What’s Collective Grief? How to Deal With It During COVID

Updated

If you've mourned the loss of a beloved celebrity, you've felt it. Anyone who has been through a natural disaster in their community has shared this feeling with others. The COVID-19 situation is like nothing we've seen in recent memory, and collective grief can be felt almost everywhere, by everyone.

What is collective grief though? Collective grief can be described as a sense of loss felt by a group of people.

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With COVID-19, everyone in the world has adjusted their lifestyle to reduce their risk of getting the virus. In other cases, some people put their health at risk to do essential jobs like healthcare staffers, delivery workers, and grocery workers. Daily life is stressful and full of uncertainty, but we're all in this together for better or for worse.

With the pandemic, it is important to retain a sense of community and understand our collective grief in order to get through it all together.

What is Collective Grief and Loss? 

It can sound off to describe the unsettling feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic as grief, but it is when you look at it more closely. We're mourning the loss of our ordinary lives and a future we thought we understood.

We fear the consequences of a virus we don't understand well. Every day we wish for a return to our boring normal lives. Instead, we have a world that is both full of ordinary activities in our home and worrisome reports of death and illness. This uncomfortable feeling we all have is collective grief.

Calendars are hard to look at right now. Once full of reminders for special events, they now sit barren and nearly unused. Sports seasons, school years, and family gatherings are either canceled or put off indefinitely. When will life feel OK again?

This situation won't feel normal for a long time, and we have no choice but to move through it together.

ยป MORE: Don't skip these commonly forgotten post loss tasks. View our guide.

 

How We Experience Collective Grief and Loss

So many aspects of normal life have changed as a result of the coronavirus, and other past historical moments of uncertainty. With the pandemic, it is impossible to have social gatherings, music performances, and sports.

In the past, governments have shut down cities and states after terrorist attacks, held collective days of mourning after a natural disaster, among other events.

Despite past experiences with different types of losses, each one is unique to a community, a state, a nation, and a society. What does collective grief look like to you?

High schools and colleges

High school and college graduates are dealing with enormous losses at the finish line of their academic careers. The last few months of a graduate's life are usually about honors, awards, and final achievements. These students get to shine one last time in front of family and friends. 

Now, many schools are holding virtual graduation ceremonies online. Other schools have postponed their in-person celebrations, hoping to do them sometime during the summer. All sports and activities have been canceled, including state and regional competitions.

Schools are making sure seniors get their degrees, but nothing can replace a lost season of performance or competition. Baseball and track records will have a blank spot for the 2020 season. Concert stages will be empty. Year-end dance recitals will go unperformed. None of these students had a say in how things changed.

Sports and entertainment

The entertainment industry may not be an essential service, especially compared to health care. But where do we turn when we need a break from stress and real life? Sports, music, movies, and other entertainment. These activities are a refuge when we need to change our mood, lift our spirits, and find our energy. 

With these events on hold for now, we still turn on sports channels, listen to music, and watch TV.  We can view virtual tours of famous zoos and broadcasts of popular theatre shows. These are helpful distractions, but are only an echo of the collective spirit felt at a live event.

Weddings

Weddings look much different than brides and grooms planned for, even just a few months ago. Some couples have postponed their wedding day, and others have gone ahead with no guests and a video feed. Couples have canceled receptions, put off honeymoons, and missed out on seeing extended family. 

We need to feel the spark that only comes from doing something social. Humans need to go places, do things, and move around. As concerned as we all are about the virus, these social losses are real too. The collective grief is real, and it hurts.

8 Tips for Dealing With Collective Grief at Home 

Stress is on the rise and many people feel both mentally and physically trapped. Take the following tips to heart and do a few things to take care of yourself.

1. Find gratitude and positivity

Being grateful can be hard, especially when we are surrounded by loss. It’s natural to get caught up in the things that will never be. One look at your calendar and you’ll see blank spaces instead of fun plans. You probably had no control over these changes and nothing will bring them back.

Gratitude forces us to look at things differently. We have to focus on what we have instead of what we missed. Think of what you and your family were looking forward to right now. Maybe you planned on traveling, seeing family, and attending some sporting events. Your children may be missing out on their favorite school activity or sport. 

With a focus on the positive, a little gratitude can take the sting out of your losses:

  • Acknowledge what you’re missing, but also pay attention to the positives.
  • Recognize what you are thankful for like food, safety, money, health, being together, etc.
  • Recall happy memories of previous trips and places you’d like to travel in the future. 
  • Enjoy your family’s company with phone calls and video chats. 
  • Find some sports reruns of your favorite teams online or on TV. 
  • Find ways to help your family, friends, coworkers, and community.

2. Keep connecting with others

Everyone you know is experiencing loss. Think of any activity you do outside of your home, and you can think of a way that has changed. As we all isolate and retreat from social gatherings, it's easy to forget what others feel. Your family, friends, and coworkers all crave social connection.

Reach out and get in touch with people as often as you can. Without the weekly card game, baseball games, or church activities, we all have to rethink the way we get human contact. If someone you know has suffered a loss, make sure to reach out and pay your respects.

Stay connected through phone calls, video meeting apps, texts, and social media. You need it and your friends and family need it, maybe some more than they realize.

3. Take care of yourself

Self-care routines are more important than ever right now. Reality can be stressful and boring at the same time. People are isolated, distracted, and miss their normal lives. You need your self-care routines to get through the ups and downs of each day.

  • Sleep: Chronic stress can disrupt your sleep, so do your best to wind down at the end of each day. Make sure your bedroom is comfortable, dark, and quiet. Try to keep a daily routine, even if you don't sleep well for a night or two. You'll eventually get tired and fall asleep.
  • Eating: Stress can upset your stomach, so pay attention to how your digestion feels. Have some bland foods on hand and drink fluids if you don't feel well. Resist the temptation to eat junk food all day. This may be a challenge with being home all day, so purchase healthy snacks to have around. Also, try to eat at the same times you normally would. A little indulgence won't hurt now and then, but try to choose healthy balanced meals at similar times each day. Your digestive tract will appreciate having a routine.
  • Take breaks: Stress will make you more distracted. Focus on your tasks, but don't beat yourself up if you get off-track. Everyone is struggling with focus right now and that is normal. Take breaks, even more often than you usually would. Frequent breaks can help prevent a big build-up of stress and frustration. 
  • Socialize: Stress can make you feel isolated, so connect with others you care about every day. Texting, video apps, phone calls, or yelling over the fence at your neighbor all count. Send a quarantine care package to a friend or loved one. A little communication with another human reminds you that we're all in this together and that you matter. 
  • Get active: Stress can make you hold tension in your muscles, so get some physical activity every day. Step outside for fresh air, take a walk, or do some yard work. If you can't get outside, find a few online exercise videos to try. Walk around your house or jog in place with some peppy music.

4. Name your grief

Grief can be an unsettling experience, especially if you don't recognize it. People understand that when a person dies, their loved ones grieve. But with the coronavirus, grief has been hard to comprehend or explain. 

Go ahead and name this strange feeling what it is. Acknowledge that you are grieving. That feeling of emptiness, pain, and disorientation you've had the last several weeks is going to stick around for a while. Even if you aren't an essential worker or someone who's been directly affected by the virus yet, it can be hard to think that you’ve given up a lot, but you have. 

You may be feeling anticipatory grief as well. How much longer will you have to give up your life? How many people will die in your community? We’re just at the beginning of the long haul with the coronavirus, so anticipatory grief is a real thing for many people. Whatever you grieve, name it and you won't feel so alarmed by it.

5. Accept that you will go through ups and downs

One day, you might think you have your at-home life down pretty well. The next day, you might feel a random sense of anxiety flowing through your body. Back and forth you go, bouncing between fragile confidence and ongoing worry. Both of these are normal human reactions to a very abnormal situation.

Change is really hard sometimes, and as a global community, we've gone through a lot of it in a short time. COVID-19 has forced us all to make rapid adjustments in our life routines. Adjustment seems like a simple thing until you have to make 1,000 tiny changes to your everyday life. 

Ordering groceries online is easy. Calling a friend is easy. Staying home instead of going to a baseball game is easy. What's not easy is doing all these things and more for weeks on end. You'll go through these ups and downs many times as the months go by. These choices are all for the greater good, but it's hard to live this way. You are not failing. 

6. Develop a creative outlet

Creativity can help in a few different ways with collective grief. It’s OK if you’re not in the mood for it right away. Just pick something simple and take the first step. Here are a few reasons a creative pursuit can help you cope with the uncertainty around you.

Distraction

A creative project can be a welcome distraction from stress and worries. Once you get started, you may find yourself too absorbed to care how much time is passing. Your brain can’t focus on worries and your project at the same time, so diving in gives your mind a little rest from your troubles.

Personal expression

The pandemic has become a complex long-term event, stirring up emotions and thoughts that can be tough to articulate. Sometimes it is easier to express yourself when you can pour your energy into something.

The act of making something take shape can be therapeutic. You can feel more in control and enjoy directing the process. Choosing colors, shapes, function, and form can help you remember what makes you tick and what you enjoy. 

Bring back the fun

And finally, being creative is fun. It can be art-related, but it doesn’t have to be. Doing something simple and creative can spark some fun in everyday life again. 

  • Try a craft or small DIY building project. 
  • Find a cooking video online and make something new for dinner. 
  • Think of a new way to arrange the furniture in your home.
  • Consider a new way to display pictures on your wall. 

7. Be compassionate to yourself

The pandemic has forced everyone to adjust to an unfamiliar way of life. The loss of normalcy has taken more emotional and mental energy than most have expected. Before you beat yourself up for feeling tired and unproductive, take a step back. Shift your focus from criticism to compassion.

You may even reconsider how well these expectations have served you before the pandemic. Do you have a habit of being hard on yourself? Could you be gentler on yourself when you stumble?

Self-compassion helps you accept what you’re going through instead of getting caught up in self-blame. You’re not alone coping with the difficulties of the pandemic, so don’t add another layer to your emotional burden.

8. Create quiet space

The long-term nature of the pandemic has become exhausting and frustrating. With everything in the news, constant local updates, and the stress of coping with daily life, your head may feel like it’s buzzing all the time.

To manage this, create some quiet space for yourself each day. It’s OK to start with a small amount of time, like 10 or 15 minutes. Focus more on building a habit than hoping to feel better immediately. You might find quiet time uncomfortable at first, especially if you’re used to a busy mind.

It may be easier to listen to some soft music instead of sitting in complete silence. Your mind has something to focus on, and the mood of the music can sway your mindset. 

If being still doesn’t feel right, try taking a walk or doing some gentle exercise in a quiet space. You don’t have to accomplish anything specific. Just create a small buffer where you encourage some kindness, mental rest, or distraction. Once you’ve done it a few times, you may discover what relaxes you the most.  

How Can You Help Others Experiencing Collective Grief During COVID?

Helping others is part of what gets us through grief. When you see a loved one suffering from the losses of the pandemic, reach out and offer your support. Here are some ways to help someone you care about as they cope with loss.

1. Offer kindness and understanding

If you notice your loved one getting frustrated or down on themselves, offer them kindness. Encourage them to remember that everything is a little hard now, and it's OK to feel sad about it. Remind them to be gentle with themselves, and acknowledge that they've been through a lot. Struggling doesn't equal failure, but rather it just means they're a human being trying to process grief.

It doesn't take much time to help someone feel loved as they grieve. If it's safe, a comforting hug or touch on the shoulder can be reassuring. Offer a soothing beverage or ask if they'd like to hear a favorite song.

If you're helping a coworker, offer to take a task off their hands for the day or tell them you'll drop by again later in the day. These small gestures of kindness add up and can soften a person's grief.

2. Listen, listen, listen

The emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic can be hard to put into words. We've all been on a wild ride the last year or so, and it's not over yet. How do you describe the toll this has taken? It's challenging to sum up. The pandemic is a broad topic, but encourage your loved one to talk about it anyway. 

They may believe nobody wants to hear about their complaints about the pandemic, especially because it's been hard on everyone. It may seem like their loss isn't that important in the big picture. Give them a listening ear anyway, and tell them you're here for them whenever they want to get something off their chest.

Even if they don't take you up on it right away, your invitation and concern will make an impression.

3. Spend time with loved ones

Ever since social restrictions were put in place in early 2020, we've all had to find different ways of staying connected. Zoom holidays and happy hours became popular. Video chats and texting became lifelines when in-person visits weren't possible. As the pandemic has worn on, you and your loved ones may be weary of being separated. You may have gotten used to being isolated at home for weeks at a time. 

The pandemic isn't over quite yet, so keep safety in mind. But make sure you spend time with your loved ones somehow. Play cards, share coffee, or watch TV together over video chat. Get together at a park or in your driveway. These small moments are every bit as important as going to work and getting groceries.

Social restrictions may have improved physical safety, but we've collectively paid a heavy emotional price. It's essential to support friends and loved ones however you can.

COVID-19 Living with Collective Grief 

The coronavirus crisis won’t last forever. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will have the knowledge and tools to live with the virus and resume our lives. In the meantime, it’s more important than ever to understand the collective grief we feel. It’s real and it isn’t going anywhere for a while.

Life is hard right now, but you’ll get through it. We’ll all come out the other side together.

If you want to learn more about collective grief and loss, read our guide on climate grief.


Sources

  1. Bell, Maya, and Jones Jr, Robert C. “Kobe Bryant’s Tragic Death Ignites Collective Grief,” News.miami.edu, January 28, 2020, news.miami.edu/stories/2020/01/kobe-bryants-tragic-death-ignites-collective-grief.html
  2. Thomas, Sherry, “Life after Trauma: It Takes a Community,” Thechicagoschool.edu, October 16, 2016, thechicagoschool.edu/insight/from-the-magazine/life-trauma-takes-community.
  3. Weir, Kirsten. “Grief and COVID-19: Mourning our bygone lives.”  American Psychological Association, 1 April 2020, apa.org/news/apa/2020/grief-covid-19.
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