By Taylor Dickson
As visible vestiges of the pandemic—masks and free tests and those cute social distancing markers on the ground—continue to disappear, it can become harder for those who have experienced loss from COVID-19 to reckon with their grief. Not only are bereaved loved ones asked to navigate the process of mourning, but they’re also required to navigate the onslaught of misinformation and political messaging surrounding the pandemic, from conspiracy theorists who believe COVID-19 isn’t real at all to those who believe wearing a mask denotes a political affiliation. Not unlike other victims of structural violence, folks mourning COVID-19 losses can feel an unresolved, but not unwarranted, distrust for the people and systems that contributed to their loss. As someone who has lost loved ones to COVID-19, I have struggled with whether such a widespread, collective loss could ever fully be acknowledged and preserved.
We lost Marcy in 2021 and Kerry in 2022. In 2023, I continue to find community responses to the pandemic intolerable. It’s difficult for me to understand how and why there hasn’t been a stronger movement for masking in essential spaces and greater communication about surges in infection rates. With the CDC and WHO both ending their public health emergencies in early May, the dominant narrative about the pandemic has been that it is over. While it’s clear we've reached a point of relative stability with the virus, people continue to get sick, suffer from long COVID, and die. The elderly and immunocompromised have largely been left to manage their own risks, while others are busy reconstructing their “normal.” I acknowledge this reconstruction as a strategy for coping and a consequence of our capitalist society: people understandably feel the impetus to resume their social lives and productivity so they can survive. However, my grief demands to be seen and I cannot (and do not want to) go back to “normal.” As an ambitious first-year PhD student, I felt compelled to take action for myself and for others whose grief remained largely ignored.
Last fall, I reflected on what kinds of actions would be sustainable and meaningful and how I could carry them out. At the same time, I was in graduate classes learning about the history of composition classrooms and the ways they have contributed to systemic injustices by policing student language use and taking prescriptive approaches to teaching writing. I saw an opportunity to oppose this history and to tangibly reckon with pandemic grief. I would collaborate with students to create a memorial for COVID-19, with the intention of not only providing a repository of mourning for Madison community members but also allowing students to engage with grief and mourning if they wanted to. With generous guidance from my advisor, Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, and with a Community-Based Learning (CBL) designation provided by the Morgridge Center for Public Service, allotting 25 service hours per student, I began planning the course, “Community Renewal: Making Space for Loss.”
At UW–Madison, English 100, Introduction to College Composition, is a course which seeks to prepare students for a variety of communication settings at the university and beyond. Learning objectives include information seeking, planning, drafting, and revising, with an emphasis on writing. The course I designed invited students to consider how institutional archives are and have been used, as well as, the related function of community archives. Our three major writing projects included a community literacy narrative, an informative project (oral history, interview profile, or informational article), and a researched zine. Students completed an online training module about archives provided by Katie Nash, the head archivist of UW–Madison Archives, and they received training from oral historian Troy Reeves, who provided background on oral histories as information preservation and how they’ve been used to document life in Madison and at the university. Baker and Cantillon’s “Zines as Community Archive” draws from Michelle Caswell’s six principles of community archive discourse to suggest the capacity for zines to intervene in dominant narratives and facilitate community building and political discourse. We used the article in class to discuss the location and preservation of cultural artifacts and to explore the concept of community archives.
Our partnership with the UW–Madison Archives and ongoing discussion about information preservation created overlap between the work of the course and the memorial we were to build. In April, my English 100 students and I introduced Madison Mourns, a digital, public-facing community archive documenting mourning for loved ones lost to COVID-19. Submitted memorials of nearly any digital format appear on a feed on the Madison Mourns website, which also features local and general resources for grief and mental health. At the close of the site (one to two years, dependent on continued funding), the pages will be crawled and stored with the UW Archive’s Documenting COVID-19 project. Complementing the crawled website in our submission to the archives are six student-conducted oral histories related to various experiences with COVID-19, some including declining student mental health, impacts on social learning for students, and reflections from healthcare workers. Students designed the website, researched local grief resources, created promotional materials, and navigated on-campus and local policies for leafleting and tabling. Beyond the work of the course and tasks for establishing Madison Mourns, building student investment in the project provided students an opportunity to recognize their role in the community we were beginning to form.
From the start of the semester, I prioritized proving my trustworthiness by trusting and validating students first—believing what they say to me, accepting late work and absences, and co-constructing assignments and rubrics. I’d describe my classroom persona as a cross between Dewey Finn and Ms. Frizzle: with a healthy disregard for authority and an equal passion for teaching and learning, I often utilize experiential and tactile lesson plans. Part of my approach to teaching composition emphasizes somatic experiences, supported by research in embodiment and trauma-informed pedagogies. To support their work in potentially engaging difficult topics related to grief and mourning, students read and discussed my forthcoming article, “Emotional Awareness and Reading,” which discusses how to recognize signs of distress while reading and what to do when they arise. We continually discussed mental health resources on and around campus, including challenges to accessing them and other avenues for support. Our regular classroom practices included daily “writing for full presence,” a private free-write activity inviting students to write out whatever might be preventing them from being in the room, and light stretching and breathing exercises before important class events like discussions or presentations. We used activities like games and collage to foster creativity and have fun together. Not only do I feel these practices support a broader, multimodal, collaborative conception of composition, but they model community care and shared responsibility.
At the close of the semester, we reflected on Madison Mourns and how meaningful it was to connect with the grieving after our work together. In promoting the project on-campus and at the Madison Print & Resist Zinefest, students spoke with folks with loved ones lost to COVID-19, folks who shared how thankful they were to see an effort of acknowledgment like this one. Many students reported how empowering it was to be part of such a small group producing such an impactful project. They noted their feelings of pride seeing the flyers they designed in the halls around campus and their eagerness to share their participation with friends and family. From folding hundreds of mini zines together to taking silly group photos, the class became not only about composition or archives or mourning but about relationships and our shared capacity to create change. While at the start of the project I felt motivated to connect those in mourning with an avenue for community and release, through the process I realized how much I had been neglecting my own grief. I never wanted this project to be about me or the mourning my family and I experience, but in building community around Madison Mourns, I’ve felt myself open up to more difficult emotions because of a sense of solidarity.
I hope, much like the creation the project has provided for myself, Madison Mourns will provide an opportunity for Madison community members to reflect on our individual and collective relationships with mourning and grief. As we continue to promote the project, we humbly invite you to share our website with your communities to help us connect with those who have lost someone. As we remember all those who have been lost to COVID-19, I hope we can recognize our shared loss as a powerful representation of institutional injustices, which should be documented toward future change. I hope that we can also reflect on how we each play a role in the prevention of continued loss, through masking in essential spaces and support for public health policies that address COVID-19’s continued and discriminatory impact. While memorials like this one are an important symbolic acknowledgment, our commitment to sustained action remains our most meaningful commemoration to victims of the pandemic.
Taylor Dickson is an artist, cat mom, and second-year PhD student in composition and rhetoric. She’s currently exploring public memory, affect, and vernacular memorial through expanded trauma-informed and community-based pedagogies.