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The Collective Grief of Living Through COVID-19

What exactly is collective grief and how are we living through it?

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The unfortunate truth is that every single one of us, at some point in our lives, will be forced to face up to loss and grief sooner or later. In a way, it is the one experience that every single human being on earth shares and can relate to, regardless of where we come from or what our backgrounds are. 

But since COVID-19 has affected the lives of almost everyone on the globe one way or another, it is not just individual grief that we feel for those that we may have lost to this pandemic. Separate from the grief and stress of grieving for and planning a funeral for our own loved ones, we are also experiencing what many experts are calling collective grieving; A type of grief that hits differently to personal feelings of bereavement. It’s a grief that can only manifest itself through a simultaneous experience felt by an entire community of people.

How does collective grief differ from personal grief?

Many of us will not be strangers to individual grief or bereavement. Whether we’ve mourned the loss of a pet or the loss of a loved one, whether we’ve experienced one death or many throughout our lives, we understand and recognise this grief for what it is. Collective grief, however, is not always so easily distinguished, because it is not very often that something so monumental happens that may cause an entire population of people to grieve together.

Some of us will be familiar with the collective grief if we have lived through life-changing events, such as world-altering terrorist attacks like 9/11, or even the sudden death of a beloved public figure like Princess Diana. Oftentimes, we do not even recognise this feeling of loss and sadness for what the grieving that it is.

But unlike these world events, COVID-19 has not only affected us all on a personal and individual level, including dictating our movements and routines rather than just our emotions, but it has also lasted and will last for far longer than the effects of a celebrity death. In fact, many people are likening the longevity of this global loss, sadness and mourning, to the feelings of grief that people have felt during times of global wars. 

Because not only are we mourning the deaths of thousands of people that we do not know, but we are experiencing a much broader concept of mourning in that we are mourning for the loss of our lives as we once knew them. For those of us in lockdown, we have been confined to our homes to varying degrees and our physical ties with those we love have been severed. We may not be at war, but we are in the throws of a global tragedy and it is perfectly normal to feel grief for the normality that we once had, even though we know it’s temporary. 

The anxiety in collective grieving 

When collective grieving comes during a time of uncertainty and national or global upheaval, it is normal for anticipatory grief to walk hand in hand with collective grieving. After all, especially during a global pandemic – for many, the first pandemic they’ve ever lived through – there is so much that is unknown that it is to be expected that people will already be mourning for the worst possible outcome.

If you are separated from your loved ones, especially vulnerable or elderly loved ones, then these feelings of anticipation and stress are even more likely to occur. In these situations, we are mourning a loss that we already know and expect is going to happen. And that collective and anticipatory grief does not have to be limited to losing loved ones; it can manifest itself in a collective anxiety about anything we are preparing to lose.

Whether it be cancelling your long-awaited wedding, preparing for your final year of school to be spent separated from your friends or even being robbed of the chance to meet your grandchild for the first time, there are many ways for us to experience loss and miss out on once in a lifetime experiences. Regardless of whether we consciously want to mourne these moments or not, we may be feeling the grief without even realising it.

Feeling the fatigue of collective grief

A lot of us are currently feeling withdrawn, unmotivated and just plain fatigued. Of course, there are many out there who are physically and emotionally drained by the demands of working in essential jobs during this pandemic. But this feeling of apathy and borderline depression does not seem to be limited to those working day and night in key roles. In fact, more of us seem to be feeling groggy and out of sorts than we did before lockdown. 

It is not simply staying up too late streaming guilty pleasure TV shows that’s causing this fatigue, however. Fatigue and withdrawal are common side effects of grief. Although, unlike under normal circumstances, the unique situation that we find ourselves in right now is that there is rarely a respite from the very thing that is causing us to have this traumatic response. 

When we drive for a loved one, we can always count on at least the possibility of a distraction – seeing a film, going to the gym, meeting up with friends – but these days, you cannot so much as turn on the news without being reminded of the terrible things happening in the world. In addition, some of us are locked down without so much as a family member to keep us company. It is an ongoing, unyielding combination of triggers and while our less than motivated attitudes may seem like they are the products of laziness, it is likely the only way for some of us to cope with the psychological strain. 

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Of course, as with any form of grief, the key to getting through it to the other side is compassion. Compassion not only for our loved ones, distanced though they may be, but also for ourselves. Collective grief is not an experience familiar to most of us and there is no one size fits all approach to how to deal with the mental and strain of a situation like this.

All we can do is feel proud of ourselves and each other for carrying on and doing as much as we can to sustain normality and being grateful for the right things. Not only for our health and wellbeing but also for the love and support of those around us. 

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