Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 has been one of the most inspirational people in my life. I unfortunately never had the opportunity to meet her. But when she passed away just a few days ago, I mourned her death. Experiencing her death and the impact that it has had on so many people has forced me to consider and reconsider our definitions of mourning and grief.
I should clarify that I am a big “fan” of Justice Ginsburg. I have a huge “Notorious R.B.G” sticker on my laptop and she is probably the most quoted person on my Instagram stories. But beyond those quite superficial markers of my respect to her, her legacy has motivated and inspired some of the most important decisions of my life. Aspiring to be like her encouraged me to apply to Cornell, to pursue her major (Government) and my other major (Feminist Gender Sexuality Studies). Her trailblazing impact at the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project has inspired me towards a career in women’s rights law, which in turn has motivated me into the pre-law organizations and extracurricular activities that I am involved in on campus.
All that to say, I cried a lot when I heard that Justice Ginsburg died. In all honesty, I was crying when I began writing this column, at 3 a.m. on the night of her passing, because I couldn’t sleep and wanted a way to process my emotions. I cried when I called my mom just a few hours later, realizing that I’d never have the opportunity to meet (and someday clerk for) a woman who unknowingly set my professional life into motion. I felt (and still do over a week later) a loss that felt like mourning. And I’m not the only one. Other members of my community, particularly women, felt it too. My parents, who live in Southern California, cancelled their plans that evening to reflect on her memory and pray for her family during their loss. A close friend wore her R.B.G. gear for the day and reflected on the privilege of being Cornell women on a campus where not too long ago Ginsburg lived and breathed. Friends from all over the country reached out to me with condolences and to reflect on the passing of such a profound individual. In addition to attending the on-campus vigil in her honor, I spent the days following her death reading and listening to her words. I mourned her. We all mourned her.
But did we really mourn her? It feels disingenuous that friends from around the country reached out to see how I was doing, when she had just passed. Who was checking on her children? Grandchildren? Other Justices? Close friends? The people who really knew her? Was my crying warranted, when their grief and pain for her loss is probably exponentially greater than my own?
I will admit that I don’t know or understand mourning well. I recognize that that is an enormous privilege. At the age of twenty, in the middle of a pandemic that has killed two hundred thousand Americans and close to one million people globally, I am very lucky. The only real death that I remember is the passing of my grandfather, but at such a young age I remember feeling sad but not being able to recognize real grief or mourning.
So with the utmost sincerity and vulnerability, from a person who doesn’t know mourning well, can you mourn someone that you’ve never met? That’s a very hard question to answer, but my answer is yes.
Mourn your (s)heroes. It’s healthy. Although I may not have met Justice Ginsburg, I knew her. I knew the landmark cases she dissented and her strength whilst fighting gender inequity. I knew her voice and could identify it in any recording. I knew about her favorite gym workouts and her personal trainer Bryant Johnson. I knew about her life as described in her autobiography My Own Words and in my favorite movie, On the Basis of Sex.
Mourning our (s)heroes is recognizing that we don’t know everything about them, but thanking them for the parts that we did know. Media celebrity culture provides us with the best and worst snippets of people’s lives and then forces us to place a judgement on them. And for many of us, we chose Ginsburg as a mentor, (s)hero, changemaker and historical icon. The truth is, I really couldn’t tell you Justice Ginsburg’s favorite movie. I also couldn’t tell you her favorite book or her favorite place to vacation. But I can tell you the impact that she’s had on my life and the lives of so many others. When we mourn Justice Ginsburg, we mourn her impact. We say thank you for the things that she’s done and the doors that she’s opened. We also recognize that we can’t fully mourn her as a person, but we can (and do) mourn her as an icon. Mourning her death is how we say thank you, and move her legacy forward now that she’s gone. RIP to the Notorious R.B.G.; may her memory live in our hearts.
Anuli Ononye is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Womansplaining runs every other Wednesday this semester.