We grieved and we grew
Amanda Gorman spoke the words I needed.
On election night 2016, my husband, Jamie, was the first person in our group of friends to offer a bit of hope. As we all sat together, speechless and stunned by Donald Trump’s soon-to-be victory, Jamie broke the silence. “Some really great art is going to come out of this,” he said.
Over the next couple of months, Jamie was brave enough to have challenging conversations with the Trump voters that we knew. He’d ask difficult questions, listen to their answers, and push back on anything that was false.
Once Trump assumed office, Jamie took action. He’d call and call and call our elected officials until he got through—sharing his deep concerns about the president’s latest appointees and policies.
And then, 15 days into Trump’s presidency, Jamie died.
Last Wednesday, as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris took the oath of office, I replayed all of those moments in my head. I wondered—like I have so often over the past four years—what Jamie would say about where we are as a nation. I wished I could witness the moment with him.
It’s fair to describe the past four years as traumatic. We witnessed families torn apart at the border; feared nuclear strikes on our country; heard countless lies, threats, and racist remarks; and watched as hundreds of thousands of people died from an unchecked virus. We grew bitter, angry, and depleted. At times, as the lies got bigger and the truth more twisted, we doubted our own sanity.
Even Trump’s own supporters experienced heightened stress throughout his presidency. As the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote, “Whether they liked Trump or detested him, Americans have spent the last four years mentally preparing themselves for the ‘what did he do now?’ moment that would arrive pretty much every day.”
Last week, after all of the inaugural proceedings went off without disruption, it felt like we could finally take a collective sigh of relief. The Trump era was officially over. But the grief we endured remains.
It’s tempting to look back at the chaos of the last four years and tell ourselves that the worst is past us—that there’s nothing more to fear or mourn. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. All of the problems we faced before as a nation still exist. If anything, they’re more complicated now.
Not long after Jamie died, I connected online with a group of other young widows. Some of them had lost their partners around the same time I did. Others had been widowed for years. It was the latter contingent, the elders, who terrified me. “Grief lasts for a long time,” they’d say. “It never goes away.”
I didn’t want to believe them. I felt utterly lost without my husband and thought that there was no way I could be so sad for so long. They just weren’t trying hard enough, right?
I started searching for a way out of my sorrow. I read as many books about grief as I could get my hands on—looking for answers to my endless questions. I traveled as much as I could—attempting to escape my sadness. I even sought solace in online dating—hoping to meet someone who would help me feel less lonely.
At some point, I told myself that I just had to make it to the one-year anniversary of Jamie’s death, and things would dramatically improve. By then, I would have read enough books, visited enough places, dated enough people, and cried enough tears to have found my path forward.
That didn’t work. On February 4, 2018, I was just as sad as I was the day before; the one-year anniversary didn’t magically heal me. Neither did the second or third anniversary. I’m not holding my breath for this upcoming anniversary, either.
Eventually, though, the grief I carried got a little lighter. I learned how to appreciate my own company. I met someone who didn’t make me forget about Jamie, but rather encouraged me to embrace the sadness. I began to write and share more openly about my experience, and in doing so, met countless people going through their own struggles.
What worked was giving myself time and space to heal, and allowing myself to feel everything I needed to. The answers weren’t in books nor places nor other people. The solace I was looking for was inside of me.
As I watched Biden’s inauguration, I was struck by how quiet it was. The socially distanced crowd was sparse. Applause and cheers were muted by winter gloves and face masks. In a way, it felt appropriate. Last Wednesday was less a celebration than a declaration. Yes, we made it. Yes, we have work to do.
I watched the inauguration with my partner by my side and our baby in my lap. It felt wholly surreal, to be in such a wildly different place than I was four years prior. When I think about how much has changed, both in my life and in the world, my head starts to spin. There are so many realities that still seem like impossibilities—the fact that Jamie is dead and that we’re living in a pandemic, just to name two. Reflecting on it all is exhausting. And being told that the hard times aren’t yet over is maddening.
For me, the trauma of Trump’s presidency is inextricably intertwined with the trauma of losing my husband. It’s a topic I’ve tried to write about for years, but was never able to find the right words. I could connect the two events in their awfulness, but couldn’t find the lesson between them. I searched for reasons to feel hopeful, but always came up short.
And then, on Wednesday, poet Amanda Gorman took the inaugural stage. By this point, I don’t need to tell you how incredible Gorman is or what a breath of fresh air she was that day. You’ve likely watched a video of her delivery or read the words to her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
Gorman spoke about where we’ve been and where we’re going as a nation. She acknowledged the sadness we’ve all experienced, but also spoke words of hope:
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we'll forever be tied together, victorious.
These were the words I needed to hear. This was the lesson I was looking for.
The past four years—last year, especially—have been a time of collective mourning. In order to move forward, before we can even talk about unity, it’s necessary to address the many losses we’ve experienced. The COVID-19 memorial last Tuesday night was a start. I have my reservations with Biden, but it does reassure me that he’s someone who understands and honors grief.
We have a long way to go as a country. The COVID pandemic is still raging. White supremacy is still a scourge. Racial inequality still exists. Climate change is still a threat. The good news, as Gorman expressed so beautifully, is that grief leads to growth. Our hardest times bring us our greatest lessons. Our deepest moments of suffering pave the way for the sweetest moments of joy. The key is to not lose faith and to not stop trying.
I often wonder what Jamie would say about various events. More often than not, though, I can imagine how he’d be feeling. I have no doubt that if he were alive today, he’d be heartened and ready to push for even greater change.
Yes, we made it. Yes, we have work to do.
p.s. How have you changed over the past four years? How does it make you feel to look back? Reply to this email, leave a comment, or send me a message. I’ll feature a variety of responses in Friday’s subscriber-only newsletter.
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Thanks to everyone who shared last week’s newsletter about body image. I was especially touched by this tweet from my friend and former colleague Roy. If you know Roy Peter Clark, you know what a honor this is:
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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, whose Trump-era years have been an emotional blur, but full of growth and, even more, of gratitude.