The History and Politics of the Right to GrieveRoundup
tags: labor history, cultural history, grief, Bereavement
Erik Baker is an American historian and an associate editor at The Drift.
IN MARCH 2022, a new species of mental distress was added to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a syndrome called “prolonged grief disorder.” Afflicted individuals find their everyday functioning inhibited by grief that persists for an apparently unreasonable duration following the loss of a loved one. Telltale signs include “feeling as though part of oneself has died,” a “marked sense of disbelief about the death,” and “intense loneliness.” How long is too long for such symptoms to linger? The American Psychiatric Association’s benchmark is a year for adults and six months for children. But the important thing is that “the person’s bereavement lasts longer than might be expected based on social, cultural, or religious norms.”
Though critics of the category of prolonged grief disorder—perhaps most vocally the scholar Joanne Cacciatore—have argued that the new diagnosis risks pathologizing the very act of mourning, the APA is not incorrect, exactly, to argue that “persistent grief is disabling.” But disability is not a natural or objective category; rather, it registers the way society is organized to accommodate some bodies and persons and not others. In particular, as scholar and activist Marta Russell has emphasized, disability is always defined in relation to work, describing those whose physical and mental capacities don’t fully conform to its needs, expectations, and demands.
The truth is that American society has made persistent grief disabling, because the demands that grief makes on a person are at odds with the way that American capitalism expects people to comport themselves as workers. The normal worker, in our economic system, is a person whose ability to work is not impaired by grief—not someone who doesn’t experience loss, which would of course be impossible, but someone who simply doesn’t let it get to them. There is no statutory entitlement to bereavement leave in the United States, except in the state of Oregon. In fact, Department of Labor guidance on the Fair Labor Standards Act explicitly cites mourning as the example par excellence of unprotected non-work: Federal law “does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral.”
While the ideal worker under this regime is supposed to keep calm and carry on in the face of any loss, real workers experience grief all the time—in which case they must depend on the generosity of their bosses. Support is too often lacking. Gig workers, whose employers pretend to be nothing of the sort, are out of luck, as are the vast majority of part-time employees (which, of course, includes the millions of Americans who work full-time by stringing together multiple part-time jobs). Though upwards of 70% of full-time workers do have access to bereavement leave as part of their benefits package, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median allotment is a mere three days, after which employees—if they’re lucky—must start using sick days or vacation time. Employer policies also provoke painful conflicts over which relationships warrant time off to grieve. Often workers can only get dispensation to mourn members of their “immediate family” or that of their spouse. If employers grant leave after the death of an extended family member or a close friend, it is typically just a single day. Workers who have good relationships with their supervisors can sometimes circumvent such restrictions, but needing to prove one’s closeness to the deceased can be traumatizing or, for queer people in unsafe workplaces dealing with the loss of a partner or a member of their chosen family, even dangerous.
Such conflicts have arisen more and more frequently in the past few years, as what epidemiologists term “excess mortality” has skyrocketed to unprecedented heights. Americans are currently confronting not one but two deadly epidemics: While Covid-19 has claimed over a million lives, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than 100,000 people are also dying from drug overdoses every 12 months. And grief and loneliness are themselves major triggers of substance abuse. We seem to be trapped in an ever-escalating cycle of loss, despair, and death. Under these conditions, even the most generous of existing bereavement leave policies begins to look like a sick joke. Grief unfolds at the scale of years, not days; half a working week is nowhere near enough time to process one loss, let alone the many that countless Americans have suffered—or the unfathomable collective loss we have experienced as a society in the past few years.
In these circumstances, to demand the right to grieve—not on the employer’s schedule, but in whatever time one’s own act of mourning requires—is to reject a cruel status quo, and the expectation that we should accommodate ourselves to its deadly rhythms in the name of productivity. This is because the experience of grief is fundamentally at odds with the anthropology of capitalism, and with the mode of personhood it expects from its subjects. Grief is a threat to the peculiar way capitalism expects workers to relate to their time: as something objective, homogenous, and alienable; a commodity that can be signed over to an employer. Existing bereavement leave policy conforms to this understanding of time, returning a discrete number of hours to the employee to execute whatever tasks are thought to compose the process of mourning.
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