Some of us did not die: How I began learning to talk to grief

Learning to confront loss is a critical part of our humanity, one that modern society often discourages
Photo: Garry Davies/Flickr

First published at Feminist Giant.

“I realized that regardless of the tragedy, regardless of the grief, regardless of the monstrous challenge, Some of Us Have Not Died. Some of us did NOT die…And what shall we do, we who did not die?” the poet and activist June Jordan asked in a keynote presentation at Barnard College on November 9, 2001. It has been adapted as Some of Us Did Not Die, the title of an essay and an anthology of her essays.

Her questions were about the September 11 attacks, less than two months before her talk. In examining how those who survived can best honour those killed, June Jordan quotes Holocaust survivor Elly Gross: “I guess it was my destiny to live…To live means you owe something big to those whose lives are taken away from them.”

“What shall we do now? How shall we grieve, and cry out loud, and face down despair?” Jordan asks. They are questions that are just as urgent today, in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century, when the death toll in the United States alone is 200 times that of 9/11 and multiples more across the world where at least 3.5 million have died so far.

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The 3.5 million include the father of my Beloved and my cousin. 

There was no funeral for Richard Rutledge, who died on May 6, 2020 at the age of 87. There was no funeral for my cousin Dr. Amr El Naggar, who died while on a ventilator in the hospital in Saudi Arabia where he worked as a doctor on May 13, 2021 at the age of 40. It is no surprise that restrictions around funerals are making it more difficult to grieve.

“And what shall we do, we who did not die? What shall we do now? How shall we grieve, and cry out loud, and face down despair?”

When the pandemic began, I couldn’t listen to what I used to listen to. Songs, especially their lyrics, from before the pandemic felt like a mockery, worse than denial. I didn’t have words for what we were going through. So I stopped listening to words. 

I had to empty my mind of words so that my heart could learn a new language.

I began to listen to Vivaldi, whose compositions I knew next to nothing about. He reminded me of nothing. His concertos triggered no memories of anything that I would miss or that compounded loss. Every day, his music was all I could listen to; as I ate, washed the dishes, and last thing at night when I would put headphones on and fall asleep to Vivaldi.

While refrigeration trucks were being filled with dead bodies in New York City, his music was like a soft velvet rope around my heart, telling grief to wait because I was not ready to talk.  Some people learned new languages during lockdown. I was learning to listen to my overwhelmed heart so that together we could learn how to talk to grief. 

Because we must become grief literate. 


An international group of death studies practitioners and scholars from several countries—Canada, Japan, China, Germany, and Australia—and disciplines—social work, psychology, anthropology, public health, and the funeral sector—has coined the concept Grief Literacy, which means “the capacity to access, process, and use knowledge regarding the experience of loss.” 

Loss, as they explain, does not only occur in response to death; any loss can cause us to grieve.

“So much is being lost in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic. We have lost our routines and many freedoms. Many people have lost their jobs. We have lost the ability to visit freely with one another and, in some cases, to go outside our homes. And some people have lost their lives while others have lost the opportunity to be with people who are dying or grieving,” Dr. Susan Cadell, one of the researchers, writes. 

They offer several scenarios for what a “grief literate society” would look like: it would include grief education in curricula, starting in junior levels; it recognizes and acknowledges grief from non-death losses, and pet deaths, and does not rank those losses vis-a-vis human death loss. People in a grief literate society would understand and accept differences in grieving styles, in terms of gender, race, and culture, and they would feel comfortable to talk about their own loss experiences and to ask about loss experiences of others, instead of avoiding the subject or showing discomfort. 

“Death is sexy in popular culture, but there’s nothing sexy about grief,” said Dr. Mary Ellen Macdonald, a medical anthropologist who is part of the team behind Grief Literacy. “It’s not curable. The only way to cure grief is to grieve. It’s this process that you have to go through – and often, you’re going to go through it alone.”

And unevenly.

As some countries are vaccinating, there are still others where COVID-19 and its variants are ravaging lives and livelihoods; countries that are months if not years away from access to vaccinations. 

We are not standing on level grieving fields. With lockdowns being lifted in some places, we risk losing whatever small pockets of grief we are learning to stand in as governments, corporations, and CEOs rush us out to “normal.” 


We have not reckoned with the magnitude of our pain and grief. Those of us who did not die must prepare to take our individual grief out into the world, find our place in communal mourning and nurturing and whisper to each other’s hearts “We know you’re strong. Look at what you survived. You can be soft here, we’ve got you.”

That is part of grief literacy. And it belongs to us. One of the most powerful aspects of grief literacy is that it is community driven.

“Grief literacy extends the compassionate communities movement,” Cadell explains, referencing a network that promotes social approaches to dying, death and bereavement in the everyday life of individuals and communities. “The idea of compassionate communities is to challenge the professionalization of health care and palliative care by empowering communities to care for their citizens.”

The “professionalization”—by institutions and/or the State of death and dying as well as grief are relatively modern phenomena. Professional mourners that date back to ancient Egypt, Greece, China and other parts of the world are a reminder of a time before the State intervened with its attempts to control and quantify and render death into statistics. There is a difference between the “professionalization” in the above quote and the services that professional mourners provide.

“They (professional mourners) threaten that authority, because they’re not operating within a space of governance or adhering to whatever the system is,” multidisciplinary artist Taryn Simon told the New Yorker about her project in collaboration with Artangel, “Laments from Quarantine,” which captures on video wails, songs, and chants of loss by professional mourners. Take a few moments to watch and listen to the videos.

While death and dying is the focus of palliative care, Dr. Macdonald says, grief and bereavement are often insufficiently addressed. That’s what the researchers behind grief literacy want to change and they want us to know that “Grief often doesn’t need to be professionalized. About 10 percent of people need professional services. Everyone, however, needs kindness.”

And that kindness begins with ourselves. My days with Vivaldi were just that: a kindness to the self that must be nourished so that it can then be extended to others. 


I am late to the series Call the Midwife, which my sister has been recommending for years. When I finally binge-watched my way through it during lockdown it became the practical application of what listening to Vivaldi was teaching me. 

“You’ll get a headache from crying,” my sister promised when I told her that I was in search of catharsis. And without fail, each episode tore my heart apart and then delicately handed it back to me: “See, you’re still here. Befriend grief. Don’t be scared.”

To make friends with grief, I needed new words. Vivaldi’s music felt like rose petals falling on my heart—soft and fragrant and so welcome. Other times it was like having bees buzz around my mind. Others still, as if a breeze was blowing through a corridor that connected my heart and my mind, leading me to joy. A dizzy joy. A trippy joy. A bold joy.

In my lockdown bubble, I surrendered to the ways the music played in my mind, pulling right and left, knocking on areas hiding, telling me “Beauty is here.” 

And in that pull right and left, and in the knocking, the music cajoled and tempted words, laying rose petals for them to follow along the corridor that connected my mind to my heart. Professional mourners know that the language of grief has less to do with words and everything to do with that path between our mind and heart. As Taryn Simon says, the state of loss is “a space that’s beyond articulation or beyond language.” 

Canada, where I have spent most of the pandemic so far, could soon have a national grief strategy as part of the Canadian Grief Alliance’s proposals to answer the unprecedented volume and complexity of grief that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.

They have asked the Federal Government to invest $100 million in grief support over the next three years that would go towards things like free grief services and resources that provide direct assistance to those grieving during and after the pandemic, with tailored resources for Indigenous Peoples, children and youth, seniors and other populations with specific needs. And a public awareness campaign to increase understanding of grief, healthy coping strategies and existing resources like MyGrief.ca and KidsGrief.ca

More resources are available at Dying With Dignity Canada—a member of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies—which has launched a Grief Literacy Campaign, consisting of 6 free of charge webinars. The Family Education Centre in partnership with the Children and Youth Grief Network have sheets & podcasts available in 7 languages—Arabic, English, French, Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish, Urdu. 

Part of our grief literacy must include pronouncing once and for all that whatever “normal” was is dead and buried. Only the most privileged and the least affected will insist on “going back to normal.” We must walk—emerge from the pandemic, not regress to “normal”—and talk—talk to our grief. We must speak it because as with any language, the more you use it the more fluent you become.