The Experience of Collective Grief

Lately, the act of turning on a T.V., opening a newspaper, or scrolling through a newsfeed has been stressful at best and day-ruining at worst.

It seems like every day, we’re faced with more and more bad news that can sometimes result in feelings of sadness and hopelessness, causing a near-constant state of collective grief.

Collective grief happens when a community experiences a loss together. The losses that we have experienced collectively– regionally, nationally, and globally, over the last handful of years have at times felt insurmountable.

What events qualify as a “collective loss”? There are plenty of examples to point to; let’s focus on the ones we’ve been facing the most over the last few years.

Mass Shootings   

The losses that the United States has faced due to an increase in mass shootings in recent years are difficult to put into words.

When we lose members of our community to a mass shooting, we lose neighbors, friends, parents, children, spouses, teachers, and leaders. But we also lose something a little less tangible. We lose a sense of security in public spaces.

How many of us have had to think about our personal safety and the safety of our loved ones as we send our kids to schools, go on grocery store runs, attend church, go out to bars and clubs, want to ‘zone out’ during a move at the cinema, or get some holiday shopping done at the mall?

Some people may have no qualms about this activity, but for many of us, we’re plagued now with worries that we didn’t have before, hesitations that affect our day-to-day lives.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

Similarly, the losses that we have experienced and continue to experience throughout this global pandemic go far beyond the loss of life. Yet, the loss of life does play a huge role and cannot be glossed over.

The World Health Organization reported that nearly 15 million people have died from the coronavirus since 2020. Though there are a number of different estimates out there and they vary greatly, all of them show several million lives lost at a minimum.

That can be an incredibly heavy thing to sit with. It’s even heavier when it feels like so many people are “over” the pandemic and no longer publicly acknowledge the weight of this loss.

On top of all of this unacknowledged pain from the loss of life, many of us are also still experiencing other types of loss due to the pandemic.

Many people lost their jobs and their careers at the beginning of the pandemic– some were able to stay on for a while through emergency funding, furloughs, and the early retirement of others, only to eventually be laid off anyway.

Of course, this is a serious financial loss at a devastating time, but it can also have a negative impact on our identity and our sense of self-worth. As if all of those stressors added together weren’t enough of a burden, we also faced losses outside of work.

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, there was a vague promise of how things would be once they “went back to normal,” but that “normal” never returned. We lost the way our lives used to be, the way we interacted with the world before. 

Some of us lost our physical and mental health. We lost friends, connections, and support networks and still, we had to move forward in our lives, all the time behaving as though none of this was affecting us.

Natural Disasters

In the midst of all of this, in the background, a surge of natural disasters and the effects of global warming have devastated communities around the world.

Record snowfall and freezing weather in Texas, wildfires and deadly heat in Australia, and similar issues in California and parts of Europe. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, and heat waves have been devastating entire regions.

People are losing their lives, their homes, their possessions, and their entire communities.

At times, it can start to feel like the whole world is falling apart. Particularly when, for so long, these issues have been ignored or brushed off as political, while people continue to suffer.

Prominent Community Members Dying

Another type of collective grief that we’ve been facing lately comes from the loss of prominent members of our communities.

In the last few years, we’ve lost a number of people who had significant long-term impacts on our various communities– local, demographic, national, and international alike.

Each loss of a public figure comes with complex feelings of grief. Grieving for someone whom you have never met but who has had an effect on your life can be difficult and confusing.

Part of this process is also grieving what that person represented in your life and in your community.

In the last three years, we’ve lost Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, groundbreaking WOC actor Nichelle Nichols, Native American Activist Clyde Bellecourt, and South Africa’s Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, among many others.

Each of these losses has been felt deeply and widely throughout our collective communities and specific communities like the Jewish community, communities of color, and communities of indigenous peoples.

How Do We Heal From These Collective Losses?

Healing from collective loss means healing collectively. One of the worst parts of experiencing grief is feeling like you are alone, but with collective grief, we know that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The same way we lean on our family members when we lose someone in our families, we should be leaning on each other now.

We can all benefit from sharing our feelings and acknowledging the ways in which we are all affected by these community-wide losses and the collective grief that comes along with them.

Though we all respond to saddening situations and circumstances differently, sharing with one another and empathizing with our fellow human beings is a good first step in the direction of healing.

Photo credit: Ravi Roshan, via Pexels