Glenn Greenwald
Politics • Writing • Culture
Thoughts on Grief and the Grieving Process
The grieving process is horrible but not hopeless.
May 27, 2023
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[Glenn Greenwald, David Miranda, 2021]

Note to Readers: Returning to more frequent written journalism is something I have been wanting to do for some time. The combination of David's 9-month hospitalization and the need to launch our nightly Rumble show during that excruciating experience made it virtually impossible to find the time and energy for that. It is something I am still eager to do -- I'm writing an article now about the life of Daniel Ellsberg and my friendship with him for Rolling Stone, as the 92-year-old Pentagon Papers whistleblower nears the end of his spectacular life due to terminal pancreatic cancer. I originally started writing the following thoughts on grief for myself, with no intention to publish it, but decided to do so in part because I know it may give comfort to others (as the article I discuss below gave to me), but also because, for reasons I can't explain, it sometimes helps to write about this for others, and my view of the grieving process has become that you should do whatever provides any help at all to get you through the next day. I realize this is not for everyone but it's what I'm capable of and what is dominating my thoughts right now. I hope to be able to return to producing more traditional written journalism soon. 


 

The pain, sadness, and torment of grief deepens as you move further away from the moment of the death of a loved one. It keeps getting worse – harder not easier – with each passing day and each passing week. I know that it will begin to get better or at least more manageable at some point, but that can and will happen only once the reality is internalized, a prerequisite for healing and recovery. But the internalization that someone is really dead - that there's absolutely nothing you can do to reverse that - requires ample time given its enormity. Three weeks is nowhere near sufficient.

One of the hardest challenges of grief, of the grieving process, is finding the balance between confronting the pain, loss and sometimes physically suffocating sadness – all without wallowing in it to the point that it completely consumes and then incapacitates you. But while you can't let yourself endlessly drown in it, you also can't let yourself use some mixture of distractions, work, exercise and other "return-to-normal" activities to remain in a state of denial or escapism, to avoid the pain and suffering, to deny the need to process a reality this immense and horrible, to anesthetize yourself from the mourning. The pain and suffering is going to come sooner or later, and the longer you evade or postpone it, the more damage it will do.

If you try to close yourself off to it entirety, to pretend it's not there, that attempt will fail. The pain and sadness will come at the worst times, when you're least prepared for it, in the most destructive form, and will find the unhealthiest expression. But if you force yourself to swim in those waters with too much frequency, for too much time, without maintaining a vibrant connection to the normalcy of life, to the people around you whom you love, and to the things you still cherish, it will paralyze and consume you - drain all your energy and life force and replace it with total darkness, mental paralysis and physical exhaustion: just a cold, inescapable sense of bottomless dread. 

There's no perfect sweet spot, but every day, you have to keep trying to find the right balance between confronting and avoiding. What's most daunting is realizing how long this process of processing and acceptance will be: very possibly endless. During the first week after David's death, I told both myself and our kids that the first two weeks would be hard but not the hardest, that worse days lay ahead, once the shock begins to wear off and the inescapable reality sets in, once the ceremonies were over and everyone else moved on and want back to their lives. I knew we would then be left with nothing but the reality of this enormous loss and horrific absence, and that was when the worst days would commence.

But telling yourself that is one thing; experiencing it is something completely different. Even when you think you're momentarily safeguarded from it, it can just penetrate without warning in the sharpest ways. On Thursday, I stumbled into this Guardian article about a top-secret leak in Australia and there was a description of David in the article's second paragraph, printed below, that was the first time I saw this formulation in print. It fell so heavily and jarringly – at a moment when I wasn't prepared for it – because no matter how hard you try and how much effort you devote to it, the reality of death takes a long time to fully internalize. It's just very hard to believe that the person with whom you expected and wanted to share all of your life – decades more – is instead not coming back, ever, in the only form you know, that a person so full of life and strength and force is no more:

I don't know why that phrase packed such a punch. I've seen hundreds of articles and tributes talking about David's death. But this phrase casually indicates that he is someone of the past, with no present and no future in our world. It didn't just talk about the fact that David died but referred to him as a now-and-forever dead person. That subtlety had an impact far more painful and destabilizing than I could have anticipated. It disrupted my emotional state until I could find a way to move on to something else: the central challenge of every day.


 

All of this is complicated -- a lot -- by the need to find this balance not only for yourself but also for your kids, whose grieving is as intense but also different. It's at least just as hard to know how much space to give them to use distractions like entertainment, sports, friends and school to find some breathing space. There's a strong temptation to encourage them to use escapism because one so eagerly -- instinctively -- wants to see one's kids smiling and laughing rather than crying and suffering.

But their own need to feel this loss, the mourning, the sadness, the pain is just as inescapable as your own. There's no avoiding it. It's coming one way or the other, so you often find yourself in the disorienting position of watching your kids cry and show pain, and you feel a form of comfort and relief from seeing it because you know it's good and healthy and necessary that they feel that, even while you are submerged in that sharp, expansive pit in the center of your being that comes from having to watch your own children suffer.

[Rio de Janeiro, March 30, 2022: four months, 1 week before David's hospitalization]

For those interested, I want to highly recommend this op-ed from last week by New York Times editor Sarah Wildman, whose 14-year-old daughter, Orli, just died after a somewhat lengthy and evidently very difficult battle with cancer. Without thinking about it, I messaged her to thank her for her article and we shared experiences, condolences and advice. One thing I did not expect was how much comfort I get from hearing from others - people I know well, people I don't know well, people I don't know at all – describe their own experiences with grief and loss. There's that old cliché that physical death is the great equalizer: the inevitable destination awaiting all of us regardless of status and station. 

That is true of death, but it's also true of grief. Unless one chooses never to love in order to avoid the pain of loss – a dreary, self-destructive, even tragic calculation – the impermanence of everything material that we love means we will all experience grief and the pain of loss until we die ourselves. There's now a substantial body of research on people's end-stage regrets: what humans who know they are dying say they wish they had done more of and less of. 

Virtually nobody nearing the end of life on earth says they wished they worked more or made more money (many say they regret working too much). Most say they wish they had spent more time with loved ones. When all is said and done, one of the few enduring things we really value and from which we derive meaningful pleasure - something we are built and have evolved to crave and need – is human connection. We're tribal and social animals. That's why isolation is one of the worst punishments society can impose, or that one can impose on oneself. And that's why, looking back over these last weeks and even during David's entire hospitalization, thoughts and notes and comments and kind gestures from so many people, to say nothing of those who took their time to write to me to share, often at great length, their own experience with long-term hospitalization of loved ones and profound grief, provided so much more comfort than I ever imagined it would have.

Wildman's op-ed is raw, moving and unsettling. She doesn't falsify or prettify anything for the sake of making her daughter's death more comfortable for others or herself. The death of someone you love at a young age is not pretty or comfortable. It's tragic and deeply sad and incomparably painful and there's no getting around that. Some of the best advice I got in the last couple of weeks was to avoid lionizing David or erecting a mythology around his life or around his death. I loved a human being, not a flawless saint or an icon or an otherworldly deity. And one of the things that moved me most about Wildman's op-ed was her frank discussion of her daughter's fear of dying. It would be so much more palatable - for yourself or others - to say and believe that the person you lost was at peace with dying. Her daughter wasn't at peace with dying, nor was David. They wanted to live and fought to live and were afraid to die.

That's a hard and painful truth that does sometimes make things much more difficult – it means you focus not only on what you lost, not only on what your kids lost, but on what the person who died lost – but one can also find beauty and grace and meaning and inspiration by confronting that rather than whitewashing it. It's disrespectful to someone's life to build mythologies about them - about their life and their death - no matter how comforting those mythologies might be. Wildman's op-ed refuses to do that, yet it leaves no doubt that her daughter inspired her and others not just in how she lived but in also in how she died: with her determination, courage and strength. 

I blocked it out and denied it at the time because I wasn't able to accept it, but David's doctors made clear in the days after he was first hospitalized in ICU last August that the probability that he would survive the week was very low. His inflammation and infection had already incapacitated his pancreas and caused full renal failure within the first 48 hours. By the end of the week he was intubated because sepsis delivered that inflammation to his lungs. Even a quick Google search reveals how dire that state of affairs is for anyone, no matter their age or overall health. 

That David fought so hard to live and return to us over nine excruciating months brought some horrifically difficult moments – watching him and his body get battered over and over every time it looked like he was possibly recovering was probably the worst thing I ever had to witness – but it also gave us and our kids some of our most moving, profound, genuine, loving and enduring moments with him and with one another that I and they will cherish forever, as I wrote about a couple months ago, in the context of gratitude, when I thought he was improving. 

It may seem at first glance that had he died a quick death in that first week, David would have spared himself and us a lot of agony. That may be true. But I am absolutely convinced that had he died in that first week without giving us and himself these opportunities, all of this would be infinitely worse. Every moment you share with someone you love - even if it's in an ICU ward with every machine imaginable connected to them - is a blessing and a gift, and David's characteristic fight gave us so many of those moments that, by all rights, we never should have had.

I really wish there some singular book or some magic phrase or some way of interpreting all of this that would make the still-growing and still-deepening pain disappear for myself, for mine and David's kids, for those who loved him, for those who love and lose anyone that matters so much in their life. There is no elixir. But that does not mean that nothing helps, that one is doomed to a life of endless pain, sadness, and dread, that it is impossible to find comfort and inspiration and even greater love in the grieving process. 


 

For that to happen, you need humility and an acceptance of what you cannot control. I can't bring David back - that's obvious - but I also can't find a way to entirely avoid the type of pain and sadness and despair that is sometimes utterly debilitating. I realized that very early on and so I'm no longer trying to avoid it entirely. 

Sometimes it comes when I seek or summon it, and sometimes it comes when I think I am far away from it - like happened this week when I saw the adjective "late" before his name and on a thousand other occasions when I looked at a photo of him and his eyes connected to mine, or when one of our kids shared a memory they had of him that brought him so vividly to life. When that pain comes, I don't try to fight it or drive it away. I let it come and sometimes stay in it on purpose, until I can no longer physically endure it. Other times I allow myself to be distracted: through work, though entertainment, through proximity to my kids, through conversations with them that are not directly about sharing our mutual grief over the loss of their father and of my husband.

I don't know if I returned to work too early or, instead, am sometimes succumbing too much to my desire not to work. Each day, I try to follow my instinct about what is best for me and for our kids, and to give myself a huge amount of space and forgiveness to calculate wrong and make the wrong decisions. Down every road lies sadness and even horror, but some of those paths also offer some beautiful moments of family and connection, ways to find inspiration, to embrace the spirit and passion and compassion and strength that defined David and his life.

I'm certain that one of the things that is helping most is our unified devotion to concretizing, memorializing and extending his legacy. One of David's greatest joys in life was seeing the construction and opening of the community center we built together in Jacarezinho, the community that raised him. It offers free classes in English and computers, psychological services and addiction counseling, support for animal protection and pet care, and meals for that community's homeless. We are going to create and build "The David Miranda Institute" to extend that work beyond that community. My kids are eager to assume a major role in working on this institute and community center – they know instinctively that it honors David and would make him so proud – and working on this together is one of the few things that provides us unadulterated comfort and uplifting energy. 

The grieving process is horrible but not hopeless. I'd be lying if I denied that it sometimes seems unbearable. Every day the reality that David lost his life and that we lost David in our lives gets heavier and more painful. But humans are resilient. We are adaptive. I can't prove it and there was a time in my life when I not only rejected but mocked this idea, but I believe our life has a purpose and, ultimately, so do our deaths. Each day I see that my suffering and our kids' suffering deepen and worsen for now. 

But I also see us, together, creating ways to find and remain connected to that purpose. David's life, David's spirit, David's legacy, and somehow even David's death are what is propelling us, elevating us, toward that destination. I would trade anything for David to be back with us, but since that option does not exist, getting through the pain and then finding a way to strengthen us is our overarching challenge.

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Good evening. It's Thursday, April 11. Tonight, we speak to two members of Congress about a variety of issues involving the war in Ukraine, the war in Israel, the U.S. Security State, warrantless domestic spying and much more. 

The first is the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, who started back in 2022 supporting the idea of U.S. aid to Ukraine for its war with Russia but has since become one of the most vocal and stalwart opponents of sending more aid there. We'll talk about what motivated that change and his views of current U.S. foreign policy. 

Then we speak to Congressman Warren Davidson, the former Army Ranger who now represents Ohio's eighth congressional district, a job he has held ever since. His predecessor, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, retired in 2016, where we spoke extensively not only about the evils of U.S. foreign policy but also his view on the vote that took place in the House yesterday that we reported on last night, show that blocked renewal of the FISA spying law without any meaningful protections, warrant requirements or reforms. 

As I've been arguing for some time, one of the most significant and one of the most overlooked developments in U.S. politics, especially when it comes to foreign policy and civil liberties, is the radical realignment among left and right, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans when it comes to who supports the military-industrial complex in the United States and who does not, who supports the U.S. posture of endless war and who does not, who support vesting vast and unaccountable powers in the hands of the U.S. security state, and who does not. Both of our guests tonight are in many ways highly illustrative of this realignment. Senator Johnson, for instance, is not just an opponent now of the U.S. role in the war in Ukraine, but also a thoughtful critic of imperialistic American foreign policy over the last several decades, which he insists Washington needs to study much more to understand its foundational mistakes. Meanwhile, Congressman Davidson has become one of the most scathing opponents of what he calls the neocon consensus in Washington. In some ways, his foreign policy critique of American wars and militarism could almost be called “Chomskyesk” and, notably, it's almost impossible to hear similarly fundamental principled critiques of U.S. foreign policy, the military-industrial complex and the U.S. security state from any Democratic member of Congress, it is almost impossible to note that this critique is, I should say, is not always applied with complete consistency. 

I asked each of these lawmakers why their arguments against funding the war in Ukraine, that we cannot afford to fund more foreign wars, that it brings no benefits to American citizens, that it jeopardizes our standing in the world and does not apply equally to our current policy of financing and arming Israel's war in Gaza, which most Republicans and most Democrats support. In other words, even if one sides more and empathizes more with Israel over the Palestinians, why shouldn't Israel pay for its own wars instead of having Americans pay for them? Both gave thoughtful answers, even if not fully convincing, and I appreciate how willing they were to reconsider and think about in the interview, their stances on those questions and how they might align or not align with their broader principles. 

Both of these interviews, I believe, are highly illustrative of the realignment I described and why these clear changes in the DC consensus are starting to become ever more promising. We recorded both interviews last night after our live program, and we are delighted to share them with you. 

For now, welcome to a new episode of System Update, starting right now. 

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Good evening. It's Wednesday, April 10. 

Tonight: a virtual war has erupted between Elon Musk and X on one side, and virtually the entire Brazilian establishment and the Brazilian left with which they're united on the other. As we have been reporting for two years now, the censorship regime that has been imposed in Brazil—the world's fifth most populous country—all centralized in the hands of a single Supreme Court judge, is more extreme, more repressive, and more lawless than anywhere in the democratic world. And that's saying a lot given how much censorship has spread. That's just one indicator of how extreme the Brazilian censorship scheme is. 

This platform Rumble decided last year that they would rather block Brazilians from viewing its content, despite having built a large and growing Brazilian audience, rather than face massive fines and even criminal threats of prosecution for failure to comply with the avalanche of censorship orders they were receiving virtually daily. 

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That message is what people in Brazil now see when they try to access Rumble, a message saying Rumble is not available in the country because of censorship orders. Rumble announced that it would no longer serve as a weapon in the censorship regime and would block access for all Brazilians, at least for those who don't use VPNs, pending its judicial challenge of the censorship laws that it has now brought.

Last week, the independent journalist Michael Shellenberger, working with two separate Brazilian journalists, released the Brazilian part of the Twitter Files. It documented how internal Twitter lawyers in Brazil were growing increasingly alarmed at the politically motivated censorship orders from the court that they were being drowned with routinely, and they were worried about the consequences they might face from failure to comply. We interviewed Shellenberger last week about his reporting. He was in Brazil at the time, and he was interviewed by multiple media outlets in Brazil, usually in a very hostile manner, far more interested in attacking his character and methods than addressing the substance of his revelations. 

Elon Musk saw all of this—obviously, he pays attention to the Twitter Files—and responded to all of that over the weekend by launching a series of very vitriolic attacks on this one Supreme Court judge overseeing the censorship regime, calling him a tyrant and urging his impeachment. Musk also vowed that X would prefer to disobey unjust censorship orders and even leave Brazil than continue to be used as a weapon in service of this regime. The same decision that Rumble made concerning Brazil last year. That, in turn, provoked very aggressive threats from this judge. He declared Musk to be a target of a pending criminal investigation involving fake news and disinformation. He just inserted Musk into this pending criminal investigation as one of the targets of the criminal probe. He also ordered X employees in Brazil to be questioned by the federal police and explicitly threatened them in writing, with arrest and prosecution if X permitted any banned voices to return to the platform. All of this demonstrates the severity of the growing censorship regime, not only in Brazil but throughout the democratic world. Precisely because Brazil has been so extreme is why it's so relevant to Americans, because it's being used as a laboratory to see how far control over the Internet and online speech can go. Europe and the United States have embarked on their own online censorship regime. We have been reporting on that extensively to the point that it's now at the Supreme Court. What is being done in Brazil is a harbinger of what is coming to the West. We will report on everything that happened here and explore its quite significant implications. 

Then: Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson has long been a vocal and steadfast opponent of the U.S. Security State, generally in its attempts to censor the Internet and spy on Americans in particular. Shortly before becoming a speaker, we interviewed him on this show, and he was very clear about his views on these questions. Yet since being elected Speaker, Mike Johnson has seemingly changed his views in quite radical ways on many key issues. He was a longtime opponent of providing more U.S. aid to the war in Ukraine, yet now is working to ensure that Joe Biden's $60 billion request for Ukraine is approved in the House, even if that means relying on Democrats and Democratic protection to do so. Earlier today, Speaker Johnson tried to bring to the floor a vote to renew the domestic spying powers of the NSA and the FBI and to do so without allowing even a single reform, safeguard, or warrant requirement. In other words, Speaker Johnson worked hard to give the Biden White House and the U.S. Security State what they were demanding for renewal of their domestic spying powers and spying on Americans, which was originally enacted during the Bush administration in the name of the War on Terror, and to renew it without any reforms or protections at all. But Mike Johnson had a serious surprise today: his own caucus delivered a major and quite unusual defeat to the House Speaker, with 19 members defecting and preventing the speaker from bringing the bill to the floor. It is likely that some domestic spying bill will eventually pass, though it's not guaranteed and we'll explain what happened today in Congress that dealt a serious blow to the efforts suddenly led by Speaker Johnson, to hand the FBI all these spying powers they want without a single reform. We also will have various members of Congress on over the next week or so to talk about the war in Ukraine, to talk about the FISA law and related issues as well. 

For now, welcome to a new episode of System Update, starting right now. 

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