Numerous families are grieving after another week of deadly gun violence. There were seven mass shootings last Saturday alone, resulting in 10 deaths across six states, CNN reports.
Like so much of the loss we’ve experienced in the last few years, these tragedies have company: Hate crimes have reached their highest level in over a decade, and more than 1,000 people—mostly Black—have been killed by police officers in the last year. All of this while a deadly pandemic claimed more than 1 million Americans’ lives.
With so much loss running through America’s veins today (and for many days to come), one question feels particularly pressing: How do we mourn those lost and cope with the multilayered grief that’s become a foundational part of living in the U.S.?
Grieving as a form of learning
Bereavement researcher Mary-Frances O’Connor, Ph.D., has spent more than two decades studying the emotional effects of losing a loved one. Her work has revealed a lesson that’s worth remembering as we forge a way forward: “Grieving is a form of learning.”
“Grief is that wave of emotion you feel in the moment, but grieving is the way that grief changes over time,” explains O’Connor. “Grieving is a form of learning because we have to update our understanding of the world now that we’re carrying the absence of a loved one.”
O’Connor’s research suggests that part of why grieving feels like a Sisyphean task is because the brain is trying to reconcile two pieces of incompatible information: first, your memory telling you that a person has died, and second, your brain insisting that the same person is just in the next room or a phone call away (as used to be the case).
“These two streams of information conflict. And that’s part of why grieving takes a long time: because the brain has to update its understanding of how to predict the absence of this person more often than the presence of this person,” says O’Connor.
In the context of the pandemic, you may already be feeling this tug of war taking place in your brain. Perhaps you keep picking up the phone to call a loved one who’s no longer here, or you find yourself dwelling on the last thing you said to them. These are perfectly normal expressions of grief. But researchers, including O’Connor, are now beginning to ask if pandemic bereavement comes with its own particular flavor of loss. “I think it is becoming clear that there was such a unique context during the pandemic, and that included several really major changes to the way deaths happened and also the way grief happened,” she says.
For one thing, 1 million deaths creates a scale of collective grief that’s never been studied in depth. “This means that many people are grieving simultaneously, which reduces the opportunities for support in some ways. And on the flip side, could create opportunities for understanding and compassion between individuals,” says O’Connor. Many folks were also separated from their loved ones at the moment of their deaths or had to bereave in new—often inadequate—ways, like by attending Zoom funerals.
In the face of these COVID-19 specific factors, grieving is still a form of learning—but the lesson plan may have changed. That person who lost a parent may now have to grapple with what it means that her mother died alone in the hospital, or didn’t get the funeral she wanted.
Trauma as a shared experience
Therapist Jeanie Y. Chang, LMFT, president and board chairman of the Asian Mental Health Collective, says that three emotional responses have defined her work since the onset of the pandemic. “Grief, collective trauma, and vicarious trauma are what I’m seeing and, really, what we’re all experiencing,” she says. “Collectively, particularly here in the U.S. with the hate crimes and mass shootings, our trauma has become a shared experience, which is difficult to admit, but is very much the reality.”
She adds that vicarious trauma—defined by the American Counseling Association as “the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured”—is now an actuality for most people.
“Vicarious trauma comes from a constant, consistent exposure to trauma over a period of time,” explains Chang. “[It] also involves feeling empathy and compassion for victims, families, and survivors—and that emotional engagement adds depth to the level of vicarious trauma.”
Vicarious trauma tends to work in a cyclical manner. Chang recalls that after eight women of Asian descent were murdered in the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, a recognizable trauma response emerged. “I saw folks immediately feel anger and rage. Then the shock factor kicked in and later—feeling hopeless and depressed,” she explains.
How to care for yourself
That said, there are things you can do to protect your mental health as you move through the many (natural) stages of vicarious trauma and grief. First and foremost: Validate your feelings. If you’re feeling angry, numb, and scared, you’re entitled to those feelings. ”These are also symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Hypervigilance is a big part of an everyday symptom I’m seeing where folks are thinking twice about the mundane things they used to do like dropping off their kids at school quickly, taking the subway, and walking on their own,” says Chang.
From there, try to reframe your healing. Instead of trying to feel less overwhelmed, make an effort to manage your feelings of distress. “We tend to go right to solutions on how to feel better, how to cope, how to solve, what can we do to rectify this tragedy, policy changes, etcetera,” says Chang. “All must-dos for sure. However, I believe we cannot do any of that effectively without taking the time to process the trauma first and giving ourselves the space to do that.” Otherwise, you may find yourself in the same current of grief over and over again.
Coming to grips with these feelings will look different for everyone, but generally speaking, Chang recommends tapping into your coping mechanisms (habits that decrease anxiety). You may practice mindfulness, keep up your normal routines and hygiene, prioritize sleep, distance yourself from the news, and ask someone for help and support. Do not skip this personal step; it’s crucial for showing up for the collective. “Accept the here and now and navigate through it as diligently as possible. Many times, we avoid our trauma by going right to doing and not being,” she says.
Once you’ve established your coping strategies, you’ll be better equipped to attend those protests, call your senators, and donate what you can to protect the people around you. Just remember to be gentle with yourself: You’re learning how to grieve as you go along.
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