Collective Grief: Why We Mourn For People We May Not Personally Know.


Picture of the Olajide family, which include Chidinma, Tolu and their two children. They look happy in the picture.

We took the above picture 5 hours leading to the start of a new decade. The year 2020. Can you remember where you were and what you were doing 5 hours before the new year?


Chidinma and I were filled with excitement. As a family, we had spent some time eating, playing, in prayers, and passionately discussed what we hoped to see and achieve in the new decade. We celebrated crossing over into the decade at church and were filled with hope for the new year.


By the evening of January 1st, 2020, we watched on our phones as various news media reported about the ongoing Australian bushfire and the devastating floods in Indonesia, plunging these nations into national grief.


We learnt on the morning of January 26th that the legendary basketball player Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in January 2020.


We can be surprised by our emotional response when we learn that a public figure, celebrity or someone we may not know personally has died. The connectedness may feel strange or even wrong to experience grief when we didn't personally know them.


We are unlikely to have had a two-way relationship with them. But it can feel as if we do, particularly with social media giving us more direct access to their reactions, daily lives, body of work, and opinions.


By March, the entire world was at a standstill as we were all confronted by a virus that we thought in January could not affect the 1st world countries. The pandemic disrupted all aspects of life, from birth to death and everything in-between. It rocked the foundations of all industries.


Whilst still grappling with the relentless impact of the pandemic, we plunged further into collective grief as the year progressed with a swift increase in the death of our loved ones, the murder of George Floyd, the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman, who played the role of T'Challa / Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe among others.


The accelerated death rates, especially in 2020, certainly affected you or someone who may be one or two degrees away from you.

The rapid loss of loved ones also threw the network of family and friends supporting those of us grieving the death of our loved ones into sporadic grief cycles. Sadly, some who were providing comfort also experienced the death of their loved one first hand.


The year 2021 has also seen its fair share of deaths of public figures, which also triggered collective grief. The death of the Duke of Edinburgh and recently the death of Oluwadamilare Adeboye plunged nations and communities into communal mourning.


For you, it may be none of the people I have mentioned, but I can imagine that you have had your fair share of collective grief too.

The emotional fallout caused by the death of someone well known can be overwhelming. Losing that person may make us sad, but it may also lead to feelings of grief that extend far beyond what we'd expected.


I wondered why so many of us grieve when someone we don't know, especially when someone famous dies. Almost as if they were our family, and they were, in a sense. It makes you wonder why we are so affected by the death of someone we have never met and probably never even known.



So what is collective grief?


It isn't easy to describe. Anyone who has experienced a natural disaster in their community knows it. If you've mourned the loss of someone you don't know, a public figure or a beloved celebrity, you've felt it. It's similar to grieving a loved one, but there is a feeling of being without control linked with collective grief. We could not prevent the loss or change, and we now feel helpless in the aftermath.


We can describe collective grief as a sense of loss felt by a group of people. An instance of collective grief is when a community, society, village, or nation experiences extreme loss or change. Collective grief can result from major events, such as war, natural disasters, or other tragedies.


Some people use the term community grief, communal grief, and collective grief. All three terms are interchangeable.


Communities grieve together. Collective grief entails a community grieving together. Communal grief is the experience of belonging to and sharing with another community grieving.


When a public figure or celebrity dies, we see many outpourings of grief, especially on social media. We express grief as if the deceased were a member of our family or group of friends.


In a way, famous people are extensions of our friends and family. Although we probably have never met them, they are very much a part of our lives since we know so much about them.


Occasionally it affects our emotions on a more personal level. Especially if the person who died is close to our age or someone we consider too young to die. Our thoughts turn to their young spouse and children left behind if they were married.


The death of a public figure can bring back memories of friends or family members who have died, triggering grief and loss feelings. It reminds us we are all mortal and that we are still here and to make the most of our life, at least for a while.


Woman holding a candle at night among a sea of other candles being held by people - Candle night, public mourning vigil


What does the collective grief healing process look like?


Our culture, in general, isn't very good at mourning. Many people are brought up to believe they should keep that grief to themselves. Grief is not acknowledged or talked about openly, and there is no guidebook for it. This cultural response to grief can heighten the loneliness and sadness we feel in grief.


Often the healing process for collective grief looks different from the healing process for individual grief, making us feel even more off-balance.


Usually, when grieving, we tune into our own grieving and mourning. We can learn to notice the grief and mourning processes of others, which helps us keep in touch and connected with their sorrow.


For some people, the death of a public figure or someone famous is their first introduction to grief and loss.


What usually follows the death of someone well known is an expression of community grief through communal mourning. When people gather together to mourn and grieve publicly, community ties are reestablished.


In addition, we can become more affected when we realise many people around us are experiencing something similar at the same time.


I have some suggestions on how we can cope individually with collective grief.


Give yourself the permission to process your feelings.


Grief can be an unsettling experience, especially if you don't recognise it. People experience collective grief in different ways. Your reactions and feelings are all real to you and should be acknowledged and respected.


Give yourself time to grieve, especially if losing the person has triggered you. It is okay to express your feelings without feeling pressured to do so for others.


Some people turn to their faith when they have experienced collective loss. There is nothing wrong with turning to faith during this period. In fact, in times like these, our reliance on faith will certainly help.


The crucial question is, is your turning to faith discipline authentic or a means to escape from the emotions? Personal reflection and faith care are essential.


May I suggest that you identify what emotions you are experiencing as part of your faith and soul care? Otherwise, what are you genuinely praying about? How do you then identify and use the appropriate scriptures? Soul care is the attention given to healing a wounded soul.


May I also recommend two blogs that will help you put words to grief, to help identify ways to move forward and suggestions on how you can express your grief?


Recommended reading:

Why Expressing Your Grief is Essential to Your Healing Journey,

How to Accept Your Feelings and Express Your Emotions of Grief with Words



Sad girl by her locker weeping - collective and communal grief


Support a grieving friend


If you know a person grieving over the death of a public figure, support them and refrain from passing judgment. Allow the person to express his or her emotions and be a listening ear.


Trying to mock their feelings or belittle their feelings through statements such as 'You didn't know them' probably won't help. Instead, use neutral questions like: 'How do you feel about it?'


You might suggest they speak with their doctor if they are concerned about the impact the news has had on them.



Get Involved


Taking part in your community, even in little ways, can contribute to the collective grief healing process.

Consider how your community needs to heal as you work on your healing.


Is there anything you can do to help or get involved?

Inspire your friends and family to become involved in strengthening your community. The connection helps you reaffirm the strength of your community and rebuild something after a significant loss.



You help your community heal as you work on your healing.


In the midst of grief, things can look and feel different every day. To be able to deal with emotions that arise, one must learn to sit and hold space for them whilst noticing the way we react to them. Experiencing grief makes us vulnerable.


In order to experience grief, we have to slow down to allow ourselves to feel the discomfort rather than masking it.


Emotions are simply fluid waves of sensations that pass through. They are fluid, nonlinear, and not fixed. They will change. They will pass through if we allow them the space to do so.


When you accept your grief, you can start to see yourself and the world through fresh eyes. To cope with grief, we must be present with it. Grief is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign that we are emotional beings.


We can only mourn those we know or think we know or, in some cases, wish we could have known.


While we may not personally know the deceased individual or famous person, we are aware of them and that’s why certainly feel some sadness or offer some kind of expression of grief.


Communal or collective grief does offer us something. We gather together for reasons great and small. We may be strangers, but for a short time, we share the same sorrow.

I need your help

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To Be Continued Next Wednesday...

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