CW: This article mentions suicide in the section titled Afterlife, and contains spoilers
Behind each casualty of the pandemic, gathered just beyond the visible horrors of statistics and news stories, is a grieving person—often many. And with a particular kind of cruelty, Covid-19 has stolen not only lives but the ways our grief is recognized. After the shocking death of my high school boyfriend immediately pre-pandemic, and the loss of my grandfather to Covid four months later, my experience of grief in quarantine was one of tunneling inward, dragging the loss in endless, lonely circles around familiar rooms. Attempting to trade in-person events for virtual ones was bizarre: warm hugs from friends became rectangular boxes on a screen. The Zoom memorial my family hosted for my grandfather was touching but surreal, my parents and I perched on the worn living room couch in our funeral black like a small flock of crows.
Grief is terrible and powerful. It can ground us intensely in the present, or provide a superhuman ability to excavate the past. It can uncloud the window suddenly, wiping away the blur of daily life and revealing what’s most important. It can make us compassionate, and startling to each other in our humanity. It defies logics of capitalism and white supremacy that demand linearity, that obscure how we are connected to every person we’ve ever known.
But if there’s one conclusion I’ve come to about loss, it’s that grief demands a witness. When someone is gone, their absence becomes something to attach to, to attend to with love. If no one recognizes that grief, there is an extra ache: both from pain made invisible and from feeling that the beloved person is forgotten. Robbed of witnessing rituals and struggling to express affection from outside a six-foot radius, we need new ways to see each other’s grief.
I’ve found that art that frankly depicts death and mourning can be that witness. It’s not just that grief-related art is profound, or relatable, or makes us feel less lonely—it’s that creation after loss is vital. Art allows us to experience anti-finality, to put substance where there is only inconceivable absence.
I find it a little hokey when college administrators and Instagram therapists talk about grieving the loss of “normal” to an affluent audience, as if brunch dates and summer internships are equivalent to human life. But I do fully believe that we are all mourning in the 2020/2021 horrorscape—people we knew and people that blur into names and tallies; victims of Covid and victims of white supremacist violence; illness, strained relationships, lost livelihood. Right now I think we all need art that sees grief, through rage, anguish, and many narratives.
There’s a lot to be said for escapism—for vapid reality TV, dance music, and light reads. I’m all for consuming whatever doesn’t make you think too hard, as my Netflix “watched” list will attest. Still, though the past year of my life was defined by loss, I found myself turning toward grief onscreen and on the page, rather than away from it. It felt as though the characters, writers, and directors saw my grief, and reached for it. Because we could all use someone reaching for us right now, I’ll present four pieces of art I found and held close. I hope they resonate with anyone who’s looked loss in the face this year.
TV series: Never Have I Ever (dir. Mindy Kaling)
“Never Have I Ever” follows Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a horny, uncool high school sophomore determined to boost her social status in the year after the sudden and traumatic death of her beloved father. While tropes like ‘nerdy girl’ and ‘hot jock’ are familiar, the show surprised me with moments that glimmered outside genre norms. In one scene, a drunk Devi approaches a coyote at a high school party, convinced it is the embodiment of her father. In another, her best friend Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) comes out to her mom after a high school bake sale, a quiet, authentic moment of tearful intimacy and then laughter. A voiceover by the ornery tennis star John McEnroe, representing Devi’s internal monologue, is unexpected, and it works.
For all the archetypes the show plays into, there are also many which it breaks. The series has received its fair share of criticism, such as for its flippant approach to the topics of casteism and Islamophobia and its attitude toward physical disability. These critiques hold weight, though I wonder if a white director would have received the same level of scrutiny. On the other hand, Devi’s consistent anger, evident in screaming matches with her mom and the bedroom window she shatters with a geometry textbook, counters harmful stereotypes of Asian American women and second-generation immigrants as meek, studious, and subdued. Eleanor (Ramona Young) breaks the suffocating mold white writers often place on East Asian characters as a quirky theatre kid distressed by her mother’s absence. Rodriguez brings complexity and tenderness to the role of Fabiola, an Afro-Latina lesbian robotics genius.
Every episode of this show made me giggle and also cry. The series demonstrated so many aspects of grief that were familiar, yet rare to see onscreen. Devi constantly looks for signs of her father’s presence, wakes up with blankets tangled after dreaming of him, and even hallucinates him into her kitchen late one night. She chokes on shallow breaths at the sight of an ambulance on the highway, a visual link to the trauma grabbing at her throat. Devi’s healing chafes with her mom’s, causing mother-daughter tension on top of deep pain. The final episode, in which Devi’s family tosses her father’s ashes into the ocean to the outro of his favorite U2 song, is stirring in showing a ritual of both letting go and remembering, without indulging cliché. The show doesn’t make Devi’s grief cinematic or orderly, which is what makes it feel real.
Novel: Afterlife (Julia Álvarez)
Afterlife is a novel of short sentences and frugal adjectives. It’s about loneliness and feels profoundly fitting to read in a time of pandemic. The main character is Antonia Vega, a Latina writer and retired professor living in Vermont whose husband, Sam, has just died. Throughout the novel, Álvarez invites readers into Antonia’s inner monologue, which moves between guilt and longing, mundane worries, and noble philosophical questions like the conductor of a city subway. Multiple plot points intertwine: Antonia aches for Sam; she faces an ethical quandary with her undocumented neighbor; she worries for her sister Izzy, who struggles with psychosis. The novel’s climax occurs when Antonia receives a call about the death of another loved one.
The moment Antonia answers the telephone is stunning: Álvarez describes in detail every blooming, moving thing in Antonia’s garden as time slows and warps, twisted by a realization Antonia’s brain refuses to accept. In her shock, she grasps for words and finds none, feeling nothing but blank horror. She describes, “It’s finally come: the frightening moment she has fought so hard to prevent, when not just the world but the words fall apart, and the plunge goes on and on and on.” As a professor and writer, Antonia’s greatest fear is becoming speechless—losing the language she depends on to order her world. Faced with the incomprehensible, her inner monologue stops cold.
In its loneliness, the novel invites people in. Antonia’s mind churns together thoughts of great pain and mundane beauty, aching for companionship. Reading the book feels like an act of reciprocity: while peering into the private corners of Antonia’s thoughts, I felt as though I was keeping her company in return.
Poem: Slowly (Donna Masini)
“Slowly” is my favorite kind of poem: prose-like, unpretentious, surprised by itself as it unfolds. The first seven stanzas describe watching a snake eat a rabbit in perverse fascination during a fourth-grade field trip to the zoo. Masini describes being unable to look away at the gruesome sight, squealing and squirming with the other girls as her teacher chides her. Only at the end, after 21 lines, do we realize this is all a metaphor for loss, how the snake’s “jaws kept opening…
wider, sucking it down, just so I am taking this in, slowly, taking it into my body; this grief. How slow the body is to realize. You are never coming back."
The poem’s ending is a surprise attack, as the gruesome description of a snake devouring a vulnerable animal is suddenly outdone by something even more horrible. Masini makes the griever into a body, and the body into a snake: we become frightening and foreign to ourselves as we try to process death. At the same time, the poem’s phrasing is elegant and plaintive, just as grief blends monstrosity and grace in unexpected ways.
Song: Nightshift (Commodores)
The song “Nightshift” is one of my favorites, a tender, dependable song that’s accompanied me throughout the past year. Firmly grounded in a soul/R&B soundscape, it’s the title track of the Commodores’ 1985 album that marks a transition from classic Motown funk to spangly 80’s pop. The song is a tribute to the musical legends Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, both of whom died the year before the album’s release. It addresses Marvin and Jackie directly, each verse a love poem that speaks the two into presence with references to their songs. The chorus is sung to Jackie and Marvin both:
Gonna be some sweet sounds, coming down on the nightshift I bet you're singing proud, I bet you'll pull a crowd Gonna be a long night, it's gonna be alright, on the nightshift You found another home, I know you're not alone, on the nightshift
I’ve listened to this song again and again, wondering what exactly “the nightshift” means. Some form of afterlife, a cosmic concert hall where musicians can perform without the weight of death and illness? The grueling hours grieving people clock, alone with memories? Maybe it’s not anything concrete, but the knowledge that the people we’ve lost have joined something larger than what our tiny, living minds can understand.
No one experience of loss is universal, but there is a familiar hole that hungers and grows—“the plunge [that] goes on and on and on.” Grief is an absence that demands recognition. I’ve settled on thinking of the nightshift as a late-night radio show: in the hours between night and morning, when the light is thin and blue, it sometimes feels just for a moment as though living and dead can share company. Walter Orange’s smooth vocals swell as he sings, “We all remember you, your songs are coming through.” A gravelly voice cracks with static and cues the next song, never knowing who’s listening on the other end.