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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

The Collaborative Composition of Grief

Cindy Kay Tekobbe

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Keywords: parent death, collaborative storytelling, decolonial praxis

Categories: Navigating Loss and Grief; Revisionings of Teaching, Facilitation, and Professional Leadership

Content warning: parent death

I lost my mother, Helen, in April 2021 to a February 2021 stroke from which she could not recover. For her memorial in May, the day after Mother’s Day, I dyed my hair the vivid purple-pink of the thorny bougainvillea that grows along the front of her house. Because she was my home.

My mother was isolated in a hospital for those three months, while the Covid-19 pandemic continued to burn through our campuses and institutions. I was just one of many (far too many) people separated from their loved ones by public health and safety measures. It still, in 2022, floors me that some people are so casual with exposure, masks, and vaccinations, when I could not hold her hand or kiss her cheek, even as I flew home to be with family multiple times for many days during those three months. Flying, sitting, going-going, teaching, talking, and endless airline white noise. Even to think of it now, I am exhausted. Over a million people were lost to the Covid pandemic, and many more people were caught up with me, stuck in the pandemic between spaces - lifeworlds complicated by Covid protocols and grief thwarted by rules and restrictions. I was one of millions of travelers. Almost the entire country was grieving the loss of loved ones and changes to their lives wrought by the pandemic; this is collective grief.

In my travels, I had a practice of sitting at a table in Blanco, a Mexican restaurant in Terminal 4 of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, reading and responding to my graduate seminar discussion board posts while the bar brought me margaritas. Real margaritas with fresh lime juice and orange liqueur – sour, salty and clean with the aloe taste of agave underneath. In those days, my senses were either too dull or too vivid and nothing in between. I felt that way about teaching too – that sticking closely to course text discussions was blunted and dull when students also had so much emotional labor on their plates. How can you write a reading response when it feels like the world is burning around us – wildfires, drought, political insurrection, and a public health crisis undermined by fascists? Hell, the mail didn’t even work properly and there was, of all things, a coin shortage. It was difficult to separate the desperate from the mundane. Until nothing felt mundane, and student discussions shifted from texts to rhetorics of the moment, emerging rhetorics, rhetorics of the now. The topic of my graduate seminar was, in fact, emerging rhetorics, or as I am calling them, rhetorics of the now. When I designed the syllabus, I was thinking about the current social and political context, and I assigned texts on environmental disaster, post-truth, femicide, and facisim. But unfolding the seminar that semester even felt dated, with the pandemic, we were working with the rhetorics of the right now. We were trying to process through all of these emerging crises. While I was losing my grasp on my mother’s fingertips, my graduate students were also grieving, frustrated, isolated, overwhelmed, and enduring that baffling mixture of flat and hypersensitive. We were losing our grasp together, while holding onto each other. This grief echoed the larger social grief that weighed so heavily on us all.

When I discuss my decolonial pedagogy and practices, I talk about collaborative knowledge and relational meaning-making, processes that can be hard to visualize in the abstract. This is because it is difficult to imagine a decolonized institution when the one you work in operates within the false notion of single knowledge creation and the veneer of individualism. But we do not live pandemic days in the abstract. When we, as a class group, discuss unruly bodies in emerging rhetoric while trying to navigate the visual-digital-but-not-shared space of Zoom teleconferencing – when we are waving our hands to signal agreement, snapping our fingers for affirmation, and pantomiming the ever-ridiculous state of “you’re on mute” – well, that is very real embodied and collaborative meaning-making. That is us leaning into our relationships and relational lifeways to hold ourselves together when everything was falling apart for us. We were brittle, scared, isolated, angry, sad, and beyond tired. And those feelings and states of being were woven into every time we connected. We were storywork and grief embodied.

I learned a lot about collaborative storytelling these last eighteen months. I learned that when institutional scaffolding falls, we, the learners, are here. And the work of thinking, discussing, composing, and shared governance, is ours. Like those vibrant and ever-growing thorny flowers at my mother Helen’s, we persist as wild things without trellises. We won’t be returning to some imagined earlier state where everything seemed brighter; we’ve seen too much now about the politicization of public health, the settler-colonial capitalist monetization model of who lives and who dies, and as we watch our administrations make decisions about health policy for us and our students depending on enrollment calculations and equations. What is their liability? What is their exposure? How can they keep the machine going? I am brittle and thorny.

I am still tired. My hair is still vivid purple. There is still a pandemic. We still tell stories and make meaning within community. We still grieve.

And, because I need to say it, I want my mom back.



Cindy Tekobbe is Assistant Professor of Critical Feminist Science & Technology at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). Her work investigates the digital lives, identities, and activism practices of traditionally underserved and erased peoples and communities. She has publications in the journals, Present Tense, Enculturation, the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, First Monday, and Information, Communication & Society. Her book, forthcoming from the University Press of Colorado, is titled Indigenous Voices in Digital Spaces. She serves on the Executive Committee for the Association of Internet Research (AoIR) and is the acting co-chair of the Indigenous Caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs). She is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. 

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