Collective grief: How to cope and take action

As a New Yorker, it makes a difference if it’s cold or muggy outside. Cold weather is when you throw on a sweater before going outside. When it’s a brick, you try to stay home as much as possible to avoid ending up like a human glacier. But the local language didn’t apply much this winter, with low snowfall and above-average temperatures across New York.

A warm winter is more than just missing a few days of snow. We know the world will face more heatwaves and droughts, and natural disasters like the deadly floods caused by Hurricane Ian in Florida and Cuba last year.

Climate change is only one of humanity’s problems. This month marks the third anniversary of the COVID pandemic, a disease that has killed millions around the world and is becoming more chronic like the flu. In addition, Turkey and Syria are still dealing with the aftershocks of a historically deadliest earthquake, and rising food prices from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could exacerbate world hunger for years to come.

[Related: How to manage your mental health as traumatic events pile up]

There seems to be no shortage of tragedies throughout the community. Likewise, these events affect the psyche of people. Whether conscious or subconscious, you may mourn a loss of safety and security, above the more obvious layers of grief. But these feelings can also help you become the change you need to move forward in this ever-evolving world.

Collective grief is both a common and unique experience

Some tragedies, like a mass shooting or police brutality, resonate with an entire group of people. “Grief is a normal response to loss,” says Kriss Kevorkian, mortician and founder of the counseling service, A Grieving World. “When it’s collective mourning, we experience it on a larger scale with more people.”

Collective grief can set in even if you don’t personally know the people directly affected. When the Uvlade school shooting occurred, there was a nationwide outpouring of anger and grief over the killings of the teachers and children. Violent events like these make you rethink your life and your family’s safety, Kevorkian says.

Younger generations have become the most vulnerable to collective grief, especially with environmental stress. Kevorkian says the government’s failure to stop climate change has made children more helpless and apathetic. When young people like Greta Thunberg speak out about climate change, they are mocked and verbally abused.

Your mind and body in grief

Grief doesn’t stay in a corner of your body – it consumes your entire being. You may feel more tired than usual from tossing and turning all night. Maybe you’ve lost your appetite or have trouble keeping food down. Research shows that the first few months of grief can affect the activity of your body’s immune system and increase the risk of blood clots.

When your mind is weighed down by sadness, anger and loneliness, there is little room to focus on other matters. Having “grief brain” can make you feel like you’re in a fog. Everyday tasks like watering the plants or taking out the trash become really challenging. As you try to process your loss, you may forget things like where you put your keys or an important doctor’s appointment.

Grief brain happens because your mind recognizes stress and emotional trauma as a threat, triggering the whole body’s fight-or-flight response. Areas of the brain like the amygdala signal the alarm through stress hormones that raise your heart rate and raise your blood pressure, increasing your anxiety and panic to attend to the stressor.

When you’re not dealing with the heavy emotion, your brain protects itself by going into constant survival mode. Believing it is in danger, it allocates more energy and resources to fear centers such as the amygdala. Your brain may also decide to escape the stressor by figuratively running. It can distance itself from everyday events, for example, to give you a mental break from negative emotions. “Deciding how to approach your grief can enhance healing as opposed to delaying it when we try to ignore or deny reality,” says Jasmine Cobb, a grief and trauma social worker at Visual Healing Therapeutic Services in Texas.

Families gather and hug outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center, where grief counseling was offered in Uvalde, Texas, after a mass shooting in May 2022. Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

Eat your grief before it eats you

The good news is that the stress on the brain associated with grief is reversible. Meditation and mindfulness can train you to focus on the present moment instead of reliving the past or distancing yourself from future threats. Going outside for a 30-minute walk instead of scrolling or watching the news can help clear and calm the mind. Crying can also be a healthy stress release as it releases feel-good hormones like oxytocin and endorphins.

There is no standard amount of time you are supposed to grieve. You can spend months or years grieving, only for a news item or a movie to trigger your pain again. “There are three words I really can’t stand, ‘get over it,'” says Kevorkian. “Sadness never ends.”

While time can help with the grieving process, it’s important to actively work through your feelings and any unresolved issues related to the loss. Cobb says talking to someone you can trust is important, whether it’s a family friend, a therapist or a spiritual leader. There is also strength in shared grief. People who have been through a similar experience can help you to help you overcome your grief. “Find your community that can hold a torch for you when you can’t do that for yourself,” advises Cobb.

Turning collective grief into collective action

Grief is one of life’s greatest teachers, says Kevorkian. It shows you how to live in the present and appreciate everything you have right now. Beyond acceptance, taking action can help you combat some of the hopelessness you might feel when faced with events beyond your control, Kevorkian explains.

[Related: The biggest tool we have to fight climate anxiety is community]

An example of a group that turns pain into lasting change is Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). In 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver – a man who had just been released from prison two days after his fourth DUI arrest. For the next several years, Cari’s mother, Candace, used her daughter’s photo and the story of her accident to raise awareness and change traffic safety laws in California. Candace went on to found MADD, a political advocacy group that gives other bereaved parents a chance to feel that their tragedy was not in vain.

“It’s easy for us to stay in bed under the covers and wallow in despair,” says Kevorkian. But finding the courage to take action can help you get out of your head and connect with others who share a similar angst. Hopefully, with time and work, the world will look less bleak.

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