Grief, Goodness, and History
On the morning of August 21, 2020, my 17-year-old son, Aidan, died from an accidental fentanyl overdose. He had been struggling with depression and anxiety for several years. His mother and I were going through a difficult divorce. One of his close childhood friends had recently passed away. As a mixed-race teenager in Wisconsin, Aidan had been the subject of frequent police harassment. At the time of his death, the ACLU was defending him in a police profiling case. Finally, the isolation and uncertainties of COVID-19 preyed on Aidan’s happiness. No teenager deserved the stresses he faced.
Like many teenage boys, Aidan masked his vulnerability with a fearless self-confidence. He traveled to more than 20 countries. He was as at ease with academics and politicians as he was with his high school friends. And he exhibited a devotion to high fashion that defied my utilitarian, working-class sensibilities. His death shattered the pieces of me that lived vicariously through his bravado. His suppressed anxieties became mine. I questioned everything.
The days after Aidan’s passing were the darkest I’ve ever faced. We had to choose a funeral home, a casket, and a burial plot. Conversations with police, doctors, and the medical examiner were excruciating. I hated myself for contributing to Aidan’s sadness. I blamed myself for not protecting him. My chest hurt; I felt like I could never quite catch my breath. The rest of me was just numb.
My son was as at ease with academics and politicians as he was with his high school friends.
Sleep was no refuge. When it came, Aidan was everywhere in my dreams—joking with his sister, Aly; playing football with his friends; coming home late at night, happy and hungry. For the first few weeks, the same dream jolted me from my sleep every night: I’m standing in the hospital watching the doctors and nurses try to resuscitate his lifeless body. I was in the trauma room when the doctor pronounced him dead, but in my dreams, I always thought Aidan would come back.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I couldn’t find a therapist in Madison who would see me in person. I leaned heavily on friends and family to hold me together. And they did. But I also received an outpouring of support from University of Wisconsin administrators, colleagues, former students, and alums. Just hours after Aidan passed, my provost sent a deeply personal and heartfelt email that still brings me to tears. My associate dean phoned me immediately and played an active role in helping us with Aidan’s funeral. That’s just who she is. My departmental colleagues rallied around me in ways that epitomize human goodness. Cards and flowers rolled in. Colleagues organized a food train, cooking delicious meals for me every night for nearly a month. One knitted and mailed me a winter hat. Another sent me a journal to record my thoughts. As news spread beyond Madison, others from across the historical discipline also offered emails, cards, and flowers of condolence.
I could never repay the debt I owe my colleagues. In the midst of so much misery and grief, they stepped up one by one to perform acts of individual kindness on my behalf. This selflessness, during a time of wider-spread trauma and anxiety, humbled me beyond words. There were many days I felt like I was drowning, but members of my professional community saved me. I will forever be grateful.
If colleagues provided a life raft from my sadness, research and writing offered a different sort of respite from the pain. Fortunately, I was on leave in the fall of 2020, so I didn’t have to perform my grief in front of students and colleagues. I was in the process of writing a book manuscript focused on a mutiny on board an 18th-century British slave ship. The research for the book was mostly complete. I just needed time to sit down and unspool the story. Even in the immediate days after Aidan’s passing, I tried as much as possible to stick to my normal writing routine, rising every morning and writing for four or five hours before moving on to other things.
Strangely, writing came easily. I usually arose anxious and sleep deprived, but once I sat down and transported myself to the past, things calmed, if only temporarily. The first two chapters of the book are set in 18th-century Bristol. One morning, I was in a merchant’s countinghouse. The next day, I was in a rowdy Marsh Street pub. Another day, I found myself in the middle of an angry throng of striking sailors on Bristol’s docks. Traveling to alien places and times was a welcome balm against my own sadness and anxiety. “Being” in 18th-century Bristol was a relief. The more I immersed myself in the worlds of my subjects, the lighter my burdens seemed. Yet there was no way to fully escape my anguish. Aidan sat heavily with me as I wrote.
Good historians are driven by curiosity and imagination, both of which emanate from our inner dialogues in the present. As I was gathering the evidentiary materials to write my third chapter on the politics of the sea, I came across a reference to sailors’ complaints about the swarms of mosquitoes that plagued them as they tried to sleep on the top decks of slave ships on the West African coast. In order to help numb the stinging, itching bites and ease sleep, ship captains prescribed crew members small doses of laudanum. I stopped in my tracks. Scholars have long known that ship captains provided frequent rations of alcohol to shipboard laborers, but opiates? I needed to know more.
As I dug further, I learned that doctors on board slave ships frequently carried laudanum in their arsenal of medicines. As the most common painkiller of the era, it made sense that ailing and injured sailors would receive small doses. Yet I also discovered more sinister uses. One British ship captain secretly spiked an African trader’s brandy with laudanum. When the trader fell unconscious, the captain seized the man and stole him away into slavery. Other British slave ship captains used laudanum to overdose and kill Africans who suffered from smallpox, dysentery, or other contagious diseases, lest they infect the healthy human cargo. In short, the British sometimes weaponized opiates as a tool to enslave and kill Africans.
Aidan pushed me toward these revelations. Without him, I never would have looked beyond the fact that laudanum helped ease the pains of British sailors. The day I sat down to write this one-paragraph section of the chapter, I sobbed. I ached for Aidan. I ached for his two friends who died of overdoses after him. I ached for his three other friends who still struggle with opioid addiction to this day. I’m still sobbing.
Carrying Aidan with me in my work helps me honor his memory and keep him alive.
The brief section of my manuscript that focuses on opiates sits pregnant with meaning for me personally. It also has tragic political resonances in the present. As I write this, British activists have just succeeded in removing the Sackler family name from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, following on similar efforts at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the British Museum. The Sacklers, founders of Purdue Pharmaceutical, brazenly promoted the widespread use of OxyContin as safe, even as thousands died from overdoses. The revelation that British slavers profited from opiates in similar exploitative fashion doesn’t solve the problems of the Sacklers or fentanyl or medical racism, but it adds surprising new historical insight on these contemporary issues. I think Aidan would be proud.
Trauma has punctuated many of our lives in recent years. We each deal with our pain in unique ways; there is no fixed road map for grieving. Carrying Aidan with me in my research and writing helps me honor his memory and keep him alive. Readers will never see in my book Aidan’s struggles or his defiance or his compassion; nor will they see him laughing, dancing, cracking jokes, and giving huge gentle bear hugs. Yet they are all there, on every page, in every word. I am deeply honored that the historian’s craft offers me the opportunity to share Aidan’s legacy and continue to endow that legacy with new meaning, even as it remains hidden from plain view.
Grabbing on to history provided something safe, something I could trust in the aftermath of Aidan’s death. My departmental colleagues and my university stood up for me and supported me at my weakest moment. The solitude of research and writing also offered me the space to process, grieve, and eventually discover fragments of meaning in Aidan’s passing. There is a goodness in our work and the people who perform it, and I am full of gratitude. The grief still arrives intermittently, unannounced, but it is tempered by a resolve to live and work in Aidan’s best image—fearlessly, compassionately, and vulnerably. These traits not only make me a better historian; they offer Aidan new life.
James H. Sweet is president of the AHA.
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