Sexual Abuse, Forest Fires, Hurricanes: Grieving our Collective Losses
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
Losses of Biblical Proportions
“Of or pertaining to a natural disaster or other cataclysmic event so immense that it brings to mind biblical accounts of horrific catastrophes.” (yourdictionary.com)
Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires.
“By extension, of or pertaining to a thing or occurrence having vast size, extent, or consequences.” (yourdictionary.com)
The slaughter of dozens and the harming of hundreds at a music concert. The sexual abuse and harassment experienced by countless people throughout our globe.
When disasters are so large that our minds have trouble comprehending them, we often say that they are of “biblical proportions.” And today, our world is in the midst of not one, not a few, but many such disasters.
I scroll through pictures of homes, businesses, entire towns destroyed by great water and great fire. I gaze at the faces of those killed in Las Vegas. And I watch as the words move across my computer screen – the simple “me too”s, the long lists of names and identifying characteristics of abusers and harassers.
Our planet has been abused.
People run from the Route 91 Harvest country music festival after apparent gun fire was heard on October 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. There are reports of an active shooter around the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
Our bodies have been abused.
And the losses created by these abuses are beyond comprehension. They are beyond comprehension, but they are not beyond healing. Indeed, we must heal both our planet and ourselves. And in order to do so, we need to mourn.
There is so much anger, so much outrage, so much frustration related to these disasters. Every bit of that is useful, because without it we cannot change. The desire to metabolize anger as action propels us to work for change in our communities and our culture, to transform the ways we interact with one another and with our planet.
But look more closely at the anger and the outrage and the movement to change. Feel more closely. Underlying and interwoven with all of it is a tremendous amount of grief.
We have lost so much, and the need to mourn these losses is as immense as are the losses themselves.
But we may not know how to do that, how to collectively feel these losses, how to mourn them, how to honor them not in place of creating change but as a significant component in the ways in which we create that change.
I direct these words toward those of us who have had the unbelievable good fortune to be reading them while sitting at our computers in our homes, those of us who have computers and homes. These thoughts are offered to those of us whose sexual abuse and harassment is years behind from us, who have had the providence and means to acquire therapy and spiritual guidance and physical healing. Those in the acute stages of loss, those picking through the rubble of their homes, those recently and currently abused by others – their work is different. Their one goal is safety right now.
But the rest of us? Our role is as members of the collective.
Because these are collective losses, they necessarily are mourned collectively, even though we often are not aware of this level of connection in our grief.
Those of us with access to knowledge and information – about climate change, about constructions of sexuality and gender, about mental health issues and gun control – are responsible for these losses we are all experiencing. By “responsible” I am not referring to our complicity in their creation (although I do believe we have quite a bit; that’s a topic for another post, perhaps). Rather, I mean that we are able to respond to these disasters; in fact, we are compelled to respond to these disasters.
Rarely in our culture do we do much collective mourning. We gather for funerals and religious rites. Those closest to a person whose life has been lost may assemble to share their losses with one another. But for the most part we grieve alone. Much evidence supports the theory that this leads to stalled grief. As relational beings, we must interact throughout these periods of loss; we must interact through the loss itself by allowing it to draw us closer to one another.
This is true of each individual loss – of a person, a home, a situation. And it is also true of our huge, collective losses. With these, we have a paucity of traditions to help with our drawing together. We may create memorials at the sites of destruction, we may talk with one another online about these horrendous happenings. But we need more; we need rituals to honor the mourning, we need periods during which grieving is not only accepted but is prescribed.
Alan Wolfelt, a wise advocate for grief work, contends that those of us who are grieving have special needs (visit https://www.centerforloss.com/ for more information). People in previous times and in other contemporary cultures adorn(ed) themselves in specific garments, notifying everyone around of these special needs. Rarely in contemporary Western culture do we find people wearing black for years – even for weeks – after a loved one’s death in order to honor this period of mourning. And we as a collective certainly do not adopt such traditions. Indeed, we may not see ourselves as a group of people with the special needs of the mourning. But we certainly are.
We are one collective body mourning these losses. We each have our individual losses related to these disasters, certainly. And I do not advocate that we overlook the mourning required by these individual losses. That is actually a significant component of working with collective loss. But our mourning needs to extend beyond the personal as well, beyond the particular – to the entirety of loss that is affecting all beings everywhere.
How can we do that? There are as many ways of participating in collective mourning as there are people on our planet.
The absolutely essential first step in collective mourning is to acknowledge that we are, in fact, mourning. We must understand the role that loss plays in our behavior as we respond – or do not respond – to these catastrophes. Recognizing the grief that is interwoven with our calls to action, with our turning away from news stories, with our anger at public officials is essential to the mourning process. Without this awareness, we will continue to push our grief down underneath the surface of our psyches, where it can fester and grow throughout our lifetime and across generations.
The second component necessary in collective grief work is acceptance of each individual manner of mourning. Whenever I work with grieving individuals or lead grief groups, I am insistent that there is no one way to mourn. Some temperaments seem better suited to anger than to sadness; some bodies prefer to process grief physically, while others mourn with stillness. All of this is not only acceptable – it is absolutely necessary. When we grieve collectively, we not only honor those differences; we also make use of them. My ability to cry may be balanced by my friend’s clear channel of anger, for instance. As one human body, we have the capacity to touch every aspect of grief, and there is immense capacity for healing in that.
Grief models can be more harmful than they are helpful. When we study one, we may try to locate our experience within that structure and find ourselves not represented. Or we may use these models to judge ourselves and our process, usually finding that we are not “getting grief right”. In addition, most grief models imply that we can become finished with grief, that we somehow reach a level of closure. This is untrue and harmful. While our grief can and does shift when we honor it through mourning, ritual, and processing, we likely never come to a place of being finished with grief.
So I recommend that we use grief models very carefully. However, I do still recommend that consult them as a way to educate ourselves about the multitude of forms grief may take. This is as true when working with collective grief as it is when dealing with individual grief.
For me, the most useful grief model is Stroebe and Schut’s. It acknowledges the two major orientation movements the bereaved may have and divides grief behavior accordingly. Some of us feel more drawn to loss-oriented behavior, while others exhibit behavior that is more restoration-oriented. In terms of these particular collective losses, this means that many people will mourn in ways that include crying and processing and going inward, while others will mourn through actively rebuilding our world. In healthy grieving, each of us will work within both realms of behavior. We will go back and forth between loss and restoration – sometimes even within minutes. We need both types of behaviors in order to fully express our grief. And usually what offers the most healing is to push ourselves in the areas to which we may not be drawn – to do the more active mourning if our nature is to be passive or vice versa. Again, with collective grief, we can honor ourselves and one another by acknowledging the grief that underlies any of our behaviors, by trying to consciously perform them, and by supporting one another in our own unique ways of mourning.
Rending our Garments
Since these losses are of biblical proportion, one place to look for guidance in our collective honoring of them is, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures. In many instances, the response to a great loss is to rend one’s clothing. When Jacob found the beautiful robe of his dear son Joseph covered in blood, he tore his own garment. David had the same response when he learned the news of King Saul’s death. And Job, whose loss seems unceasing, displayed his response by ripping his clothing. On one level, the activity of tearing the clothes we wear provides a physical outlet for the anger and frustration of loss; it feels good to break something in our rage at being broken.
To tear our clothing, though, also provides a more lasting symbol of grief itself. Once a garment has been ripped, it cannot ever be un-ripped. And even if the most skilled workers were to mend that garment, a close inspection would still reveal the evidence of its tear.
In grief, we are exactly like that. We can work tirelessly to put our lives back together after loss. And my prayer is that we as a collective will do that – we will help those who need new homes, we will visit the hurt and the sick, we will hold the hands of those who are courageously exploring and expressing their own trauma of sexual abuse and harassment, of all forms of violence, and of loss of situation and health. Together, may we stitch back together the lives that have been torn, ripped, shredded.
But these lives, just like those garments, can never be repaired in a way so that we do not know that they were not hurt.
This is true for the Earth. The land that was flooded, the land that was burned can never ever be as it was before.
The bodies that were abused, the psyches of those harassed cannot be as they were before. There will always be scars.
And in the case of collective grief I know that we absolutely must keep those scars in our awareness. We should not work to cover things up, to make things the way they used to be. So together let us rend our garments, let us sew them together stitch by stitch. But let us never fail to honor the losses and to live into our responsibility to care for our collective grief.