Blog PostsThe Five Stages of Grieving Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States / Public domain

1. Denial


Not now. Not her. Not after everything else that’s happened this year. Not with COVID, the country being on fire, and the wide range of indignities and suffering we’ve had to contend with Every. Damn. Day.

She’s fought cancer before and won. She got knocked down, she got up again, and she never let it keep her down. It was almost a joke. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg goes to hospital because of signs of cancer…and Leo and Virgo and Gemini! SIKE! BEAT YOU AGAIN!” She beat it back so many times that it would never kill her. She was going to last for years. Betty White’s ten years older and she’s still kicking around!

This is an extended prank. She’ll pop up out of hiding in a few days and go “GINSBURRRRRRN!” She really said that, right? It wasn’t a Kate McKinnon joke? Come on. She has more lives than Mario. She can bop her head against a brick and collect more coins.

2. Anger

All you had to do was vote for Hillary Clinton.

You KNEW the Supreme Court was on the ballot. You KNEW Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in her mid-eighties (and that Stephen Breyer is in his late seventies – has anyone checked in on him lately? Assigned him a 24-hour doctor and defibrillator just in case?) All you had to do was fill in the bubble next to her name.

But you were too good to vote for Hillary Clinton because you were saving yourself for your one true love Bernie Sanders, and when he didn’t win you drunk-dialed Jill Stein and she texted back “New phone, who dis?”

Some of you same purity progressives make fun of fundamentalist Christians for their “stupid” support of Trump. Newsflash: they’re not stupid. They’re calculating. They know Trump will give them the anti-choice judges they want, and they vote accordingly.

They know how politics work. You don’t. Congratulations on being less astute than the anti-intellectual, religion-before-science voting bloc.  

Also, those of you saving your anger for Ruth Bader Ginsburg for not retiring earlier and being clairvoyant can go dunk your heads in the toilet.  

3. Bargaining

Okay. There are 41 days until the election. There are some potentially swayable Republican Senators who might not want to risk their reelection chances on rushing on replacing RBG with a conservative justice.

If Murkowski is a no on voting before the election, if Romney’s “yes” on allowing a vote doesn’t necessarily mean a “yes” on confirming the actual nominee, if Susan Collins’ Concern Level is at a level of Very, and the pH of water is 7, and two trains are leaving from different cities at the same time but one is travelling at 55 mph and the other is travelling at 65 mph, and the one at 55 mph is a runaway trolley heading towards five people tied to the track and you can let it run them over or pull the lever and have it go on the side track to run over one person, can pregnant people still have rights over their own bodies?

4. Depression

Break out the vodka. Break out the ice cream. Pour the vodka over the ice cream and sob into the world’s saddest smoothie bowl.

This is it, isn’t it? This is the final proof we needed that the Fates are against us and have used their magic to transform 2020 from an arbitrary marker of time into a malevolent physical force of nature that wants to destroy us all.

We were all Mr. Burns in “Homer at the Bat,” laughing at the idea of misfortunes befalling NINE ringers of his softball team, only to have eight of those nine ringers end up in deep trouble. We might as well brace ourselves for the possibility of Sonia Sotomayor being sucked into a vortex, or Elana Kagan somehow get terminally ill from a stubbed toe. Yes, people can die from stubbed toes now. It’s 2020. The normal rules no longer apply.

5. Acceptance

Acceptance. That peaceful moment when you come to terms with things you cannot change.

I’ll let you know when I reach it.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is a stab in the gut and the wound is still bleeding. Every day, I fear another development that might overturn or undermine this brilliant woman’s legacy. I run through the first four stages of grief several times. I pause and grieve the fact that we can’t just grieve, that we can’t honor her with a toast and celebration of our life without worrying what’s going to happen to us without her.

An 87-year-old woman dying after a long, fulfilling, accomplished life should not be a tragedy. Not compared to the number of preventable deaths from COVID-19, the wildfires and hurricanes wreaking havoc across our land and sea, the unrelenting abuse of immigrants at the border, and the police murders of George Floyd and so many other Black people. Even now, hours after I started writing this piece, a Kentucky grand jury indicted the officer who killed Breonna Taylor for endangering Taylor’s neighbors, in what feels like a deliberate slap in the face to her memory, her family, all Black Americans, and the very concept of justice.

No, Ginsburg’s death in of itself is not comparable to those tragedies. But after years of watching autocrats rise to power in the United States and beyond, her grit and determination and presence on the court reminded us that we had some powerful people who cared about us.

When the world is overrun with villains, we can’t afford to lose one of the good guys.

So what do we do now?

I want to say something about living by RBG’s example and carrying on her good work. I want to say something inspiring about the smallest actions having the power to make the world a better place.

I want to take a tired old platitude and make it feel real.

It doesn’t feel real right now.

But maybe it will tomorrow.

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