also have to be humble enough to look at what other communities have done that help paved the way for us. Fil-Ams, especially non-Black Fil-Ams, need to be just as dedicated in reading their bell hooks and Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and Kimberle Crenshaw and Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, and so much more. Inclusivity, intersectionality, and solidarity should be the heart of our many conversations. Kapwa (connectedness) must not come with any conditions.

As I unpack my own struggles with mental health, I often look back on the day of the forum. I often have to stop myself from feeling like a hypocrite because I was talking about a topic that I have yet to fully resolve on my own. And then I realize that perhaps the bigger problem was that I thought I had to resolve it alone. As I get closer to graduation, I am beginning to understand that I should not beat myself up any longer, because life in the diaspora already does a good job of doing that. What I should do is be more gentle and give more grace for those are the more radical things to do in the face of what we are dealt with. The business of being free is hard work, but to echo Dr. E.J. Ramos David—this is because "this is the heart's work."

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Irish-American History Is Just As Important As Any Other Culture, You Can't Prove Me Wrong

I cherish being Irish and I will not let anyone let me feel bad for that.

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Depending on when you're reading this, Saint Patrick's day has either just passed or is around the corner. For me, Saint Patrick's day is tomorrow. I've been debating this article for some time now because I didn't know how it would be perceived. At this point, though, I feel it's important for me to get out. No, Irish people were never kept as slaves in America, and I will never be one to try and say they were. However, Irish people were treated tremendously awful in America. A lot of people tend to forget, or just try to erase entirely, the history of the Irish in America. So much so that I felt shameful for wanting to celebrate my heritage. Therefore, I want to bring to light the history that everyone brushes under the rug.

In 1845, a potato famine broke out across Ireland. This was a big deal because the Irish lived off, mainly, potatoes. They were cheap, easy to grow, and had tons of nutrients. So when the famine struck, many people either died of starvation or fled to America in seek of refuge. When the Irish arrived in America they were seen as a threat to the decency of America. People viewed them as drunk beasts, sinful savages, barbaric, violent, belligerent, stupid, and white apes. When the Irish would go to look for jobs, many times they found signs that read "Irish Need Not Apply," even when the job was hiring. Therefore, the Irish did the jobs no one wanted, and even jobs African slaves wouldn't do. The biggest example of this is when Irishmen built canals and drained swamps. They were sent to do these things because of the enormous amount of mosquitoes; in the swamp, they would get bit and ultimately die of malaria.

Also, during this time, Irish people were poor and therefore lived in the same neighborhoods as the free African Americans. A lot of the Irish people were friendly with their neighbors of color and even got into interracial relationships. Because the Irish lived in these neighborhoods they were seen as dirty and even a lot of people at this time put African Americans higher on the totem pole than Irish. One person during the time even said, "At least the black families keep their homes clean."

The main reason American's outlook on Irish people changed was that most Irishmen took up fighting for the Union in the Civil War. I make this argument, not because I think the Irish suffered more than African slaves. I don't say this in means of trying to erase the struggles of the African slaves. I do not think that any of our ancestors should have been treated the way they were. I mean to say that the Irish did in fact suffer. Irish people were treated wrongly on the basis of...nothing. Simply because my ancestors hailed from the shores of Eire, they were treated with malice. And I write this simply because I want people to remember. I want people to understand what happened.

On Saint Patrick's Day this year, next year, and for the many years to come, I want people to embrace the Irish culture. I want the folks of Irish heritage to not be ashamed of where they come from; to not be ashamed to share their culture the way I have for many years. I want everyone to have a beer, wear some green, eat a potato or two, and dance the Irish step; to celebrate the history of Irish people with a bit more understanding than before.

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