Have We No Decency: In Support of Representative Debbie Dingell
By Grief Beyond Belief Founder Rebecca Hensler
“Maybe he’s looking up. I don’t know.”President Donald Trump, about the late Representative John Dingell Jr.
“I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”Representative and widow Debbie Dingell in response
Since the founding of Grief Beyond Belief eight and a half years ago, I have endeavored to maintain this community as a space for grieving people to share support free of religion, spiritualism, and pseudoscience. I have also put a surprising amount of effort into maintaining the spaces sponsored by Grief Beyond Belief — from this website, to the ever-growing Facebook group where our community members share comfort, to the workshops I periodically facilitate in person — as environments as free as possible of conflict. After all, a space for seeking comfort should be comfortable.
Early on, I realized that if my intent was to provide grief support spaces for as many nonbelievers as possible, those spaces would need to be free of political debate. I didn’t want the community to only feel safe for people who share my politics, but I also didn’t want the agitation and escalation that goes hand in hand with contentious debate. The only solution I could see was to simply make political content off limits.
This wasn’t easy for me. I am a political activist. I went to my first march at 12. I was arrested for civil disobedience 15 times during the height of the AIDS epidemic and once more during the second Gulf War, opposing torture and indefinite detention. I go to demonstrations regularly. Just last summer, I advocated for mandated child abuse reporters such as myself to report US Border Patrol to Child Protective Services.
But I have kept my politics separate from Grief Beyond Belief. Before 2017, the closest thing to a political post from Grief Beyond Belief was a photograph of Trayvon Martin’s mother with the text “Regardless of your religious beliefs, you should never tell a mourning mother that it was ‘God’s Plan’” which I posted the day Trayvon’s murderer, George Zimmerman, said exactly that. The meme was shared over 1000 times, including by religious groups. No controversy ensued, and the community moved forward.
Grief Beyond Belief Closed Group, the Facebook platform where the majority of community members seek support, is served by a team of volunteers who admit members to the confidential Facebook group based on three requirements (lack of belief in a deity or afterlife, grief for a human loved one, and a commitment to follow our Conditions of Participation) and moderate discussion in the group.
When Donald Trump began his campaign for president, team members had a conversation about whether a potential member’s political affiliations and opinions should be a basis for denial of admission. As far as I know, no one on the team supported Trump’s candidacy, but we easily reached consensus that as long as potential members agreed to follow our Conditions of Participation which ban posts and comments that constitute harassment and bigotry, a person’s political leanings should not prevent them from joining the group. We are committed to providing a venue for peer-to-peer grief support for anyone grieving without faith and would not close our virtual door to people in need, even if we disagree with them profoundly about the issues that matter most to us.
When Trump was elected, that decision stood. It was very rare, but there were times I clenched my teeth and added someone whose opinions, as stated in their public profile, appalled me. Despite some trepidation, this policy did and does work for keeping the community both accessible to a broad range of nonbelievers and safe for those who participate.
In 2018, however, when the disclosure came that, under the Trump Administration, ICE and Border Patrol were incarcerating children and separating them from their families, the “no political content” rule became untenable. I myself, remembering the sorrow and terror of being separated from my baby when he was alive and in the NICU, was uncontrollably triggered by the news, the stories, the sounds and the pictures. I could no longer talk about my own grief without explaining the impact that current events were having on my emotions. Similarly, as mass shootings became more and more common, it wasn’t possible to force members to separate their grief from their anger. I rewrote our Conditions of Participation, adding the following:
“H. POLITICAL POSTS: Political posts risk conflict within the group but in the current climate are not prohibited, as many of us have grief triggers related to political events. Please see REQUIRED CONTENT NOTES below for more information before posting content that could be considered political. Those who DISAGREE with the position taken in the original post must move on without commenting. Posts that invite debate are not allowed.”Grief Beyond Belief Closed Group Conditions of Participation
“CONTENT REQUIRING A [Content Note]:
…Politics: Political posts must be labeled with a CN stating the topic and the position taken by the original poster. (Example: “Content Note: gun violence, pro gun-control” or “Content Note: separation of babies from parents, VERY AGAINST”) Those who DISAGREE with the position taken in the original post must move on without commenting. Debate is not permitted.”
This has been challenging to implement. Like all the Conditions of Participation, this one can be forgotten by members in the moment of posting, reading and commenting. Debate begins quickly and it can be hard to untangle the ensuing conflicts, determining what conduct requires a reminder from a moderator, what needs an edit by the poster or commenter, and what must be deleted. But it feels like a reasonable compromise for unreasonable times.
Despite the numerous moments in the past three years when I have felt the urge to utilize this platform — the sporadically-used blog at griefbeyondbelief.org — to share my feelings about the actions of the current administration and how they intersect with grief, I have been reluctant to do so. I still care deeply about making the community a space where people who share only grief and a lack of faith beliefs can come together for support and comfort. I worry that opening a small release valve will have unexpected and impossible to predict consequences both within the community and on the reputation of the community.
That said, there are moments when saying nothing is itself making a statement. Here we all are, a community of grievers, facing a moment in history in which the president of the United States used his own platform to abuse a grieving widow, Representative Debbie Dingell, and the memory of her late husband, Representative John Dingell Jr. by stating of the deceased congressman, “Maybe he’s looking up. I don’t know.”
It doesn’t matter that I and the members of the Grief Beyond Belief community do not believe that our loved ones are “looking down” or “looking up” or that anyone can look any direction at all after death. It doesn’t matter that we do not believe in heaven or hell. What matters is that we believe in kindness. We believe in sharing compassion and that when someone is grieving, if you cannot say something supportive you should simply listen. We believe in teaching each other how to live with our grief, if not through advice then through example. We believe that our loved ones live on in what they taught us and in the actions we take in their honor and in their memory.
Debbie Dingell is doing the bravest thing a grieving person can do. She is doing the work that she and her husband shared and believed in. She is moving into her future as so many of us who lost loved ones have done, letting her love and memories light her way. And making hard decisions even while carrying her sorrow along with her other burdens.
There was no reason for Donald Trump to single out Representative Dingell’s impeachment vote. There was no reason for him to mention her late husband when he did. It was just cruel. And cruelty to a grieving person crosses a line. We all make mistakes and say inconsiderate things to grieving people, but this is different. As the trope goes, this is not normal. To use a person’s grief as a weapon against them is an act of abuse.
Another act of abuse.
Five months ago, the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, and the Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, on behalf of The National Cathedral, wrote, “When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.”
Tonight, with a heart full of sorrow, I too ask the president, “Have you no decency?”
If you see this, Debbie Dingell, I speak to you as a grieving mother and as a woman who also lost a beloved partner. I am thinking of you, of your late husband, of your family, and of your grief. I see you and your strength. I do not pray for you, because I do not pray, but I send you love and compassion. I admire and appreciate that you are continuing in your work, even through your sorrow. And I hope you will be gentle with yourself. You and your husband’s memory deserve better than this.