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  • Kayte Thomas

Collective grief and trauma....and collective care.

To say that 2020 has been a difficult year would be understatement. I wanted to take today to talk about how challenging this has been on all of us and how so many are quite literally in a constant state of grief right now. Because really, we are. Between the devastation of COVID and the sheer loss not only of lives but of livelihoods as a result of it, the lack of connections to usual supports this year, the financial devastation from job loss, ongoing political chaos, and more – we are all grieving.


Add to that the recent loss of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the lack of conviction for Breonna Taylor today and people have moved from collective grief to collective trauma. In fairness, that shift happened long before today. They can have similar dynamics, but grief in itself is not always traumatizing. Moving to a place of collective trauma though has farther reaching and longer lasting ramifications. For many right now, there is a sense of hopeless and helplessness and disillusionment which can be paralyzing. Beyond that though, is a tangible sense of fear. Thousands of people are afraid for their safety and lives and futures in ways that feel pretty overwhelming at the moment.


And rightfully so. With RBG’s seat open on the Supreme Court, literally millions of people’s lives could change in the upcoming months depending on who fills that seat. And those changes have the potential to last a lifetime. Virtually everyone with a non-white, non-wealthy, or non-male identity stands to have their basic rights at risk at one time or another if a more conservative justice replaces her, and the ramifications of that are pretty terrifying. Separately, the lack of justice for Breonna Taylor today is an uncanny reminder that the U.S. justice system is designed with bias against the black community – after all, 65 years ago today Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted as well. What is they say about not learning from history again….?


The level of systemic violence and oppression at the moment is quite inescapable for many in U.S. society, and frankly have been for a while. Recent events are just adding more layers onto already existing trauma, creating more pain and more grief and more distress. This is precisely why social issues are mental health concerns….because when there is so much pain being felt by certain members of society on a regular basis, it’s no wonder that many are experiencing high levels of anxiety, depression, substance use, and even suicidal thoughts. Mental health concerns are not always just individual issues, they can absolutely be rooted in issues such as systemic oppression and political strain.


Basically, when these issues begin to occur people may notice symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, irritability, fatigue, trouble sleeping, trouble with interpersonal relationships, decline in workplace performance, or other concerns. But when the stressors become more chronic – lasting for months, years, or even generations as is the case for some segments of the U.S. population – these symptoms then become more pervasive. There may be signs of trauma such as nightmares, hypervigilance, disassociation, and substance use. Physical health can be affected too, which usually manifests in chronic health conditions. But overall, we tend to blame people as individuals for any problems they may be experiencing despite the potential systemic nature of the cause.


So when I look at society today, and see the constant devastation that 2020 has brought to so many, I see collective grief and trauma and worry about the impact this is going to have on people through literally no fault of their own. And from a social justice and trauma informed perspective, the only viable way to truly heal is to focus on collective care. Unfortunately, that is a radical concept which this nation has a tendency to eschew because of the extreme focus on individual responsibility and “bootstrap mentality” which holds that people are responsible for whatever happens to them - either good or bad - through their own virtues or flaws. We know though that those perspectives are unrealistic and tend to cause more harm to the very people who are most often hurt by deeply ingrained systemic injustices. So we have to consciously work to change that.


As a remedy for collective grief and trauma, collective care looks like community action in practice. It is a mindset which holds that the well-being of the individuals in a group is everyone’s responsibility – a shift from just caring about taking care of yourself to taking care of each other. This doesn’t negate the importance of self-care for healing, but focusing on the individual in isolation that way just isn’t helpful enough. There has to be a focus on group connection. And in our case, the group happens to be all of the U.S., and we need to move towards thinking of ourselves as an actually united nation instead of the splintered fragments we are now. So, what might that look like?


First, you do have to give yourself a little bit of care. Spend some time for a moment to allow yourself just to acknowledge that you’re grieving. I guarantee that if you live in the United States right now, you’re grieving – regardless of identity or political affiliation. Identify what specifically has been the hardest for you to deal with this year and sit with that for a bit. Cry if you have to, yell if you want (try not to scare those nearby!), but just sit with the burden of things that have happened this year. And then shift your focus to recognizing that everyone else is dealing with some sort of iteration of the frustration, grief, and trauma that you are feeling as well. Practice compassion for yourself and for others. Recognize that everyone is struggling, and be intentionally kinder in your interactions.


Now, shift your focus even more to something that you can do to enact change. People tend to give to causes that are closest to them or to people in their immediate community because we tend to feel more affinity with those who have similar experiences. So I’m going to challenge you to identify two ways that you can give of your time, money, or talent. First, think of a need in your immediate community or a cause close to your heart that you can give to. This should be pretty easy. Then, think of a need in an area which is opposite of you. If you are Christian, give to a Muslim organization. If you’re heterosexual, donate to an LGBT organization. If you’re white, volunteer with an organization focused on improving black lives. You get the idea. But give something to an area of society that you would not usually consider or from which you wouldn't directly benefit by being closely affiliated. Expect that if you're out of your comfort zone there will be learning curve, but that's okay because this is where growth and transformation occur.


Beyond that though, collective care has to do with shifts in our everyday actions as well. Are you an employer? Start giving your employees longer break times, recognizing that the strain of expecting standard productivity during this time is burdensome, or just shorter workdays overall. Give raises too, however small they may be right now. The return benefit is that a rested, healthy workforce is in fact more productive and also more satisfied with their jobs. Live in a community? Start talking to your neighbours more and get to know them (safely social distanced, please). Bring each others’ trash cans in, mow someone’s lawn just because you can, host a community drive or fundraiser. It matters more than you may realize. Are you a registered voter? (If you’re not registered, do so before the deadline which is rapidly approaching!) Spend extra time understanding the policies of the people on your ballot and how they may affect not only you but those who are marginalized in your area as well. And vote in their best interests – because when we support those who are most at risk, everyone benefits. Are you housebound or otherwise feeling unable to make contributions somehow? Write letters to those in nursing homes or hospitals. Write letters to government officials identifying collective care policies you want enacted (think about universal healthcare, increased minimum wage, and similar issues). Everyone can do something to improve collective care, and no action is too small. Start shifting your focus from individual gain to collective good, one day at a time.


If enough people begin to change their mindset from viewing the problems we’re dealing with as individual failures, or expecting that the systems in a nation with systemic oppressions are going to truly benefit everyone, to instead realizing that we are all interconnected and therefore all responsible for each other – things will start to improve. Maybe slowly, but I am certain that things will improve this way, because collective care reminds us to see the humanity in each other while striving for equity and justice. The world I see emerging with this focus is beautiful, and it’s possible too. Will you commit to collective care?

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© 2020 by Kayte Thomas, MSW, LCSW.