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1 Year After William Rivers Pitt’s Death, Let’s Recommit to Collective Survival

As Truthout’s beloved columnist taught us before his death, collective grief can nourish long-term growth and healing.

William Rivers Pitt reminded us of what can happen when we show up for each other through mutual aid, compassion, advocacy and love.

As COVID infections rose again in the waning days of summer, I couldn’t stop thinking about William Rivers Pitt, Truthout’s lead columnist of two decades, who died tragically a year ago today.

Will would not stop writing about COVID. He wouldn’t stop writing about it even after a couple of years had passed, when pandemic fatigue was pervasive and Will’s COVID stories drew fewer readers than his pieces on any other topic. It wasn’t that Will didn’t care about how many people read his stories. It was that when it came to the pandemic, Will’s approach was, “If they don’t want to hear, they need to hear.” Will knew that writing can save lives, and told me once that if he stopped writing about COVID, he’d be violating his own authorial version of the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.”

As a person who had nearly died of pneumonia and continued to struggle with lung problems, Will reminded people: “Don’t forget about us when someone starts talking about ‘the end of COVID.’ Over in this corner, there is no such thing.” He was pointing to our individual responsibility to each other, but more than that, he was condemning our institutions and systems for abandoning the most vulnerable people among us, in a time of grave peril.

Will gave voice to our collective grief — both our bottomless grief over the millions of people lost to COVID, and also our grief about the rearrangement and limitations of our lives at the time, particularly for those with heightened vulnerability to the virus. He wrote:

I walk the evening streets of my little town, passing empty taverns with “Open” signs feebly lit beside the door, and recall a thousand nights inside such places, the air so warm and moist my glasses would fog as I shouldered my way to the bar. The urge to find that scene again is almost overwhelming, but I leave it be, because I wish to be, and specifically to be the difference between “is” and “was.”

On today’s desolate anniversary, we can take to heart all the ways in which Will, while he was here, wrote toward survival — not only his own survival, but the survival of all of us. He reminded us of what can happen when we show up for each other through mutual aid, compassion, advocacy and love, and pointed to the way millions of people did just that, in the early days of the pandemic. Survival is a collective practice, and Will’s words were part of that practice.

Anyone who throws their energy toward collective survival has to think a lot about change. How do we embrace change? How do we resist harmful changes? How do we make change? How do we adapt to changing circumstances? These questions emerged as the pandemic erupted and dragged on, but they also apply on a thousand different fronts. What is demanded of us, in service of collective survival, is often in flux.

When Will’s daughter entered kindergarten, he observed, “The new Most Important Job Ever began the second the old one was concluded, and will come again and again and again.” He was referring to the shift in his work as a parent — moving from the intensive caregiving required by the very young to the role of parenting a school-age-kid — but the concept is a broader one, too.

As we confront pandemics and epidemics, right-wing violence and fascist politics, climate chaos and wars — as well as the start of new school years, there will always be new “Most Important Jobs Ever,” and the question is how we will shift, adapt, rise, stretch and create in the face of each new challenge.

Not long before his death, Will posted all the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” on his Facebook page. He loved that song, most notably the chorus: I’ve been afraid of changing / Because I’ve built my life around you / But time makes you bolder, even children get older / And I’m getting older too. Will told me once that for him, the song wasn’t just a “breakup song” or a dirge about aging; it was about the bittersweet-but-constant reality of transformation. More than once, he mentioned the Heraclitus quote, “The only constant is change”; he lived by it. (I told him this brought to mind for me Octavia Butler’s Earthseed creed, from Parable of the Sower: “The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”)

What does the constancy of change mean, when it comes to working toward our collective survival? For Will, one example shone clear: the surge of mutual aid and neighborly support in the early days of COVID. Later, as pandemic fatigue set in, he wrote:

All of us on our lonely little islands, armed to the teeth and suspicious of everything, is exactly how they want us… but that energy was there for a time. It was warm, bright and deeply inspirational; you could almost reach out your window and scoop up a handful. It’s still there, and so am I, and so are you. To quote Dahr Jamail, ‘How, then, shall we live?

Here, he was pointing to a Truthout series written by Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil, which strove to “help us come to terms, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, with where we are as a species, and how to plunge forward to face our future.” In the first story of the series, Jamail and Cecil wrote of fallen trees slowly decomposing over the course of years:

Scientists tell us that the years it takes to decompose equals the standing life of the tree. These trees are hardly dead. In fact, they are called “nurse logs,” as their rich soils and fungal growth provide nourishment for many species beyond their own seed. Salal and huckleberry, young cedar trees, firs, hemlock, spruce, large leaf maple, and a myriad of other species thrive, their roots reaching into the richness of the fallen mother tree.

As the tree decomposes, the other life forms grow tall. Some of these offshoots may themselves live to be 1,000 years old, and then lay down to birth yet another generation. The nursing phase of these giants was at the end of their life instead of at their young prime.… There is much we simply don’t know about the continuity of life.

In this way, Will’s wisdom, too, will live and live, itself a part of our collective survival struggle. Like a nurse log, he is helping to grow and nourish new writers, new activists, open-hearted people everywhere who are allowing themselves to feel change, to acknowledge it, to face it – and to act.

As Will taught us, collective grief can nourish long-term growth and healing. Some of the mutual aid projects that arose in those early days of COVID are still around, working to provide food, housing, legal support, and other interventions in their communities. These networks have risen to meet the needs of residents in the wake of hurricanes, floods and wildfires. Others have formed lasting “free stores” in their communities. In the midst of mass tragedy, connections formed and stuck.

For me, one of the most meaningful connections I formed during those early days of COVID was created through a Zoom-based grief group, in which three of us — all activists — came together to process our losses each Sunday evening. When Will died two and a half years later, that group was there to catch me.

As Will wrote, that energy of mutual care is “still there, and so am I, and so are you.”

We each have it within our power to commit to doing all we can to nourish our collective survival. And we owe it to Will — and all those we’ve lost — to try.

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