Recently, I attended a World Council of Churches meeting. It was the Theological Reference/Harvesting Group for the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace in North America. It was an very important meeting for the future of including people with disabilities in the scope of work of the churches. But this post is not about that.
At this meeting, we were shown a preview of a video about the Pilgrimage that will be played at the General Assembly next year. While we were watching it, I gasped and started to sob. I had seen a image of Micheline. Micheline died last year. She was a theological professor, disability justice and women’s justice activist, and a member of the WCC Central Committee. Many of the people at this particular meeting knew her. I was the only one who gasped at seeing her image as if she was among us.
All people experience grief and loss. The deaths of loved ones and coworkers is a normal part of life. Some of the people who saw this video for the first time with me were happy to see the images of Micheline; others pointed out that other people who had been part of the pilgrimage had died as well and it did not change that they had been a part of the journey. That is all true. It is well and good and people were perhaps trying to comfort me.
Here is the thing. Losing a colleague is not the same for people with disabilities (PWD) as it is for other people. Certainly we all lose colleagues at some point. People who have grown up with disabilities, however, have often lost friends and colleagues over a longer period and more frequently than people without disabilities. As part of the disability community we often know more people with health issues that worsen with time, we know people who because of their disability have a shorter life expectancy, and/or we know people who die because disability bias is such they they can not get proper medical care. As a former bereavement coordinator, I can tell you that many PWD experience the loss of colleagues with disabilities as compounded, even complex, grief because it is often entwined with ableist oppression.
While many of us at this particular meeting knew Micheline. It was only the PWD who who knew her who experienced the use of her animated likeness in a video as a grief trigger. While others could see this and be reminded of the good memories, to me it was a reminder of yet another co-worker for justice who was no longer able to work with us. That list grows each year. To see her brought back to life in a way via, video as if nothing had happened bothered me. Because something had happened. She was dead. It reminded me how my experience as a person with disabilities is different than that of other people, even when it comes to grief. It is a nuanced way in which PWD are not understood by people outside the disability community.