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There’s Great Power in Grief. Will We Use It to Fuel Solidarity With Palestine?

Grief can be transformative, and it compels me to imagine a world where freedom is possible — in Palestine and beyond.

Demonstrators participate in a candlelight vigil organized by New York University students in support of Palestinians, at Washington Square Park in New York City, on October 17, 2023.

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Fall has shed me to the root. It’s been transformative in that way. A season of loss and dark emotions that emerge as quickly and as deep as the violet sky these days. Their emergence, however, no longer expires with the sun and the light of my companions and love around me — they’ve settled with me, making a comfortable home out of the wreckage they’ve managed to collect throughout my body. Pieces of me I don’t think I’ll recover.

Grief is the dark emotion that takes the most of me and my wreckage, having cooled from an initial force of rage that flared within me into a melancholic cradle that rocks me awake at night, exhausts me through mourning, and strings me along into the evening, begging for me to at least crawl with it. Grief has shed the most of me, leaving me barren and raw, tender to the harsh winter air around me.

This winter, as we contend with numerous ongoing humanitarian crises — from Sudan, to Congo, to Palestine — this grief has held steady in my heart. For me, there’s always a collective grief that underlies the fabric of a resisting people; the grieving of stolen lives, stolen histories — whether lost or remembered — the grieving of stolen homes, and most importantly, a grieving for what could be. Liberation and the right to a dignified life may seem out of reach to us now, but our spirits know it well, and thus we are longing and grieving for this potential. It is this grief that has propelled me in my work, and forces me to reimagine a world where freedom is possible.

Amid Israel’s genocide of Palestinians, however, this underlying grief has intensified and threatens to consume me. How could it not? More than 22,000 Palestinians have died, and this number grows every day. Those who’ve survived the many weapons Israel has used against them — with the assistance of U.S. taxpayer dollars and weapons — are forced to survive its older weapons: starvation, thirst, disease and cold. Surrounded by vivid displays of death and rubble and ruin across social media for nearly three months, what else is this grief meant to do besides grow, and pace across one’s body in frustration? And with each image I see, I’ve noted that this grief finds a new space within me to settle, and so I’ve made it a point to name where in my body I feel it at a particular time. Perhaps you’ve felt it, too.

I feel this grief most in my hands as I watch buildings topple. Homes, crucial religious sites, all powdered onto the ground, exhaling their final breath before the ashes are collected by the wind. My hands tremble at the sound, tremble at the sight of a land’s destruction. At the knowledge that family homes and shops and places with vast memories will only live on as a memory. At the idea that a university or a home and its bright students and their final breaths have all been carried with the wind.

I feel this grief most in the back of my throat as I scroll through images of dead children — burned, suffocated in rubble, wrapped in white burial sheets that were never made for them. Their surviving relatives know this best, as they cradle them in their arms, hoping to rock them back to life. Begging forgiveness from them, begging for mercy for the broken hearted. And in these moments, the grief standing in the back of my throat becomes a coiled tension threatening to spring forward in a shuddering cry. Despite being rendered speechless, I can taste its metallic remnants on the roof of my mouth. If this grief were words, they’d be poison, and if they were weapons, they’d be of every kind.

If grief can be debilitating, it can also be transformative. And as we consider the transformative power of grief, its importance in our movements for liberation becomes clear.

I feel this grief behind my cheekbones as I consider those Palestinians that are living — those fighting to survive. The 57,000 people (and counting) who’ve been devastatingly injured or disabled with barely any access to hospitals, medication or anesthesia for these injuries. The 2 million people walking on the ashes of their destroyed homes, displaced and in search of safety — even for a moment. Those who’ve lost their entire families and lead prayers at their burials. Those deemed political prisoners in Gaza and beyond, who’ve been kidnapped by Israeli forces and locked away indefinitely. Tortured indefinitely. Their time and their livelihood and childhoods, kidnapped from them. There are those that grieve life and grieve grieving, for there’s no time to mourn as Israel bombards them — no time for stillness and no time for healing and no time for grief.

And so, as I became a host to this parasitic grief which threatened to eat me alive, I remembered that there is privilege in being able to feel and name this thing. That I could be still and think of healing and think of grieving. There is great power in grief if it could take over me in this way — if it could render me still and despairing, then surely it could render me useful and hopeful. If grief can be debilitating, it can also be transformative. And as we consider the transformative power of grief, its importance in our movements for liberation becomes clear.

Grief is especially defiant in a place like the U.S., whose culture is steeped in the negligence of it. After all, we are living in the belly of the beast, where death and destruction are the pillars that hold this institution together. Where pockets are lined from human suffering, and global grief is produced as a result. Where a fierce dehumanization campaign attempts to render this global grief null. Thus, as we resist the global death project forged by the U.S., our collective grief not only names and acknowledges this destruction as such, but it humanizes. In our grieving for the people of Palestine, we reaffirm the humanity that they’re continuously denied.

As we inevitably encounter grief in our organizing for liberation, we must let grief be the momentum which drives us forward in our fight for Palestinian lives, Sudanese lives, Congolese lives, and all those surviving the sharp remnants of imperialism. Grief shouldn’t render us still in a moment begging for us to move. Once grief has rendered us still, we can sink so deeply into this melancholy that our losses are lived as such — a loss. They become an erasure, something that can never be recovered, rather than a memory worth fighting for. In this case, our grief shouldn’t sink us into despair, but should propel us to fight in the name of those killed, to build on and continue their struggle for the sake of those who remain.

In our grieving for the people of Palestine, we reaffirm the humanity that they’re continuously denied.

And as we continue building upon the seeds of resistance left for us by those we’ve lost, we must remember that we aren’t cultivating them alone. Grief is a human response, no matter how unwelcome its presence is in our workspaces and our schools, and sometimes our own homes. So as we collectively organize — whether occupying a senator’s office, blocking ships carrying weapons destined for Israel, or marching in the streets — we must also make space to collectively grieve and lament together. Our mobilizations become grieving spaces and our chants are our lamentations; as we yell “Free Palestine” in the streets and we shed tears at vigils and we cry for liberation, we’re lamenting together. And our lamentations for the people of Palestine and beyond will serve as the fiery, collective voice that will shake this hegemony to the ground.

As Palestinian writer Jalal Abukhater told my colleague Kelly Hayes in an episode of “Movement Memos” this past May,

Our energies, for grief, are transformed into energies that seek action, seek meaningful action and are very optimistic and hopeful. They are driven by optimism in a way that we do imagine a liberated Palestine. We do imagine our free people. We always speak about it. We encourage each other. Whenever there is grief, there is unity, and in unity, there is strength, and we feel it.

As we amass and curate energy around Palestinian resistance, we must sustain enough of this momentum to never return to the status quo. Our resistance must be one that will lead to the end of occupation in Palestine and true liberation for those around the world. And as we continue this struggle, our grief should never wither our commitment to our people. Our grief must flourish and solidify our desire to build out of tremendous loss, no matter where we are.

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