Coping with Our Collective Grief
Written by Moe Gelbart, PhD - Director, Behavioral Health
We’re living in unprecedented times. A global pandemic, a national recession, and daily news reports of war, food shortages and mass shootings. These events have been seared in all our minds, and it’s not surprising that we may be experiencing feelings that are difficult to understand and process. For many of us, coping with these tragedies can be extremely difficult. Unfortunately, in our society, we have too many examples and experiences of this kind of tragedy. Here are some suggestions for getting through these painful times.
Respect your feelings: You may be feeling angry, sad, fearful, in shock, numb or other trying emotions. Allow your feelings to exist without judgment. Do not compare yourself to others or feel they are handling things better. Your feelings are never wrong or incorrect, and they will provide you a window into your thoughts. Understanding your thoughts will help you navigate the difficulties. We do not want to suppress, or repress, our feelings but rather process them. What that means is understanding where they come from, which helps us learn more about ourselves—even though it may be temporarily hard to bear. In the long run, walking through these experiences will lead to closure more easily.
Physical signs: Often, when we try to bury our painful feelings and thoughts, the emotions come out as physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, muscle pain and insomnia. If you are experiencing physical symptoms, your body is demonstrating that you have emotions you are not bringing to the surface. Instead of trying to numb ourselves, deny our feelings or act like we are OK, we need to find ways to deal with, talk about and understand our painful feelings.
Grief: Grief is a normal, albeit painful, reaction to traumatic events and loss. Many of us are experiencing secondary, or collective, grief in response to the recent shootings. When we think of this happening to innocent people—especially children—in environments that are supposed to be safe, the foundation of our security is shaken. I encourage people I work with to not try to get over grief, but rather to get through it. Walking through the grief—processing painful thoughts and emotions—is a much more painful and difficult endeavor, but it helps put things in proper perspective and allows us to move on in a healthier way. For those experiencing primary grief (i.e., those who have actually experienced the loss), getting through it is fragile, may take a long time and, for some, may never fully occur.
Talk: Talking to others is the best “medicine” for primary or secondary grief. Find those close to you who are not judgmental and will not try to talk you out of your experience or tell you what you should feel or do—no matter how well intended. Feel free to say what is on your mind without judging yourself. If someone close to you wants to talk, be an empathic listener and do not become a problem solver. Most of us experiencing secondary grief and trauma want a shoulder to lean on and a feeling of acceptance. Remember what Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Prior trauma: If you have experienced prior trauma in your life, being exposed to traumatic current events can open old wounds that you believed were healed by now. Keep in mind that past trauma does not have to be identical or similar; it remains in our unconscious somewhat unresolved. Recognize that the opening of old wounds is a normal occurrence and does not mean something is wrong with you or that you have not resolved things in your past. Present pain can easily unearth long-resting trauma, and it will be important to process it, remind yourself that you have walked through it in the past, and know that you will be able to get back to a place where the pain is put away again.
Take action: One of the sources of secondary grief and trauma is the sense of hopelessness that accompanies the event. Feeling hopeless can often lead to depression. With the recent horrible slaughter of children in Uvalde, we are reminded of countless similar events: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Las Vegas and unfortunately many more. We also realize that nothing has changed, which further leads to a feeling of hopelessness and lack of control. We must look to exercise control where we have it and feel we are being proactive. This can include writing to your congressman and demanding change; writing an opinion letter to your local newspaper; donating money to those in need in the cities where recent tragedies have taken place; and attending meetings and rallies to have your voice heard. Oftentimes we let perfection get in the way of good, and instead we need to feel that being proactive on any level has a meaningful impact.
Practice self-care: Often during times of severe stress, we tend to withdraw, isolate and find activities that quickly and falsely make us feel good or help us numb our feelings, like overeating or eating unhealthy foods, drinking too much alcohol or using drugs, sleeping long hours to escape, or numbing out by binging on TV. Instead, especially during highly emotional or stressful times, we need to make sure we are eating healthy, exercising, moderating alcohol use and regularly meditating or practicing mindfulness. In addition, getting eight hours of quality sleep every night will enable our bodies and minds to cope more effectively.
Gratitude and love: Feeling someone else’s loss is painful but also an opportunity to focus on gratitude for what we have and for the people in our lives. I know it sounds clichéd, but such incidents are reminders to hug those close to us—especially our children and grandchildren—and tell them every day that we love them. It is a good reminder to keep things in proper perspective and not hold grudges or let issues amongst loved ones ever get out of hand. Kindness and communication will solve most problems between people who are close. The more we live with love, care and kindness, the more we inject those values into the world.