Collective Trauma, Loss, and Grief: Insights from a Global Pandemic
Nowadays, the number one topic in our lives is this unique, extraordinary global situation that we are all experiencing due to the pandemic of COVID-19.
Aside from the risk of infection itself and the huge economic consequences, we are all undoubtedly affected by this situation, and the aftermath is still to be discovered- unknown when exactly. It is therefore significant not to overlook the psychological and emotional implications of this situation.
In my view, we are all faced with collective trauma, riding the waves of a situation that is unprecedent, uncertain and most definitely weird. We are all in grief, for our lives before, and the uncertainty and expected losses of our future.
Maybe you shook at the mention of “trauma” and “grief”- maybe they sound too big and heavy words to you.
So I will take this opportunity and dedicate today’s article on the concept of collective trauma, grief, as well as some insights I have been able to observe during this strange time.
It is an unusually long blog post, matching the extraordinary nature of the COVID-19 pandemic we are all going through right now.
Is this pandemic a traumatic experience?
It’s a suitable time to discuss trauma, though what label you give this unique experience, is up to you to decide really.
You see, trauma is not just one thing.
The definition of trauma is “a deeply stressful, distressing or disturbing experience”.
However, when we use the word trauma, we may mean both the traumatic experience itself, as well as the severe psychological distress that follows such an experience.
What is considered traumatic to one person may not be regarded as such by another, as it depends on their past experiences, their mental health state, the existence of adequate coping and supportive resources, and the overall level of resilience and adaptability of the person. Terming something as traumatic also highly depends on the subjective severity of the aftermath, as experienced by the individual.
Even though trauma can be a deeply distressing event, it leaves room for post-traumatic growth; for permanent positive change after the event is over, if the person processes what has happened effectively and in an adaptive way, if they “learned the lessons” provided by it.
A traumatic event can be a single incident, also known as acute trauma. This can be an incident of sexual abuse, a serious accident, the loss of a loved one, a sudden disastrous fire, a terror attack- really any single event that can leave a permanent mark on your psyche and that can take a while to process and fully absorb.
But trauma can also be a series of repeating, chronic events- such as in the case of domestic violence, emotional abuse, neglect and in abusive relationships later in life.
Although people experience trauma on their own, on an individual level, there is also collective trauma- when entire groups or societies collectively suffer from stressful and disturbing experiences. Situations that may lead to collective trauma include war, terror attacks, genocide, natural disasters, massive accidents and pandemics.
Therefore, the current pandemic has the potential to lead to collective trauma. Even if you don’t want to label it as traumatic, I believe we all agree that we’re confronted with a global crisis- and that is a significant and intense event in itself.
What is common in all traumatic events is that they are extraordinary -out of our ordinary spectrum of experiences-, unpredictable, and overwhelming, as they demand us to adapt to significant changes and possibly a new way of life. Our life is forced to change.
A situation that elicits psychological trauma violates the familiar ideas and expectations we hold about ourselves, our lives, and often our perception of others and the world as a whole. In other words, trauma changes life as we knew it, and brings about a state of confusion, uncertainty and lack of control.
Common perceptions of Self, Others and the World after trauma are: “I am in danger”, “The others are untrustworthy”, “The world is a dangerous place”, “I am unsafe” etc.
In a time of trauma we can become overwhelmed in trying to process what is happening and adapt to changes in our life that we’re bombarded with, which can lead to unexpected difficulties as well. Although we are quite adaptive and resilient, we may have a limited capacity with processing novel intense experiences, especially when they happen close to each other. The reason is that each person needs their own time to process, heal and recover.
Unprocessed, unresolved trauma is the foundation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex-PTSD, as well as many other adverse mental health outcomes including anxiety and depression.
Trauma survivors often confuse trauma time and present time, painfully reliving their trauma in their Present lives.
The life narrative of trauma survivors is often divided in a “before” and “after”, and trauma also equals to loss. We lose reality as we knew it, and maybe even parts of ourselves, and we have to reinvent in adapting to a new reality.
Thinking about whether the current situation can be considered as traumatic:
Don’t we all already appraise our lives as a before and after Coronavirus..?
And aren’t we all somewhat overwhelmed and distressed with all that is constantly changing, wondering how to effectively cope and adapt, and worrying about all that is still at stake with regards to our future..?
I believe the answer to both questions above is “yes”.
After all, this is a global crisis on so many levels- public health, financial, economic, social, psychological and emotional.
A crisis puts us all in survival mode, and activates our grief.
Trauma, Loss and Grief
Trauma is connected to loss. When we are traumatized, we are forced to lose aspects of our lives and ourselves. And when we lose something, we grieve for it.
Right now we are in the midst of experiencing collective grief.
Perhaps you shook at this word too- isn’t grief only about dying?
The grieving process is the emotional process that is activated when we are faced with loss and subsequent change.
Some examples of loss:
· The death of a loved one
· Loss due to a breakup or divorce
· Loss due to moving to a new house or new city/country
· Loss of a job
· Loss of an important relationship
· Loss because of illness/ accident/ health
· Loss of material things
· Loss of future perspective and dreams
· Loss of security, safety and certainty
Now consider how many things we may be losing with the current pandemic:
· Some people have lost loved ones due to the illness or are afraid of getting sick. In most cases, they are not even able to visit their sick at the hospital or have a proper goodbye with a funeral. Thus their grief remains somewhat incomplete and unresolve, and it is harder to reach a state of acceptance.
· Loss of sense of security, safety and certainty: The “others” are a possible source of infection, so we are not safe to approach them, but we are not safe for others, either. We may have lost financial security too, and we most definitely are uncertain of what tomorrow brings, and what the day after the pandemic will leave behind…
· Loss of job or financial stability
· Loss of freedom: e.g. freedome of meeting friends and loved ones, planning travels and holidays when and wherever we please, being under surveillance if we do not comply with the measures etc.
· Loss of carelessness: e.g. not having to worry about the risk of infection when we are outside
· Loss of social contacts: social distancing, isolation and loneliness
· Loss of previously enjoyable activities
· Loss of physical contact: most of us wonder, when will we be able to just hug our loved ones fearlessly and freely again
· Loss of future perspectives e.g. uncertainty around when this will end, how our lives and social contacts will look afterwards, when and how will we be able to attend cultural events and mass social gatherings, when and how will we be able to enjoy holidays and traveling again, and so much more
If you take a moment to consider all that is lost right now and all that is at stake and uncertain about the future, it may become clearer why the grieving process is discussed.
This is a difficult situation for all of us. I specifically empathize with people living in a different country than their own, like expats and immigrants, that may be feeling even more isolated and limited in choosing when they will visit their homeland, and worry about how to cope if something unexpected happens to their loved ones back home.
The grieving process
I have talked about grief before.
Grief is not a linear process, and can manifest in different stages and with the interchange of different emotions.
The grieving process may look a little bit like a roller coaster of ups and downs.
You can’t get over it, you can’t get under it- you just have to go through it.
You may notice that yourself- at the beginning you may have been in denial about the severity of the current situation, then maybe you have gotten angry at the restrictions, measures and regulations, at times you may feel very sad, depressed, hopeless and unmotivated, while at other times you may wake up fully energized, optimistic, ready to seize the day, grateful and happy about the new possibilities that open ahead of you in the face of this new reality.
Fear, worry, anxiety, uncertainty and a sense of lack of control may be at the background of anything that is going on in your life right now.
But fortunately, we are all in this together.
The sense of solidarity plays a tremendous role in alleviating our grief right now. We may be isolated, but not alone. All of us are going through distinctively similar inner processes- and that in itself is a big source of comfort and support.
Questions to reflect on:
What are your losses?
What are you grieving for right now?
How have you been moving through your grieving process?
What has served as coping for you?
Riding the Waves: Insights from the Pandemic
Through my work as a therapist and the fact that I am a keen mindful observer of my own inner world, and the processes of the people around me, I have been observing some common tendencies and patterns among all of us these last weeks.
Perhaps some of these insights resonate with you too.
· There are lots of ups and downs
Our emotions seem to be a little all over the place. When we consider the grieving process mentioned above, it’s easy to understand why. You may also fluctuate between motivation, positive mood, optimism and gratitude to a state of sadness, then irritability, then dullness and fatigue, then despair, then anger, anxiety, then happiness again.
All emotions are ok. They are all part of the process.
Give yourself permission to experience all of them as they come, without judging yourself. It is what it is- learn to practice radical acceptance and be more mindful about your inner processes.
Now is a great time to learn to be more self-compassionate and gentle, with yourself but others too. Because everyone is going through their own process.
· Your anxiety may feel worse right now
Anxiety and uncertainty go hand in hand. So in times of global uncertainty, it is very normal that your symptoms of anxiety may worsen as well.
Actually, all psychological defenses and maladaptive coping may be increasing right now, in the face of stress. Whatever may be considered dysfunctional, can now emerge stronger:
If you were struggling with anxiety, you may notice this reaches a peak now.
If you had difficulties with procrastination and structure, the lack of usual structure may make it even more challenging for you to organize yourself.
If you have obsessive-compulsive tendencies (e.g. the need to check things and have things under control, fear of germs etc) , these will be more attenuated now.
If you tend to ruminate and worry a lot about things you cannot control, this may be worse now, as the sense of control is indeed quite limited.
If you were struggling with the use of alcohol and drugs or other unhealthy habits, the negative emotions you experience now may make it harder than usual for you to find and keep other, healthier ways to manage them.
What can help:
Spend some time with yourself and put together a “Safety Plan”. Consider all those activities you can do when you feel overwhelmed and flooded with negative emotions, that ground you and regulate you. For each dysfunctional behaviour you fall back into when anxious, try to think of a healthier alternative to replace it with.
If you are overwhelmed by ruminating and worrying about the future, remember that we are all dealing with a sense of loss of control and uncertainty. In times like this, shift your focus on things you can control right now: the Present moment. Your actions now, your daily schedule and goals, the choices you make in order to alleviate your anxiety, your coping with this moment. The future is unknown to all of us in these circumstances, so the best you can do is regain a sense of control in the moment.
· Depressive emotions may feel darker now
The current situation of lack of structure and routine, and social isolation, can make depressive symptoms and negative mood states worse. Your usual resources are now limited; you cannot go outside and meet others with the same ease as before, and there are some activities you cannot do at all anymore.
If you have been feeling lonely and eager to connect with others, the lack of options now may make this period particularly difficult for you. Paramount in the treatment of depression is behavioural activation and application of a structured schedule, that may be severely compromised right now.
Also, in the relevant absence of external stimuli, you may now observe that emotional states flow and change sometimes, without a reason, almost even ät their own will". It is just a fact, that sometimes your mood may feel more positive than others, and the other way around. Even without a solid reason.
What can help:
Try to maintain a stable schedule and routine. You don’t have to be strict, but structure brings a sense of security and control, and helps you feel more grounded when overwhelmed. Stay accountable to a minimum of some SMART goals per day, regardless of how trivial or simple they may seem.
Maintain a regular level of physical exercise. Right now your ability to exercise may be limited, but engaging your body still remains very important if you would like to feel better and energized- and helps release endorphins in your brain.
· Your relationships are definitely affected in some way
In a situation that basically instructs us to abstain from social contacts, it makes sense that our relationships will suffer a lot. Not only because you are obliged to change your ways of connecting to others, but also because you may be spending too much time with whoever you live with (e.g. family members, spouse/partner, housemates). In addition, perhaps the ones close to you may have different preferences of dealing with the pandemic, and this can easily become a source of disappointment, resentment and disagreement.
The lack of other options and resources may make you particularly irritable and easily triggered in close contact with those people you are “locked in” together. This may result in frequent and emotionally intense conflicts and arguments, that may feel more serious than “before”. This is understandable, as especially partners tend to project or displace their distress onto the ones closest to them, in the absence of any other resources or ways out.
Also, our defenses are strengthening- also the ones that have to do with attachment; which may make friction feel more intense. I realized that often, people that are in a relationship cannot even recall the exact reason of a recent argument; they just remember it was intense and out of proportion.
Close relationships are understandably being put under a lot of pressure now, and many people question the sustainability of their intimate relationships, because the situation we are all in brings to the surface challenges they had not been confronted with before.
It also makes sense that we are all looking for something to hold on to in a time of global uncertainty, and the expectations of the people closest to us may be higher now, as we seem to rely more on them for support. Therefore, relationship insecurity may reach a peak. Gladly, most people find a way to return to baseline and to a comfortable flow, but a lot of people struggle with this greatly.
Unfortunately, unhealthy and abusive relationships can get worse, and a rise in domestic violence is expected- since there’s no easy escape.
Moreover, the sense of privacy and personal space may take a different meaning now, that you have limited available options; so the needs for personal space of you and your partner may differ and collide, thus causing conflict easier. Your negotiation skills may come in handy now, it’s vital to practice finding the middle path that satisfies all parties involved.
What can help:
Now is an excellent time to practice self-compassion and more empathy to others. When you realize that all of us are going through a challenging personal process, maybe you can be more gentle with yourself and others, and remind yourself that everything may seem more exaggerated and intense right now.
Learn to take a step back or a time-out if you get into conflict with a loved one.
Accept that you may be more easily triggered now that your emotions may be more unstable than before. With that in mind, practice what works for you, realize what it is you need, and nurture yourself, before you lash out into someone close to you.
Learn to communicate more effectively and to be more clear, assertive yet gentle when expressing your needs.
Realize your own blocks to active listening and communication and make a conscious decision to work on eliminating them.
Work on being less defensive during conflict. Learn to argue more effectively!
Be proactive- see what ticks you off and make prevention plans; eg. If you realize a disagreement may escalate into a big conflict, make decisions beforehand about how you can deal with it before it explodes into an uncontrollable escalation.
Avoid making big decisions about your relationships right now- it is better to abstain from important decisions when highly emotional or under stress.
· If you have experienced trauma and grief in your past, you may feel very vulnerable and triggered now
We are all faced with our own vulnerabilities right now, as I have tried to elucidate in this article so far.
However, especially if you have experienced traumatic events in your past, this time may be even more difficult for you. This is also the case if you have recently experienced grief in your life.
The reason for that is that uncertainty and stress may be fertile ground for traumatic memories to be more easily triggered and reemerged. After all, the emotional state of loss of control and lack of safety is common between now and then- even if the surrounding events are distinctively different.
What can help:
As stated before, focus on the nurturing and self-regulating activities you have available. Construct Safety Plans for when you feel most fragile, overwhelmed and sad and engage with the things that make you feel more grounded, balanced and at peace.
Avoid numbing your emotions with alcohol, drugs and other unhealthy coping habits. Instead, allow yourself to feel all of your feelings, observe what is going on inside of you, practice journaling therapy, express your emotions through art and creativity, and reach out to others for support. If you have declined the idea in the past, now may be a good time to consider getting professional support through therapy.
· Everyone struggles with social distancing, but most people proactively look for ways to deal with it
The current social restrictions are challenging for all of us, also the ones that are more introverted or socially avoidant. The reason for this is because the freedom of choice is now removed. We are all obliged to abstain from social contacts, while before there was always a choice to approach others- or not.
Moreover, many people already observe a change in their social skills. They feel more awkward when they meet other people in person, since they are trying to navigate this new condition of social distancing and keeping away of each other.
Gladly, this situation has given room for more proactive and innovative social connection ways to emerge. Online meetups, digital video calls and birthday celebrations, connecting with people that we’ve since long lost contact and enjoying new ways of connecting with others (e.g. letters, digital dinners and parties, cooking evenings, digital dates, social distanced walks etc), that we would otherwise not have the chance or motivation to explore, are now in the spotlight.
What can help:
If you struggle with isolation and loneliness, consider ways that you can connect with others. Think outside of the box, dare to approach others that you may have distanced yourself from or been estranged from- we’re all in the same boat, and it’s likely you will find reciprocation.
· Working from home and online work is not as easy as you thought of before
If you are privileged enough to have a job and able to do your job online, you may now realize that working from home is not as easy as you had regarded it “before”. It comes with its challenges and demands additional effort of structure of you.
Indeed, many people enjoy the ability to work from home. This becomes harder for the ones that have to balance work with family responsibilities and spending quality time with their children. It may also induce a decline in your productivity, as you can find it more difficult to focus from the comfort of your living room.
In addition, online connection to others has its own challenges. Not only many of us lack the necessary technical skills and knowledge to work online, so they have to put extra effort to get there, but it is genuinely more difficult to connect to others online.
You may find it yourself, that online video calls may feel very exhausting, even draining to you. The reason for that is because we lack all these non-verbal cues we normally experience during face-to-face contact, and we may find it very difficult to truly feel connected to others during communication with them. Eye contact is also absent, since you are left to only look at a screen- not in the eyes of another person in real time. Therefore, your attention may be more prone to drift away during a video call, than in an actual meeting.
What can help:
Applying and maintaining some clear structure in your everyday programme can be helpful. Keep to a stable routine, try to wake up on a consistent time everyday and divide your day with frequent breaks and getaways from your computer as required.
Designate a workplace within your home. If you find yourself losing motivation, make changes- see if changing your work location or other aspects of your surrounding may help with feeling more effective to work.
If all else fails, give yourself permission to slow down and take breaks, and accept the fact that it is an extraordinary time, so it is alright if you have some setbacks or cannot focus as well as you are used to.
Don’t overflood your schedule with online video calls, and leave some time in between calls to take a break and regain your energy and concentration. Don’t schedule as many video calls as you would do with normal meetings before- you will then experience a lot of fatigue and loss of concentration. During video calls, try to look for ways that can help you become more attentive and mindful.
· Most people are turning towards self-reflection and introspection
Maybe it is because we know have more time available, maybe it is because we do not have the same resources and activities as escapes like “before”, maybe it is because many of us are slowing down, maybe it is because we connect to our sense of Home and belonging more consciously, or maybe it’s because we are generally more mindful than before…
But the fact is, many people are turning their focus inwards.
I believe it is a combination of all above-mentioned factors. During this global crisis, we may explore ourselves, our past, and our life choices so far, reflect on points we would like to improve and further process, introspect about the reasons why we are acting like we do, and question what works for us and what doesn’t really anymore. Many have entered a period of soul searching and may even have come more in contact with more existential and spiritual questions inside themselves.
I regard this as a positive consequence. We come more in touch with our Selves, while many would be much more in autopilot before.
How is this applicable to you?
What new information has been revealed to you about Yourself so far?
· Many of us connect with the sense of Home more
When we are required to just #stayathome, it is very likely that we learn to connect with both our material home and the sense of Home and belonging.
Our Home is a very personal space, directly connected to our sense of Self and identity. It is our safe haven, our nest, and the place we have the chance to express and manifest ourselves the most. Your Home reflects your Self. Perhaps we wouldn’t realize it as much before, but now Home is in the foreground- both as a material place, and as a self-concept.
After all, for many people home was a place they would return to at the end of each day- not so much a place they would have to stay in. Now we may find we actually enjoy to be home, and not so eager to escape it whenever possible.
In addition, though looking after our home was often a chore before, now we attend to our homes more gladly and with a new sense of energy and motivation. Now we may feel the need to make our house a Home, somewhere where we feel utterly comfortable and safe- especially when the world outside is a “dangerous place”.
This is quite an existential topic, yet this whole situation urges many existential questions. Some questions for you to consider are:
What is Home to me?
How do I realize I belong somewhere now?
How can I make my Home more representative of who I am as a Person?
How can I feel more comfortable at home?
How do I connect with the people I see as my Home?
· Everyone seems to find some silver linings in this situation
One of the greatest realizations of our times is that people are actually resilient and adaptive, and eager to make the best out of a strange situation by finding effective ways to cope. Despite the difficulties involved, most of us are willing to see the bright sides and develop ourselves, find meaning, and fill our days with purpose.
Now the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is being put into application.
Everyone seems to welcome the slowdown from an otherwise hectic lifestyle, that has been imposed to us- even if they wouldn’t like it to last forever. Most people report that now they finally have time to live more mindfully, not just rush from one responsibility to the next.
They now have the time to discover more creative sides within themselves, such as music and art, and start enjoying activities that they may have previously found mundane or had no time for, such as cooking, gardening, making puzzles, getting busy with DIY tasks at home, deciding new goals for yourself, developing new skills through novel projects, or simply finally finishing that book that has been lingering around since forever.
If you haven’t done so yet, there’s always time for it!
What is one thing you may have postponed before, or that you’d like to try out? The time is now!
What are your own silver linings?
· Many people seem to be more mindful and grateful
In the midst of chaos, the most certain path towards calmness, happiness and balance is the practice of gratitude. I am so happy to realize that we are all busy counting our blessings, noticing all those things we previously took for granted but are now grateful for!
That doesn’t mean to imply that the difficulties are disregarded. For many people, finding light within this darkness may be especially challenging, when they are losing financial stability and professional security. But even then, it is more fruitful to still see what is still worthwhile, instead of sinking into an abyss of hopelessness, despair and pessimism.
After all, the ability to be grateful is one of the most effective and adaptive coping mechanisms to manage distressing emotions.
Not only this, but many come to realize that our previous way of life is actually unsustainable. In the last months, we are made to slow down, take a breath and reflect on what really matters. Often we may find that the gap between our findings and our lifestyle before is a bit too wide, that the overly- consumerist needs we thought we had before were somewhat of an illusion. So we may be strongly motivated to keep the lessons of this time long after the pandemic is behind us. This finding makes our current reality seem less hopeless and bleak. It even brings hope for the future.
What are the gains you find for yourself out of this difficult situation?
What are you grateful for in the midst of chaos?
· Solidarity and connectedness seem to take the place they deserve
Now more than ever, more or less everyone realizes and accepts the importance of social support and solidarity. The fact that we are all in this together somehow eases our burden, and we feel more understood and supported by others.
This is greatly reflected on the creative, proactive and often humorous initiatives by individuals and groups alike to help and support each other, by developing and applying ideas that bring a smile and few moments of bliss to ourselves and others.
You can find an abundance of such examples in social media, for instance with the creation of funny groups that border on silliness, such as this one. Another example is the vast creation of Coronavirus memes and support groups. Moreover, initiatives to attend music festivals or stand-up comedy from our living rooms, helping elderly neighbours and the ones in need with groceries and other practical ways, definitely restore our faith in humanity.
What we learn from it, is that people are able to use humor and laughter as a coping mechanism, to transform our shared grief into something manageable. This does not mean grief is denied, but it does mean that we are willing to find some positive meaning in it in order to deal with it better.
I do wish that the lesson of support and solidairty stays with us, especially with regards to mental health- it brings so much relief and comfort to know that others can see where we’re coming from, spend some time in our shoes, and demonstrate unity and compassion.
We may be more gentle and compassionate already, and who knows? Maybe we’ll even emerge as better people after this global crisis. Hopefully, at least…
Questions to reflect on:
In which ways have you been challenged to expand your compassion, solidarity and empathy during this time?
How have you expressed it to others, and benefited from the support of others?
What has helped you through it the most?
… In conclusion...
I do not mean to beautify the challenging and unprecedent times we are going through.
I don’t mean to focus only on the positives, in a naïve effort to minimize our collective pain and grief.
With this article, my intention was to normalize this process and openly talk about it. My wish is that you understand, realize and accept the severity of the situation and all the ways it urges you to leap out of your comfort zone, all the opportunities it provides you to grow.
I hope I may have given you some food for thought and inspiration, and some motivation to further explore within yourself. I hope that you are able to give permission to yourself to slow down, process all that changes around you, prioritize what’s more significant to you, become more compassionate toward yourself and others, and feel your waves of emotions as they come, while trying to develop even more ways to cope and adapt.
“Growth happens out of your comfort zone” and “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. Both sentences are directly related to the concept of post-traumatic growth. The unfamiliar and unknown can be terrifying, even traumatizing, but if you emerge out of it, you will likely carry with you invaluable wisdom and new perspectives about yourself. That is how we grow- through adversity and discomfort.
In this sense, trauma can be transformative, a metamorphosis inside and outside of us, of ourselves but also the world and reality we knew. It’s an urgent call to reinvent ourselves.
I hope that this “trauma of pandemic proportions” may transform you too, not only in negative ways, but in ways that help you grow and move forward.
Remember, you are not alone.
We are all riding the waves, learning first to float- and then to swim.