Collective grief from school shootings, pandemic rewires brains

For many, the tragedy that unfolded Tuesday afternoon in Uvalde, Texas, evoked a constellation of unwelcome and all-too-familiar emotions: sadness, anger, shock, frustration and helplessness.

The South Texas school shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers came just 10 days after 10 people were fatally shot at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. It also came two years into a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than a million Americans so far.

Losing a loved one involves a special type of grief. The deaths of people you’ve never met can elicit a different – ​​but no less palpable – kind of response at the community level.

This is called “collective mourning”. And experts say it rewires our brains, impairing our ability to reason and make good decisions on a massive scale.

What is collective mourning?

Collective grief occurs when a group of people — such as a city, country, or those of a particular race or ethnicity — share an extreme loss, says Melissa Flint, PsyD, associate professor of clinical psychology at Midwestern University Glendale. , specializing in thanatology (the study of death, agony and bereavement) and traumatic loss.

“When major events like the Texas shootings happen, there’s an acknowledgment of the enormity and the widespread tragedy for no ‘reason’ to help us make sense of it,” Flint told CNBC Make It. “We share collective grief because we have empathy.”

But collective grief is more than several people sad for the same thing. “It’s the experience of sharing grief with others,” says Nora Gross, PhD, visiting assistant professor of sociology at Boston College. “When we all feel like we feel something similar to other people – even other people we don’t know – in the midst of tragedy, crisis or extreme change.”

Nor is collective mourning limited to events with a death toll. “We can also collectively mourn the loss of a way of life, a foreclosed future or an unrealized set of ideals – as in the pandemic, climate grief or our collective grief over the scourge of gun violence in our country” , explains Gross. .

How does our brain process collective grief?

Events like school shootings often make people realize that untimely death is possible in their own lives, rather than something that only happens to others.

“We internalize the threat, which leads to grief, anxiety, fear, and more,” Flint says. “Stress hormones flood our bodies and we feel out of control. Without our realizing it, a fight, flight, or fear response becomes what controls our reactions.”

In this sense, she says, collective grief and trauma are intertwined. And according to a growing body of research, trauma can actually “rewire” the brain – at least temporarily – affecting people’s ability to reason and impairing their day-to-day decision-making abilities.

While a single tragedy can lead to all of this, it is hard to imagine the collective impact on the country of more than two years of constant losses from the Covid-19 pandemic, police killings, domestic terrorism and the like. mass shootings.

“The collective trauma of the past few years has slowly begun to erode our resilience and our hope,” says Flint. “Our brains haven’t practiced what it takes to deal with these huge losses, one after another, after another. The cumulative effect of this has yet to be seen.”

Expert Strategies for Managing and Coping

Dealing with collective grief starts with being able to recognize what you’re feeling and understanding that your emotions — from grief and anger to a complete lack of control — are all valid, Flint says.

“Whatever you feel, feel it,” she says. “Talk about your feelings. Find support. It’s okay to be unwell.”

Here are four more tips from Flint, who, in addition to her academic work, has a private practice where she works with clients dealing with grief and traumatic loss:

Find a release

The bottling of your emotions rarely ends well. Creative outlets can help.

“Journal, do your art, fall into your music, write or read poetry: do whatever helps free the conduit from the immensity of your pain,” Flint says. “Sell the internal ‘pressure cooker’ that has become our common response to repeated, unnecessary and upsetting events.”

Consider attending a public memorial

Some people prefer to grieve in private. For others, public mourning can be an important part of the healing process.

“Vigils can be powerful connections to others who are also suffering deeply on behalf of these families and the larger situation unfolding in our country,” Flint said.

Be aware of your media consumption

You can stay informed without letting the news cycle destroy your sanity. Take a break from the doomscrolling and watch TV coverage of tragic events.

And if you have young children, says Flint, be careful not to expose them to your stressors: “Our littlest ears…are very scared and confused now.”

Do something

Grieving can make people feel helpless. Taking action can help. Collective mourning can even turn into collective action, spurring organizations like March for Our Lives and the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.

“Be part of solutions where you can, like donating blood or providing financial support to organizations that align with your values,” Flint says.

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