Coping With Collective Grief After Trauma

Traumatic events can feel overwhelming on a collective level - impacting our mental health on a community level on some occasions.
By illume Editorial Team
Last updated: Jul 27, 2023
10 min read

When entire communities experience trauma together, such as natural disasters, violence, or pandemics, the resulting grief can be immense and far-reaching. Processing collective grief and trauma is extremely difficult but essential for healing.

What is Collective Grief?

Collective grief refers to the shared feelings of grief, mourning and bereavement after events that impact whole groups of people all at once, not just individuals. Collective grief can occur in response to natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks, school shootings, and public health crises.

In collective grief, everyone in the affected community plays a role. Individuals certainly grieve over the personal loss of loved ones and friends. But there is also grief over the loss of normalcy, security, stability, and functioning of the community. It becomes a shared experience.

Common experiences of collective grief include:

  • Public mourning through candle vigils, creating memorials
  • Community-wide trauma, fear, anxiety, sadness
  • Disruption of schools, jobs, transportation, stores, and daily life
  • Changes to social gatherings, celebrations, traditions
  • Constant media coverage that amplifies distress

Recovering from such wide-scale trauma requires processing and expressing grief both individually and collectively as a unified community. Finding meaning in loss through public mourning is part of the healing journey.

Challenges of Collective Grief

There are unique challenges to grieving as a collective that can make healing extremely difficult:

Traumatic scope – The sheer enormity of trauma impacting thousands of people simultaneously is often impossible to comprehend. The loss feels never-ending.

Ongoing threat – Tragedies like climate disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic present an extended, ongoing threat – a marathon not a sprint. This amplifies uncertainty, anxiety, and grief.

Isolation – Social distancing restrictions and quarantines can inhibit the communal grieving processes that are natural after loss, like funerals, vigils, memorial services, and in-person counseling. This compounds loneliness.

Lasting changes – Community-wide trauma transforms social patterns, traditions, and the way of life. This brings grief over the irrevocable loss of normalcy on top of lost lives.

Re-traumatization – Constant media coverage and social media posts can repeatedly expose grieving people to tragic details, stories, and images. This re-traumatizes people, preventing healing.

Coping Strategies for Healing

Healing from collective grief requires finding creative ways to grieve both individually and communally when normal mourning outlets are restricted for safety. Some constructive coping strategies include:

Allow all emotions – Let yourself fully experience the range of emotions – anger, profound sadness, anxiety, fear, guilt, or numbness. Do not judge any emotions as unacceptable. Simply feel them.

Find community online – When in-person gatherings are unsafe, connect with others experiencing the collective trauma through virtual counseling, vigils, memorials, and support groups focused on grief.

Limit media re-exposure – Be aware that constant news reports and social media feed collective distress indefinitely. Set firm boundaries on time spent watching coverage.

Create art as memorial – Make drawings, poems, songs, quilts, and other folk art however you can to commemorate lives lost and the community’s collective pain. Share online or save for future physical memorials.

Support local recovery – Find meaning right now through aiding grieving neighbors, donating to vetted local charities, volunteering carefully, and supporting recovery efforts.

Foster hope – While honoring losses, purposefully envisioning more positive days ahead as a community can nurture optimism that helps sustain people through darkness.

Practice patience – Recognize that healing collective trauma and grief takes an extremely extended time. Progress will come slowly, incrementally. Seek professional counseling if grief becomes severely debilitating.

With the right balance of personal and collective grieving, those affected by community-wide trauma can find solidarity, hope, and gradual emotional healing. Shared grief brings people together.