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How to Process Our Collective Grief
Many of us are familiar with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—a call to move forward in life while welcoming the different waves of grief that come and go.
In today’s world, these waves have grown stronger because of the rise of losses and reasons behind them, which reside outside the confines of inevitable mortality and natural death. We are up against a relentless recurrence and severity of death in the context of violence, systemic oppression, and White cisheteronormative patriarchy. Before we can even metabolize the grief from one brutality, there comes another. Here, we explore the experience of collective grief, where the final stage of acceptance does not seem appropriate when we are up against violent and unacceptable conditions.
The month of June is burdened with unimaginable massacre anniversaries, including the 1921 Tulsa massacre in which White rioters looted and burned Black Wall Street. June 12 marks the anniversary of the mass shooting at gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando. Charged by anti-gay violence, the gunman killed 49 people and injured 53, making this one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. On June 17, we remember the shooting in Charleston, where a 21-year-old White supremacist murdered nine Black churchgoers during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
While we consider that our collective nervous system is pushed closer and closer to its limit, how can we still practice solidarity when the violence is relentless?
This doesn’t even include the gun violence we are experiencing in the present—including the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. How many more vigils? How many more wailing parents and fearful loved ones? How many more lives have gone too soon? With these hate-filled and mostly racially charged atrocities, the waves of grief feel more like storm surges. While we consider that our collective nervous system is pushed closer and closer to its limit, how can we still practice solidarity when the violence is relentless?
First, it is important we understand the nature of collective grief, which can be understood through the lens of vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress. Dr. Leia Saltzman at Tulane University School of Social Work describes collective trauma as “an event, or series of events, that shatters the experience of safety for a group, or groups, of people. … These events are different from other forms of traumatic events because of their collective nature. That is, these events are a shared experience that alter the narrative and psyche of a group or community.” Moreover, with the heightened global access to social media, individuals and groups who are not directly involved in these traumatic experiences are still impacted by the violence simply by witnessing. This is called vicarious or secondary trauma. Studies have shown that this indirect exposure to dangerous and even fatal events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder in individuals.
It is beneficial to address the concept of oscillation, or the back-and-forth movement, in processing the grief. Because of how finite our human bodies are, it is not sustainable for us to be exposed to pain or stay in it for long periods of time or in high frequency. In oscillation, we stay present enough with the grief to confront, reflect, and talk about it, but not to the point where we are too overwhelmed or overcome by it that it debilitates us or causes physiological ailments, inflammation, or extreme discomfort. Similarly, we ought to avoid overstaying on the other side of the spectrum of desensitization or disconnection from the collective trauma, leaving us apathetic or numb to our collective responsibility to look after one another and disrupt systems and cycles of violence.
It can be humbling to confront our limitations as human beings, and yet there is so much potential for what we can do together once we are aware of our capacities and limitations.
What is it like to oscillate from processing the grief, and to also be distanced just enough so we may rest and metabolize the emotions and information we have witnessed and stored in our bodies? A mantra my mentees and I occasionally use is: “Digest. Process. Rest. Resist.” We understand that it is not always in this order depending on the situation at hand, and that is OK. However, the movement back and forth is valuable. It is not sustainable to always resist, nor is it acceptable to overdo the recuperation or reflection stages to the point of inaction.
Here, we consider the reality of our bodies. It can be humbling to confront our limitations as human beings, and yet there is so much potential for what we can do together once we are aware of our capacities and limitations. I bring this up because whenever we directly or indirectly experience something very traumatic, we involuntarily dissociate or depart from our bodies and from the present moment. This is a resilient way our nervous systems try to cope and survive devastating situations. There is a spectrum, or a window, from which we navigate safety, and our bodies are intelligently and intuitively aware of this spectrum without us even knowing about it consciously. With that, we pay attention to what our bodies communicate and to trust them, which takes some time and practice. So when we feel like we are about to check out of our bodies, we can notice and consider asking: Do I still feel safe? What is causing me not to feel safe, and how can I return to safety?
For instance, as a migrant, I know that I can easily get activated whenever I am exposed to media or conversations on migration trauma or anti-immigrant policies. I do not disconnect from it entirely, but as much as I can, I maintain a calculated degree of attention to and distance from anything related to the topic. When I am mindful of my proximity to it, this allows me to remain present with myself and in the fight toward justice for immigrants. (The Window of Tolerance could be a helpful clinical tool as an entry point to this discussion; however, just as any clinical theory, it is limited, because it does not consider society and political systems. This resource is one I created that attempts to politicize the Window of Tolerance from a racial justice perspective.)
When we move toward the revolutionary act of embodiment, we start, persist, and end with grace and patience.
To assess one’s window is to revisit our relationships to our bodies. We can also be gracious with ourselves in this process, especially since the majority of us have been socialized with Western ideas in relation to our bodies, where we are influenced by the oppressive beliefs of Gnosticism, fatphobia, White evangelicalism, capitalism, etc. Because of these ideas, we are societally expected and pressured to be disembodied in order to function like machines in delivering the demands of industries and institutions. Additionally, to be in one’s body will not always feel safe for everyone, which explains why dissociation takes place. So, when we move toward the revolutionary act of embodiment, we start, persist, and end with grace and patience.
In embodiment, it helps to use our senses to return to the present moment by accessing and activating a variety of sensations. If you are able, you can splash or wash your face with cold water, taste something sour, describe the colors and textures of your surroundings, sing or dance to music, or even touch or gaze upon the textures of the plants or trees nearest you. Choose the practice that is most enlivening and accessible to you. It does not have to be perfect or tidy, but to feel different sensations serves as an alarm (or a snooze) to return to the here and now.
Another exercise is check-ins. This can be a self check-in where you can ask questions like: How is my body feeling today? How is my breathing? What is the taste in my mouth? What do I see, hear, smell, or touch? Where has my attention been frequently going? To be mindful of one’s bodily state without judgment develops our relationship with our bodies, and therefore enables us to assess or intuit whether we feel safe enough in certain situations. It is also noteworthy to consider this as a communal practice. Here, you can invite trusted friends to do collective check-ins together. Be intentional and flexible. Establish a certain level of frequency that is sustainable to all parties involved, but do so as a way to be accountable with one another as opposed to reporting to each other. Because our grief and trauma are collective, so must our experiences and pursuits of healing said grief and trauma be collective.
There are many more ways to attend to one’s body and metabolize grief. It is important for us to be as politically grounded as we are politically awake, and, as much as we can, to do so in the context of community. To end, I direct you to this sacred centering exercise led by embodiment practitioner and writer Prentis Hemphill, which I hope can bring us closer to ourselves, our bodies, and our sense of collective healing (transcript is available here).
Gabes Torres is a psychotherapist, organizer, and artist. Her work focuses on anti-colonial approaches and practices within the mental health field. She also focuses on abolitionist organizing on a global scale. You can find most of her work on her official website, www.gabestorres.com, and social media platforms, including Instagram.