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Coping with a Public Tragedy: 4 Ways to Process Collective Grief

These methods will help you manage your feelings in the wake of traumatic events.

Malinda Meadows

Jun 30, 2022

“Grief is a living, breathing, dynamic thing that takes on different forms," says Rebecca Soffer, co-founder of Modern Loss. Collective grief is one such form, and it is one that many Americans are all too familiar with.

“We're all experiencing collective grief from navigating the third year of this pandemic and having so many things in our lives change," Soffer says. Collective grief also stems from events like mass shootings and other violent acts, the death of a celebrity, and natural disasters.

All of it can feel incredibly overwhelming, Soffer admits, but there are ways to work through it. It starts with understanding what collective grief feels like and then learning how to process it in a helpful and productive way.

What does collective grief feel like?

After a public tragedy, intense feelings of shock, sadness, anger, frustration, and helplessness may follow. Soffer explains that even if we don't know the people affected, we can still imagine the grief their families and communities must feel.

“With the recent school shootings, for example, we're imagining what the children went through and what their teachers went through, and it's just this awful feeling of loss," she says.

Past feelings of personal grief can also resurface with public tragedies. If someone has lost a loved one to a violent act, it's not uncommon for that person to experience those initial feelings all over again when a similar event occurs. Here, both individual and collective grief can coexist.

Photo of public tragedy with woman comforting a friend

Even if it feels difficult to pinpoint exact emotions in the moment, Soffer offers a gentle reminder.

"If it feels like grief to you, it probably is," she says. "These are real feelings that deserve validation."

Suggestions for processing collective grief

Processing collective grief first starts with recognizing what we are feeling, Soffer says. If we can recognize it, we can start to manage it. Here are her four recommendations.

1. Take control of your newsfeed

During a public tragedy, we often turn to the news for information. But there comes a point when the news intake can become too much, Soffer explains.

“We feel like we need to be privy to all the updates, but the truth is, if we're feeling like it's having an adverse reaction — like with our mental health, our bodies — then we need to listen to that and cut back on it," she says.

Soffer recommends limiting the number of news checks to once or twice a day and ensuring we are getting our information from a trustworthy source. After that, it's time to step back. And for anyone who feels guilty for curbing their news intake, Soffer is quick to dispel any of those feelings: “It doesn't mean you don't care — it just means you're taking care of yourself."

2. Channel feelings into action

Photo of public tragedy with a woman making a donation online

When a sense of helplessness follows in the wake of a public tragedy, it can be useful to channel those feelings into action.

Soffer encourages those who are grieving to see where they can get involved, if that's something that feels right for them. Perhaps that means attending a march or donating to a cause, or finding ways to get involved at the local or national level.

“Sometimes feeling like you're an active part of something can make you feel like you have a tiny bit of control in a situation that feels very uncontrollable," Soffer explains.

3. Bring it back to now

During periods of collective grief, we may experience moments when we feel like our thoughts are spiraling out of control or we're going through a physical change (e.g., rapid heart rate, trouble concentrating). When this happens, Soffer suggests trying a few grounding techniques that can help bring us back to the present moment.

While these may look different to different people, meditation, drawing, or spending time in nature are good places to start. Soffer's latest book, The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience, offers interactive guides for working through feelings of grief.

Photo of public tragedy with a woman walking through a forest

She also recommends the popular 5-4-3-2-1 technique. This helpful practice encourages a person to use their five senses to make them aware of their surroundings, thereby calming anxious or increasingly worrisome thoughts.

“The more you try out different techniques, the more you have — like a toolbox that you can go to with a lot of little tools in it that you can use," Soffer says.

4. Seek support

Even when we're collectively experiencing the same event, grief can still feel incredibly isolating, Soffer explains. Having the right support system in place — whether that's a licensed professional or simply a friend or family member you can talk to when you're feeling overwhelmed — can help.

Online communities for grief, such as private peer-to-peer support groups, are also widely available. Joining or creating a space where you can share stories, give suggestions for coping mechanisms, and generally assure one another that you're not alone can bring heaps of comfort, and is something Soffer highly recommends doing.

Community is the salve we need, especially in times of collective grief, Soffer says. Being part of something greater than us, and knowing we are not alone in experiencing these feelings, provides us with a certain sense of comfort during an otherwise isolating time.

“That's a really powerful thing," Soffer says.


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