Death is suffered by the living.
In the wake of the passing of State Representative Quentin “Q” Williams, a dear friend of mine and many others, I’ve considered how the impact of a life well lived and taken too soon reverberates through a community. I’ve found myself wondering if grief is eased when it’s collective, or if the reality of a shared tragedy makes it harder to find respite.
In the case of Q, both are true.
Q’s crash occurred on Route 9 in Cromwell, just north of his home in Middletown, around 12:45 a.m. on Jan. 5. He was hit by a vehicle traveling north in the southbound lane. The driver of that vehicle, 27-year-old Kimede Katie Mustafaj of Manchester, was also killed.
Her family and those who knew and loved Q are forever entangled in a shared and, somehow, opposing cycle of grief that neither side signed up for.
Neither gets the privilege of privacy.
That cycle includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — all of which are being expressed by hundreds of people simultaneously, but not linearly. For my part, I’m mired by disbelief.
I’m negotiating feelings about lost time, unfinished conversations, disrupted plans, and the wave and pangs of perpetual sadness all experienced by his wife, mother and friends.
I don’t know when I first met Q. At some point, he was just in my life, and for that I was grateful. Q had a way of identifying opportunities for people around him that they couldn’t see for themselves.
As a dark-skinned Black man in politics, he knew he would be setting examples and standards for what it meant to be a legislator of color. But he never code-switched. He always brought his whole self with him to every meeting and engagement.
He’s the reason I and four other Black people found ourselves in the Middle East learning about Israeli-Palestinian relations in 2019. He supported the launch of The Narrative Project in every phase, and he exclusively called me “Madam CEO.”
His was a drive for service that stands unparalleled by anything I’ve witnessed. That, in part, is what makes his sudden passing impossible to believe.
I had my dress picked out. Shoes recently purchased. But I decided not to attend the Governor’s inaugural ball. I had a sense of melancholy overcome me during the work day, and I canceled my meetings to tend to what felt like a panic attack.
After a night of sleep, I woke up to a dozen missed calls and the same text from several people: “Call me when you get a chance.” But I didn’t have to, because one text deviated from the rest — a link to the Daily Ructions article that, in nine lines, clearly conveyed a troubling reality I wasn’t ready to accept.
The scream that followed woke my husband.
“The science shows that grief is a much more complicated process than we often realize,” offered Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University who is widely known for her podcast “The Happiness Lab.”
“Many of us have heard of the five stages of grief, but this isn’t really how grief tends to proceed — it’s not a linear process, and realizing that can help us have more grace with ourselves as we go through a tough loss,” she said. “It’s not supposed to play out in one way, and you can often have many emotions at once.”
Anger & Bargaining
We all have coping mechanisms that help us process trauma: mine recently involves screaming into a pillow and cursing the heavens. But for those with more productive habits, it might look like rallying around supporting education, women in politics, and housing justice the way Q had.
For those who have more power, that might look like finally addressing the wrong-way-driver trends in our state. According to The Accountability Project and data from the Connecticut Department of Transportation, there were 23 wrong-way fatalities across the state in 2022. A number of countermeasures are either already in place or being implemented to prevent wrong-way driving.
Those countermeasures include upgraded signage at approximately 700 highway off-ramps; Pavement markings including directional arrows, double-wide stop lines, and edge lines; 500 “Wrong Way” signage on the back of speed limit signs. Those signs have been strategically placed approximately every mile so a driver would see them every minute assuming they’re within the speed limit.
But when nearly two people a month are killed in wrong-way crashes in one year, and one of the latest is a young community advocate with a promising future ahead of him, it’s hard to feel like enough is being done.
In the depth of grief, happiness can feel completely out of reach but, according to Dr. Santos, the pursuit of happiness in times of grief must start by making room for “negative emotions.”
“Sadness and anger are normative in times of loss and we need to make time to experience those negative emotions — it’s normal, and it’s part of the healing process,” she said. “But if you have the bandwidth, it’s also helpful to make sure you reach out to someone. Social connection and belonging can be a powerful mood booster.”
Grieving collectively makes a number of things easier: feeling understood for your emotions, taking time off work, etc. But it can also mean being confronted with conflicting grief timelines.
As Dr. Santos says, grief doesn’t work on any one timeline. So while some might find themselves far beyond the denial stage, others might see the larger-than-life billboard of Q on I-91 and begin sobbing while driving.
“I think in terms of what to expect of the process, the best advice is to expect the unexpected. People do feel better about a tragic loss over time, but there’s no one timeline and the healing doesn’t happen linearly,” she said.
I personally am not ready for calls to action in Q’s name. I’m not ready for the “in-loving memory” posts or the demands for related legislation. But the early responses to his death that came with the plea to do work in his name are justified and must be lifted up by someone.
Collective grief is a very specific brand of show and tell.
It’s filled with confusing and unimaginable sorrow expressed in varying forms, spoken in different languages, thought about through different cultural contexts and carried with varying levels of gravity for every person.
It’s good to have company in sorrow, Dr. Santos said.
“Reach out to a trusted friend during the grieving process,” Dr. Santos said. “[Commit] to taking care of yourself in whatever way you’re able to — eating as well as you can, trying to get some sleep — it’s normal for these things to feel hard during a loss, but even baby steps can keep you on a path towards healing.”
But after a week of public mourning with hundreds of people who are experiencing their own grief timelines, I don’t feel like healing has begun. I feel the weight of a spectacle, and the burden of his loss returns with news coverage in a major publication, with every article, with the cameras and reporters.
Collective mourning almost demands kept appearances, consideration of optics, speeches upon speeches and uncomfortable reminders that your particular sadness isn’t special or unique — a thought that may be comforting to some but deeply unsettling for others.
As Q’s death was unpredictable and chaotic, so too will be our grieving timelines.